Chinese Buzzwords of the year 2019: plagiarism / stealing a shtick

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Jialing Xie surveys the field in "Top 10 Buzzwords in Chinese Online Media: An overview of China's media top buzzwords over the past year", What's on Weibo (1/5/20).  As in the previous year, the expressions were chosen by the chief editor of the magazine Yǎowén Jiáozì 咬文嚼字, which Xie says "literally means 'to pay excessive attention to wording'".

No, that's not the literal meaning of "yǎowén Jiáozì 咬文嚼字", it's the lexical, figurative meaning.  The literal meaning of "yǎowén Jiáozì 咬文嚼字" is "to bite on phrases and chew on characters".  Other lexical, figurative interpretations of "yǎowén Jiáozì 咬文嚼字" ("to bite on phrases and chew on characters") are "be punctilious about minutiae of wording: chop logic; pay excessive attention to wording and choice of characters; to nitpick like a grammar Nazi; to talk pedantically").

Most of the "buzzwords" on the list are boring, stale, based on dated Western notions, derivative, repetitive, or politically motivated and chosen.  One of them, however, caught my attention:

róng gěng 融梗 ("mixing up ideas")

Literal Meaning: "Integrating other people's ideas into one's own work" or "integrating punchlines," "mixing up plots."  [VHM:  Those are the lexical, figurative meanings.  The literal meaning is "melding / integrating / mixing / fusing / blending stem / stalk".  I will discuss the complicated etymology of this term in greater detail below.]

Context: Over the past two decades, many literary works, including a few by prestigious Chinese writers, have been suspected of plagiarism and triggered heated discussions online — when it comes to drawing inspiration from other art and literary creations, where is the boundary between artistic freedom and plagiarism?

What does it mean now? Soon after the Chinese movie Better Days (少年的你) came out in October (read more here), the writer of the original novel was accused of plagiarizing parts of Japanese mystery writer Keigo Higashino's work. Many netizens argued that in the field of online literature, borrowing ideas from others (融梗) is ubiquitous and does not necessarily equate plagiarism because the act (融梗) itself requires original work and creativity. From October to now, the term has become a recurring topic in Chinese media.

In trying to comprehend exactly what róng gěng 融梗 means, I must begin by saying that many of the correspondents whom I asked about this term had never heard of it before.  Even those who had heard it in recent month were unsure of its meaning.  Yet the term is widely used in internet discussions.

Perhaps the best way to approach the explication of róng gěng 融梗 is to focus on each character / morpheme individually.

The first character / morpheme, róng 融, is easy and straightforward.  As stated above, it means "melding / integrating / mixing / fusing / blending".  It's the second character / morpheme that is hard to get a grasp on.  Literally, it means "stem / stalk".  Yet it is not immediately apparent how that meaning in combination with "melding / integrating / mixing / fusing / blending" yields a term that implies borrowing words, ideas, plotlines, etc. from others without acknowledgement, i.e., "plagiarism", which is how it is being bandied about nowadays.  (China has another more conventional, unambiguous word for plagiarism, that is "chāoxí 抄襲").

During my preliminary pondering on this puzzle, I recalled that I had previously encountered gěng 梗 ("stem / stalk") in the sense of "gimmick / routine" in a comic skit.  Immediately, the Yiddish word "shtick" flashed through my mind.  Not only did "shtick" sound like "stalk", it had exactly the same meaning.  Indeed, in the past, I invariably associated "shtick" with "stick", which would make it even closer to gěng 梗 ("stem / stalk").  Of course, Yiddish "shtick" is unrelated to English "stick", but still I could not avoid the association.

American Heritage Dictionary of the English LanguageYiddish shtik, piece, routine, from Middle High German stücke, piece, from Old High German stukki, crust, fragment.

Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary:  1955–60; < Yiddish shtik pranks, whims, literally, piece < Middle High German stücke, Old High German stucki (German Stück); compare stucco]

Wikipedia:  Comic theme; a defining habit or distinguishing feature or business (שטיק‎, shtik, 'piece'; cf. German: Stück, 'piece'

The superficial resemblance between "shtick" and "gěng 梗" ("stem / stalk") breaks down from the Chinese side too, since "gěng 梗" is actually a borrowing or variant writing of gén 哏 (adj. "funny; amusing; comical": n. "clownish speech / behavior").  This is a stock-in-trade of comic dialogs (xiàngsheng 相聲).  Gén 哏 originates from Tianjin topolect. The borrowing of "gěng 梗" ("stem / stalk") to write it is because many topolects cannot distinguish between -n and -ng codas, thus pronouncing gěng as gén / gěn.

哏 already occurs in the 16th-century novel Xī Yóu Jì 西遊記 (Journey to the West), e.g., ch. 19, where we read:

"Hěn!  Nǐ zhè kuángshàng de bìmǎwēn.哏!你这诳上的弼马温。" ("Hey, you deceitful bìmǎwēn!").

Here I think 哏 is pronounced hěn and means "fierce; ferocious; angry; cruel") = 狠.

