The growing impact of "biaoqing" ("expressions") on the internet in China

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Gabriele de Seta has a serious, scholarly article on "Biaoqing: The circulation of emoticons, emoji, stickers, and custom images on Chinese digital media platforms" in First Monday, Volume 23, Number 9 – 3 September 2018.  Here's the abstract:

The Mandarin Chinese term biaoqing, or ‘expression’, categorizes genres of visual content ranging from emoticons and emoji to stickers and custom images. This article is grounded on ethnographic research and approaches biaoqing in terms of their circulation across Chinese digital media platforms. By formulating a comprehensive typology of biaoqing genres, I foreground the situated socio-technical specificities of their circulation: the creative play with typographical compositions, the affective repurposing of graphical emoticons, the platformed monetization of proprietary stickers, and the user-driven proliferation of custom images. Drawing on this typology, I argue for the need to recognize the circulation of biaoqing as an emergent and malleable category of semiotic resources profoundly shaped by two decades of development of the Internet in China.

There's no doubt that these biaoqing ("expression") images have become widely used on the internet in China, to the point that even my best students will break out into images like this when they're totally, pleasantly surprised, or even when they're distraught:  😂😂😂😂😂😂.

Fortuitously, shortly before I started to write this post, one of my M.A. students, who is herself actually quite sweet and well disposed, told me this afternoon during office hour that, whereas young people tend to use rough and bitter biaoqing ("expressions"), middle and older age individuals tend to employ more mellow and nostalgic images.

As I explained in an earlier post, even the Chinese Communist Party has gotten into the act by sanctioning an approved set of images referred to as biǎoqíng bāo 表情包 (lit., "expression packages").

A major theme of the author's outstanding article is that biaoqing ("expressions") constitute a visual counterpart or complement to the textual component of information flowing through digital media platforms.  I would go beyond this to suggest that the nature of the Chinese writing system makes China's netizens particularly susceptible to the allure of biaoqing ("expressions").  Another reason for the huge success of these communicative devices in China is that they are a very effective means to circumvent the CCP's heavy handed censorship of the internet, which is naturally more oriented toward textual criticism, no matter how paronomastically couched.  But don't try to put up a picture of Winnie the Pooh (Xi Jinping) or a Frog / Toad (Jiang Zemin) in your message.  If you do, the internet police will track you down and catch you fast.

Image macros, which combine the textual and the visual, are particularly effective in conveying complex emotions, and they are a bit harder for the censors to catch than pure texts.

The questions the author raises about where biaoqing ("expressions") are headed and the profound ways in which they are influencing communication in China provide much food for thought.  I, for one, will be watching carefully to see what modes and meanings of expression transpire.


[h.t. Ben Zimmer]

1 Comment

  1. Gabriele de Seta said,

    September 7, 2018 @ 11:04 am

    Thank you so much for this shout-out Victor, as a defecting Chinese linguist I'm a long-time fan of Language Log and it's an honor to have my article mentioned here!

    I recommend scrolling through the entire special issue of First Monday since it's all dedicated to emoji vernaculars.

    Looking forward to more posts about the future of biaoqing

    \( ˋ Θ ´ )/


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