The "socialite" phenomenon in China

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Source: China Media Project (12/7/2022)

Once signifying graceful women of a distinguished background, the term “socialite,” or yuan (媛), has in recent years become a misogynistic umbrella term used on digital platforms in China to disparage women who advertise fancy lifestyles. The term has also been used by state-run media to roundly criticize perceived materialistic excesses, reinforcing their unfair association with femininity.

The Chinese word yuàn (媛) has traditionally referred to the “virtuous and comely woman” as mentioned in the Shuowen Jiezi (说文解字), a Chinese dictionary compiled in the Han dynasty. Since 2020, however, the word has rapidly evolved — or perhaps devolved — into a catchall word used on the Chinese internet, and also in state media, to denigrate modern-day beauties as disgraceful and degenerate.

In October 2020, a Wechat article profiled a group on the WeChat platform called “Shanghai Female Socialite” (上海名媛群) in which women discussed the art of living or pretending to have rich lifestyles. The members, for example, would split the costs of high tea at fancy hotels, or they would share Gucci pantyhose, in order to mutually cultivate high-society personas — sometimes with the goal of connecting with wealthy suitors.

The CMP article delves into the lifestyles of many different types of yuàn 媛 ("socialites"), including hésuān yuàn 核酸媛 (“Covid-testing socialites”), wàimài yuàn 外卖媛 (“delivery socialites”), bìngyuàn 病媛 (“sick socialites” — women judged as looking far too polished in their hospital sickbeds), Fóyuàn 佛媛 ("Buddhism socialites"), fēipán yuàn 飞盘媛 (“frisbee socialites” — a term invented to refer to young women who share images of themselves playing frisbee in yoga outfits that fully show off their figures).  Clever wits have also come up with the phrase “yuànyuàn bùduàn 媛媛不断" (“unending stream of socialites” — a clever play on the Chinese idiom "yuányuán bùduàn 源源不断" (“a steady flow”).

The article concludes:

But the various permutations of the modern-day “socialite” all share a misogynistic sense, stigmatizing various forms of female expression as selfish and loathsome attempts to pursue wealth and visibility.



Selected readings


[Thanks to Nick Kaldis]


  1. jin defang said,

    April 13, 2023 @ 6:55 am

    anyone who has read Red Roulette can easily understand why this stereotype evolved—is there no term for their male counterparts who are, I suspect, more numerous? Another example of the double standard, perhaps?

  2. KeithB said,

    April 13, 2023 @ 7:28 am

    Does this have any relation to the yuan, as in money?

  3. M. Paul Shore said,

    April 13, 2023 @ 7:59 am

    I notice that the host of the online video report favors a second-tone pronunciation of 媛 rather than a fourth-tone one. Does anyone know what the reason for that might be? The large (two volumes, ca. 5000 pages) bilingual dictionary I've consulted recognizes the existence of the second-tone variant, but only as a fairly obscure form that's mainly associated with an archaic term 嬋媛/婵媛 chányuán "lovely".

  4. Victor Mair said,

    April 13, 2023 @ 7:59 am

    From Zihan Guo:

    It is interesting to note a homophone yuán 猿 ("ape"). Chinese people typically refer to male programmers as chéngxùyuán 程序猿 (lit., "program ape"; originally chéngxùyuán 程序員 [lit., "program personnel / member"]), a stereotype that Comp-Sci people are too immersed in programming to make themselves tidy / presentable, then becoming "primitive." It is supposed to be a stigmatization of both men and animals, but can be used humorously or in a self-mocking way, with less of the pejorative connotations that yuàn 媛 ("socialite") has come to acquire.

  5. M. Paul Shore said,

    April 13, 2023 @ 8:02 am

    : Saying "Some people are residents of Rockford, Illinois" is not a stereotype, it's reality. Similarly, saying "Some women are 媛" is not a stereotype, it's reality. I have a relative who's an American 媛, so I'm all too familiar with this phenomenon.

  6. M. Paul Shore said,

    April 13, 2023 @ 8:23 am

    Everyone please note that my second comment, above, was meant to start out "jin defang:", but I messed up the bolding process, causing the name to disappear. That is to say, the comment was intended to be addressed to jin defang and to discuss his statements regarding alleged stereotyping of women; it was not intended to be relevant to Victor Mair/Zihan Guo's statements about stereotyping of computer programmers.

