The toll of the trolls

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I just came across this term, which seems to be quite new:  gāngjīng 杠精.

ChinaNews (March, 2019), a PRC publication where I saw it on p. 64, defines gāngjīng 杠精 as "hater", but — in terms of the derivation of the word and what they actually do — I don't think that's a good translation.

To me, they seem more like internet trolls.  I would propose "troll" as an apt translation of gāngjīng 杠精.

My guess is that gāngjīng 杠精 comes from táigàng 抬杠 ("bicker; wrangle; argue for the sake of arguing").

The word is still so new that most dictionaries and online translators do not handle it well or don't mention it at all:

gāngjīng 杠精

Google Translate    "bar fine"

Microsoft Translator    "bar essence"

Baidu Fanyi   "argumentative person"

Baidu Fanyi tends to do better with up-to-date PRC usage because it is based there and more tuned in to what people are saying on Chinese social media.

Prior to the recent emergence of gāngjīng 杠精 as a serviceable term for "troll" in Mandarin, it's unclear to me what word the Chinese were using for such obnoxious online commenters.  Before we try to find what it might have been, let us make sure we know what we're talking about in English.

Here are a couple of definitions of "(online) troll":

"a person who makes a deliberately offensive or provocative online posting with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them"

"a person who posts inflammatory or irrelevant material on (an electronic forum) to provoke responses"

Now let's do some analysis on how gāngjīng 杠精 ("troll") derives from táigàng 抬杠 ("bicker; wrangle; argue for the sake of arguing").

The "Xjīng X精" structure has been prevalent in recent years for the creation of trendy terms such as gāngjīng 杠精 ("troll").

"X精", where "jīng 精" literally means "essence", usually indicates someone who is good at X but applies his or her skill in a disagreeable manner. For example, mǎpìjīng 马屁精 (lit., "horse's ass essence") refers to those who are good at licking others' boots. It is derived from the expression "pāimǎpì 拍馬屁" ("pat the horse's arse / rump"). Mǎpìjīng 马屁精 ("flatterer [par excellence]") is not a new term (I knew it already decades ago), so the structure "X精" existed for quite some time before the latest spate of coinages.

Here's another one that is current nowadays: yāogōng jīng 邀功精 ("inviting merit essence"). It refers to those who are proficient in taking credit for someone else's achievements.

Another popular term with the "Xjīng X精" structure is xìjīng 戏精 ("drama queen").

A partial synonym of gāngjīng 杠精 ("troll") is níngméng jīng 柠檬精 (lit., "lemon essence"), which comes from the E-sports industry. It refers to a person who is obsessive about dissenting over something. In Chinese, it may be defined as "húnshēn shàngxià sànfàzhe suānwèi de rén, yù dào shénme shì dōu huì suān yīxià 浑身上下散发着酸味的人,遇到什么事都会酸一下" ("a person who emits sourness from his entire body; no matter what he encounters, he will always say something sour").

Now, how did Chinese netizens refer to internet trolls before the invention of gāngjīng 杠精 ("troll")?

One possibility is "wǎngluò pēnzi 网络喷子" (lit., "internet sprayer", i.e., "someone who spouts off on the internet"). Basically,"wǎngluò pēnzi 网络喷子" refers to those netizens who are fond of attacking others by using provocative language, and who wish to cause disruptions of the discussions that others are holding.

In China, such obnoxious online commenters are also called jiànpán xiá 键盘侠" ("keyboard knights") because they can only be heroes on their keyboards.

If someone posts an argument or image in a chatroom in order to provoke dissension, those posts are called "èyì diàoyú tiē 恶意钓鱼貼" ("malicious phishing stickers").  And, if netizens are simply referring to haters, they are "hēizǐ 黑子" ("blackies") who intentionally blacken others' reputations. The collocation "X子" sometimes refers to those who are debased, young, and immature, such as shùzǐ 竖子 ("chap; young servant") in Literary Sinitic and xiǎozi 小子 ("kid; brat") who are young and not experienced.

So, when all is said and done, what is a gāngjīng 杠精 ("troll")?  One of my graduate students from the PRC put it this way:

I would characterize 杠精 as those who argue for the sake of arguing and don't have a vested interest in honing a better understanding of the argument or in training their intellectual ability through reasoned debate. They are negative rather than constructive.  They solely seek to thwart and irritate those whom they view as their opponents, above all to keep the bickering ongoing.  They are constantly accusatory and purposely inject hostility and anger into the proceedings.  Or they may hold a grudge against the poster / blogger / webmaster for some unknown reason or slight completely unrelated to the current post.

I guess there may be two other possible translations:  disputant and contrarian. Maybe ranter would be a less accurate rendering, but it still conveys a key aspect of what a 杠精 is, also harshly, unhesitatingly condemnatory and highly repetitive, repeating what he himself or someone else has already said without adding any new substance, going on and on at great length in the most virulent and vindictive way possible, even feigning righteous indignation over the foibles of his hapless victim, until the object of his scorn is made to feel 一文不值 ("not worth a cent"), which is surely not the case.  Still "troll" is definitely the best suggestion for an English translation of 杠精 so far.

