Chicken baby

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Just to show you how up to date Language Log can be, in this post we'll be talking about a neologism that is only a few weeks old in China.  The term is "jīwá 鸡娃", which literally means "chicken baby / child / doll".

The term surfaced abruptly and began circulating virally on social media, following a heated discussion over two articles on K-12 education (the links are here and here).  The articles are respectively about the fierce competition among parents in Haidian and Shunyi districts of Beijing municipality.  Haidian is a large district in the northwestern part of Beijing with many famous tourist attractions, outstanding universities, and top IT firms.  Shunyi district is in the northeastern part of Beijing.  Although it is not as large and powerful as Haidian, it is also considered a very desirable place to live because of its posh villas, easy access to the international airport, and China's largest international exhibition center, but above all — from a parent's point of view — some of the best private and international schools in the country.

The first article is titled《 Hǎidiàn jiāzhǎng bù pèi yǒu mèngxiǎng 海淀家长不配有梦想》 ("Haidian Parents Do Not Deserve Their Dreams", written after the Beijing High School entrance examination this past spring, when there was much talk about how fervently Haidian parents invest their money and time to put their children in various elite training courses, so that they may have a better chance of getting into a leading primary and then secondary school, following that a good Chinese university. Similarly, Shunyi district moms described in the second article are making the same kind of efforts as the Haidian district moms to help their children qualify for famous American or British universities.

The literal interpretation of "jīwá 鸡娃" is "a child who has been injected with chicken / cockerel blood", where "dǎ jīxuè 打鸡血" ("inject chicken blood") is a colloquial expression that means "to stimulate a person into a hyperactive state". It comes from a popular life-preserving / strengthening (yǎngshēng 养生) method practiced during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Here is the link to the Baidu online encyclopedia article on the pseudoscientific health therapy of "dǎ jīxuè 打鸡血" ("inject chicken blood").

The parents in Haidian and Shunyi districts who raise their children as jīwá 鸡娃 ("chicken children") are quite numerous. It is common that such children take extra Chinese, math, and English courses. In extreme cases, some parents put their children in three extra math classes simultaneously.

"Jīwá 鸡娃" can also be used verbally (where Jī 鸡 ["chicken"] is verb and wá 娃 ["child"] is noun / object), in which case it means "inject a child with chicken blood".  Of course, I don't think that anyone is actually injecting their child with chicken blood nowadays, at least I hope not, so the expression is currently being used metaphorically, not literally.  The results, however, are similar, with frantic parents and frenetic children.

To summarize, people who received transfusions of chicken / cockerel blood would not unexpectedly become stimulated and excited, inasmuch as their human antibodies would be working overtime to cope with the infusion of non-human blood of who knows what type.  Thus arose the expression "dǎ jīxuè 打鸡血" ("inject chicken blood") to describe people who suddenly become excited and energetic in doing their work or preparing for their exams.

In current usage, the trope sarcastically refers to the phenomenon of Chinese parents pushing their children extremely hard, sending them to various kinds of extra-curricular classes, and demanding that they strive for the best grades. This kind of education is called "jīwá jiàoyù 鸡娃教育" ("chicken child education"), and this type of parent is called a "jīwá jiāzhǎng 鸡娃家长" ("chicken child parent").  Apparently this phenomenon has spread from Haidian and Shunyi districts of Beijing to the Bay Area in California.

This kind of competition, in which parents pit their children against the children of other parents is called "pīnwá 拼娃".

Another term related to "jīwá 鸡娃" ("chicken child") is "niúwá 牛娃" ("bull child"), which derives from the vulgar term "niúbī 牛逼" (adjective, usually euphemistically translated as "awesome").  A "niúwá 牛娃" ("bull child") is one who performs excellently and wins out in the "pīnwá dàsài 拼娃大赛" ("grand competition of children pitted against each other").

Readings

"You're a cow " (3/30/17) — with links to earlier posts on niú 牛 and niúbī 牛逼 at the end

"Nicknames for foreign cars in China " (7/14/19) — see under Lamborghini

"cactus wawa: the strange tale of a strange character" (11/1/14)

"Cactus Wawa revisited" (4/24/16)

[Thanks to Tong Wang, Yijie Zhang, Chenfeng Wang, and Lin Zhang]



4 Comments

  1. Peter S. said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 6:41 am

    Do you mean the phenomenon has spread to the Bay Area, or the word. Because the phenomenon (that of investing immense amounts time and money to prepare your children so they get into elite colleges) has been around in wealthy American communities for decades.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 11:45 am

    From a Penn M.A. student:

    I totally did not know this word before. But I searched for this word on the internet, and I think in my generation, people called this phenomenon "推娃."(Push the child) For those excellent kids, parents call them "牛娃" ("bull / awesome child") to praise them. Those kinds of language are argots on websites, especially on the education forums.

    It was like this when I was a child, and the competition has gone even crazier recent days. There is also an interesting joke, saying that it is enough for a 4-year old child to know 400 English vocabulary, but not enough for a 4-year old child in Haidian district in Beijing! (Because parents push their children to study English so hard).