Bìmǎwēn 弼馬溫 is an official position for Sun Wukong (Monkey King) in the novel Journey to the West.  It is a homophone of 避馬瘟避马瘟 (bìmǎwēn, "to prevent horse's disease") in Mandarin. It is thought that adding monkey's urine to the fodder for horses can prevent horses falling ill.     Wiktionary

To get an impression of the variety of opinion and usage concerning this new term, I will list some of the responses I received from correspondents:

1.

In the context of "融梗", I think 梗 carries the meanings of plot settings, persona, or an original concept in a literary or cinematic work.

2.

"融梗" is absolutely a new expression to me, so I had to dig into the Internet to find its meaning. This is what is said in 百度百科.

3.

I agree that "梗" means something close to "shtick". It appeared in the recent years and is said to be a misspelling of "哏",a common tern in "相声"(cross talk). "融梗" seems to mean "a combination of shticks", in which "融" means "融合".

4.

I didn't know the word "shtick" before, but according to the definition you gave me, I feel it is still slightly different from "梗". I would say "梗" is more like "典故" ("allusion") or "桥段", but such "典故" or "桥段" ("a particular artistic approach; [classic] plot, scene etc.") is not from literary canon, but from popular culture, like movies, TV series, widely-known events, funny pictures, and 段子 "an item of crosstalk / storytelling/etc. that can be finished in one performance") and 综艺 ("variety show"). Sometimes a "梗" is not necessarily comic, I think.

5.

Just as you said, the 梗 in the term 融梗 could be understood as "shtick".

This expression is now widely used in Chinese social media like Weibo 微博 (corresponding to Twitter in the US) to mean something like "to plagiarize others' creation". 融梗 is very ambiguous because the original 梗 is thought of as having been "assimilated", not purloined.

For example, Plot A appears in one novel and then becomes famous. It is a 梗 . But someone later creates a story in his or her own work which is almost the same as Plot A. Though he or she does not copy the original plot directly, the similar persona of the characters, the processing of the story, and the ending would speak the truth.

6.
Your translation of "梗" as "shtick" is perfect! A few days ago I also was thinking of this question, and I found that some people on the internet translated "梗" into "meme" or "punch line." Probably such a translation works in some other contexts, because now "梗" is used to create more phrases like "融梗","老梗", "有梗", etc.

It is also said that "梗" is a new way of saying "哏", and "哏" is both an adjective and a noun. When it is a noun, it means amusing, comical, and funny. When it is a noun, it means clownish speech or behaviour, clowning, and antics. As for "梗", I think this word is only a noun.

7.

I think it's really brilliant to interpret "梗" as something relevant to the word "shtick"! It definitely reveals the key point of the meaning of "梗". In addition, when it comes to the expression 融梗, I think "梗" here could have even more meanings, including "plot", "scenario", "storyline", "creative idea", etc, and as a result, "融梗" is quite a controversial concept since sometimes it could have something to do with plagiarism.

A concept in process of formation!

 

Selected readings

[Thanks to Don Keyser, Tong Wang, Yijie Zhang, Diana Zhang, Lin Zhang, Chenfeng Wang, Di Wang, and Yishu Ma]



6 Comments

  1. DBMG said,

    January 9, 2020 @ 6:12 am

    The naked gloss is less far-fetched than it might appear, as stems are in fact something artistic you can plagiarize: one of the more specialized senses of the English word is an individual audio track in a musical recording.

    (#12 in https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/stem#Noun)

  2. Rodger C said,

    January 9, 2020 @ 7:58 am

    Of course, Yiddish "shtick" is unrelated to English "stick"

    I'd always assumed that "shtick/Stueck" was related to "stick," i.e. a piece of a plant, but I look it up and no, a stick is something to, um, stick things with. Well.

  3. BillR said,

    January 9, 2020 @ 12:28 pm

    Going back to the literal meaning of the characters, "meld" and "stalk", what comes to my mind is the horticultural practice of grafting parts of plants together to, typically, add esthetically or nutritionally desirable features onto a more robust root structure, to get something that would not occur naturally. A sort of biological plagiarism if you will.

  4. David B Solnit said,

    January 10, 2020 @ 5:52 pm

    I suppose that Yǎowén Jiáozì 咬文嚼字 is a takeoff on Shuōwén Jiězī 說文解字 , the Han-dynasty dictionary (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shuowen_Jiezi).

  5. Nick said,

    January 11, 2020 @ 10:04 pm

    梗 in modern casual parlance basically refers to a joke deployed as a figure of speech, or to the part of the joke that is a pun or a reference.

    "Meme" isn't a bad gloss: these days if people see a jpg meme they don't understand, they might ask "what does this 梗 mean?"

    But 梗 can be used in contexts broader than "meme" to refer to jokes that rely heavily on wordplay or popular culture. From my own WeChat conversations come sentences like "you must be one of those programmers who can actually respond to 梗[s]." In this case the term 梗 refers more broadly to jokes that require some finesse or pop culture knowledge to integrate into conversation, not a joke that has widely spread on social media. (有梗 is an example of this usage.)

  6. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    January 14, 2020 @ 5:05 pm

    Perhaps a good English analog is a "trope"? From Greek "a turn"?

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