No matter what you call them, such folks are unwelcome — so say my Chinese friends and students.

[Thanks to Zeyao Wu and Qing Liao.]


  1. Jenny Chu said,

    March 25, 2019 @ 8:54 am

    It seems impossible that it is 2019 and there is not already a generally agreed-upon word for [internet] "troll" in Chinese. Trolls have existed since the dawn of electronic communication!

  2. WSM said,

    March 25, 2019 @ 9:08 am

    Looks like 黑子 is another close / partial synonym for 噴子 etc. I kind of like 噴子 the best out of the three, given its phonological similarity in MSM to fenzi (分子) and the consequent ease of using it for punning.

  3. WSM said,

    March 25, 2019 @ 9:10 am

    Sorry for the malformed link, should have been:

  4. Michael Watts said,

    March 25, 2019 @ 3:50 pm

    "X精", where "jīng 精" literally means "essence", usually indicates someone who is good at X but applies his or her skill in a disagreeable manner.

    Is "essence" really the sense of 精 in this expression? It seems more similar to the meaning "evil spirit", as in 妖精, 狐狸精, or 精怪.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    March 25, 2019 @ 4:23 pm

    jīng 精

    polished rice
    essence; energy
    spirit; energy; vigour
    seminal fluid; semen
    spirit; soul
    essence; concentrate
    demon; goblin
    (dialectal, of meat) lean
    fine; refined
    pure; unmixed
    concentrated; sincere
    clear; bright
    exquisite; profound
    extremely; very
    to be proficient; to be expert at
    to expose; to be bare
    smart; clever


  6. Robot Therapist said,

    March 26, 2019 @ 8:30 am

    My understanding (and I'd love to know if I'm mistaken) is that "troll" (as in internet) is derived not from the creature that lives under the bridge, but from a kind of fishing known as "trolling". Dangling bait.

  7. Trogluddite said,

    March 26, 2019 @ 5:42 pm

    @Robot Therapist
    That derivation was explained to me many years ago when I was first an internet user, so it's certainly been around for a while. I've yet to see anything definitive for either etymology, though the Wikipedia page for 'Internet Troll' does note that the fishing metaphor is attested as military slang at least as far back as the 70's.

    The Wikipedia page also offers some non-English terms for trolls and trolling, of which several are similar fishing metaphors. This includes a couple for Chinese; bái mù (白目; literally: 'white eye'); meaning an eye without a pupil – i.e. arguing blindly while disregarding the points made by anyone else; also, pēn zi ( 噴子), meaning a 'sprayer' or 'spurter' ("spammer" seems more appropriate for that one to me.)

  8. derek said,

    March 27, 2019 @ 9:22 am

    It helps if you know that the original Usenet Trolls, such as those in alt.folklore.urban, were not interlopers disrupting a regular conversation, but regulars making sport of new arrivals. References to "Churchill" or "Disraeli" were reliable indicators that they'd begun to talk nonsense in the hope of provoking a newcomer to hotly dispute the derivation of the supposed Disraeli quote.

    What happened to the term was that it was perceived as a bad thing to do, so regulars in all Internet fora called interlopers the bad word, reversing the fishers and the fish in the metaphor.

  9. Rube said,

    March 27, 2019 @ 12:03 pm

    @ derek: Ah, alt.folklore.urban. More assholes than a proctology textbook.

  10. liuyao said,

    March 27, 2019 @ 11:43 pm

    Is it a typo that you had gāng in first tone? I instinctively read it in fourth tone, though I don't think I've heard it enough times to be sure.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    March 31, 2019 @ 8:24 pm

    I asked about a dozen native speakers if they thought "gang" in this expression should be first tone or fourth tone. Most of them said fourth tone, though they admitted they weren't sure because the term is so new and they hadn't heard it enough times to be sure. Many said they had never heard it at all so they didn't want to venture an opinion on the tone.

    杠 is the simplified character for 槓. It can be either first tone ("flagpole; small bridge; cross board of a bed") or fourth tone ("lever; pole; crowbar; sharpen; (Cant.) a wardrobe; trunk").

  12. Richard W said,

    April 2, 2019 @ 12:07 am

    Regarding 1st tone/4th tone: if you google 杠精 and click the "Videos" tab, you can hear various people saying the word. E.g.

    Also, it may be relevant that 槓 (with 4th tone: gàng) is defined as follows:
    與人爭論作對。例 「他們倆槓上了,非爭到底不可」。
    … in this dictionary entry:

  13. TR said,

    April 6, 2019 @ 12:35 pm

    This seems like a good place to mention the newly discovered Aristotelian treatise On Trolling.

  14. Peter Taylor said,

    April 7, 2019 @ 5:00 pm

    > If someone posts an argument or image in a chatroom in order to provoke dissension, those posts are called "èyì diàoyú tiē 恶意钓鱼貼" ("malicious phishing stickers")

    What do you understand by phishing? To me it refers specifically to maliciously sending e-mails with the intent of tricking the recipient into performing some action, normally giving you their password (e.g. by logging into a fake page). I'm surprised to see it used to gloss a form of chatroom trolling.

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