    [VHM: Two things:

    1. Only one of the dozen or so mainland Chinese correspondents whom I asked about "jīwá 鸡娃" ("chicken baby") a couple of days ago (July 19) had heard of this term, but now it is swirling all around the internet.

    2. Notice the extreme emphasis on English language learning at a very young age. I have written about this on Language Log before, describing how I have seen scores of Chinese toddlers flying abroad for English camps lasting a month or so during summer and winter breaks.

    This leads me to ask:

    a. Why this desperate urge to learn English, even when the government discourages it?

    b. What is really the driving force behind the desire to learn English well at a younger and younger age?

    c. Is it simply to get in better schools so they can eventually go abroad for high school, college, and university?

    d. Even if superficially it is for the reason of "c.", is there something deeper that is pushing this mania for English?]

  3. Alex said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 7:33 pm

    @ Victor Mair

    I attached part of this post and a link to this blog item to a garden community wechat chat. Some responded that's yes its used and one even said she "got this word from my friend last week"

    Where I live, nanshan district in SZ it definately seems there's a desperation among many parents for their kids to learn English. In my view its pretty crazy the amounts they seem willing to pay. More importantly I feel the pedagogy of teaching English here is pretty poor. I feel many English learning centers use targeted marketing to "con" parents. They make it "fun" and "open" to be "Western" I have tested many garden kids who have attended these centers for a year or two starting since 4 and they cant even read simple simple sentences though they all have the ability to memorize "Hi my name is x, I am x years old, my favorite color is etc" They don't emphasize the most basic of phonics. I guess this is for another topic.

    The point is yes there is English mania here. Many parents even hire au pairs from the Philippines or Vietnam of all places. Whats nice to see is parent now overcoming their shyness and are beginning to walk around with their very young children and pointing and using English. I think this is a very good method.

    As for winter and summer breaks and stuff. I think one reason they spend so much 10's of thousands of USD for a trip is actually a way to show off. As I actually joked to a neighbor I might have to block moments in the summer. Do I really need to see multiple posts daily of your children in Australia UK or US? So they receive photos from their children and then post them. Who is it for? Yes part of the reason is for learning English.

    a) The government actually started being more "western" when they now officially ban any kind of primary school learning in preschool. The reason is they feel they want to roll back the pressure on kids. Thus no math, English and Chinese. There are spot checks. I guess like in mob movies preschools are tipped off when "inspectors" come. That or wheels are greased. I know some young expat English teachers who were not to come in for the day due to this.

    b) For the parents I know, its because they feel it will lead to a better life, either job or immigration. For the parents who's jobs requires interaction with English counterparts and who have traveled abroad for work they do realize the importance. They also understand that the early one starts with a language the better.

    c) definitely many have planned their children going abroad usually between 7th and university. Many don't want their kids to go through gaokao and know their kids don't have the discipline to study and compete.

    d) I do get a sense that for some there is something deeper, when you asked that question it helped me think it about it more and reply when I have focused on it more. Whats interesting is I have donated an English only Library for my garden, It has about 5000 books (some are of course 10 pages long). Yesterday afternoon two mothers visited. One was reading an oxford series to here 3.5 year old. They other was more interesting as she is clearly intelligent studied and played bridge and go on competitive levels when younger and its clear she does alot of planning for her kids. Her younger child is 7 and goes to a BASIS international school and is fluent. The child loves to read and comes daily in the summer by herself. Her mother and I talked about a subject that some other international school children parents have come across. When kids start reading English and Chinese very early, they quickly stop reading Chinese books. Its clear that this parent and some others consciously accepted that trade off.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 10:57 pm

    From a mother whose daughter is currently enrolled in a Shunyi District middle school right now:

    Why do parents invest so much to urge their children to learn English? There is not a simple answer to this question. Here are some facts concerned:

    1. Though the government discourages English learning, English grades are still the selection criteria for students to enter various phases of schooling, including middle school (examinations given by specific schools), high school (high school entrance examination), and university (college entrance examination). The competition is extremely high for middle school admittance that many leading public middle schools require certificates like PET or FCE to grant students a chance of oral exam. To make things worse is that these schools don't give explicit criteria (of all the subjects, not just English), but just give hints.

    2. Students who want to be admitted into a good middle school have to defeat other students in the competition. In comparing with other children, parents who are under the pressure of crisis awareness force their children to attend extra-curricular courses of Math, English, and Chinese.

    3. More and more parents plan to send their children to study aboard, though the students who prepare to study abroad only constitute a comparatively small portion of all the students in school. According to the statistics of the Ministry of Education, self-funded overseas students (including all ages) amounts to 596,300 in 2018 with a growth of 8.83% over 2017, while the number of students taking college entrance examination is 9.75 million nationwide in 2018.

    I once asked my husband, who works in an English training school, what would happen to his institution if English were no longer a compulsory course in schools. He said that more students would take extra-curricular English classes. I am not that optimistic. For those who don't aim to study abroad, I don't see the compelling force to learn English.

    However, it is unlikely that English will be excluded from the various entrance exams. Those exams are highly selective processes to efficiently categorize students and determine the most capable ones. Math and a foreign language are good tools. I don't see any chance English will be replaced by any other languages. So long as economic development remains one of the priorities of the government, English will not be forsaken.

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