    The lack of a temporary-correctability feature in this discussion board software is an ongoing source of anxiety to me.

  7. Chau said,

    April 13, 2023 @ 8:42 am

    @M. Paul Shore
    In Taiwan, 媛 is pronounced in the second tone only. See the following Website from the Ministry of Education in Taiwan:
    Does the host of the online video report have a Taiwan Mandarin accent?

  8. Chris Button said,

    April 13, 2023 @ 9:10 am

    I recall we discussed 媛 here:

    The topic (my fault) then diverged into a spirited discussion about how the character 女 originally depicted a slave with bound hands and only later came to be associated with women.

  9. M. Paul Shore said,

    April 13, 2023 @ 9:23 am

    Chau: Based on certain consonant pronunciations it sounds to me as if the video host might have a Taiwan Mandarin accent; but I assume you’d be a much better judge of that than I would.

  10. David Marjanović said,

    April 13, 2023 @ 10:26 am

    Does this have any relation to the yuan, as in money?

    Unlikely; the money is 亓 yuán, pronounced with an inbuilt question mark instead of the inbuilt exclamation mark of 媛 yuàn.

  11. David Marjanović said,

    April 13, 2023 @ 10:29 am

    …argh, sorry, I was distracted: Chau just said that 媛 is in fact pronounced yuán in Táiwān. (There are a few words that have different tones in the mainland and the island versions of Standard Mandarin.) Still, the completely different characters are pretty strong evidence that the words are unrelated.

  12. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 13, 2023 @ 11:23 am

    I assume this word in its newish sense ('socialite' is very weird; I guess just 'beauty' or something) is pronounced (Mand.) yuan2 pretty much everywhere except by pedants. How else would you pronounce it given the character; the answers here are not in dictionaries. The video is from Taiwan incidentally — and I see a similar one in Cantonese where the narrator uses wun4 i.e. also the (historical) level tone.

  13. Chris Button said,

    April 13, 2023 @ 11:41 am

    It seems yuàn is the traditional pronunciation, and it is in fact the one listed in my Taiwanese Far East dictionary. I wonder if yuán is just borrowed over from 嬋媛, where Far East does then acknowledge the rising tone but notes 嬋妍 (yán) as a variant.

  14. Mark Hansell said,

    April 13, 2023 @ 3:01 pm

    The Far East dictionaries may be published in Taiwan, but for many words they list the mainland pronunciation and don't indicate actual Taiwan Mandarin tones. Not that any dictionary gets it right all the time….

  15. Chester Draws said,

    April 13, 2023 @ 4:35 pm

    Chinese people typically refer to male programmers as chéngxùyuán 程序猿 (lit., "program ape";

    A "code monkey". In English, at least, the term doesn't have any stereotypical associations with primitiveness or lack of tidiness. It simply refers to a routine job that is so simple a monkey could do it.

  16. Mark-on-Sea said,

    April 13, 2023 @ 6:12 pm

    Zihan Guo:

    ‘Chinese people typically refer to male programmers as chéngxùyuán 程序猿 (lit., "program ape"; originally chéngxùyuán 程序員 [lit., "program personnel / member"]) …’

    Do Chinese people do most of their referring in writing? In speech, nobody’s going to notice the difference!

    Or am I missing something?

  17. Victor Mair said,

    April 13, 2023 @ 8:07 pm


    Yes, you are missing something. She's clearly talking about when they refer to male programmers in writing.

  18. Andreas Johansson said,

    April 14, 2023 @ 3:11 am

    Is the "program ape" a knowing spin off of "code monkey", or just a coincidence?

  19. Jerry Packard said,

    April 14, 2023 @ 7:11 am

    Word pairs like yuan2/yuan4 媛, when one of them is 4th tone, are often instances of what is called ‘derivation in qu tone’ in Old Chinese. The word yuan4 媛 is reconstructed (Baxter and Sagart) as having the derivational -s suffix in Old Chinese. There are many examples in modern Mandarin that we are familiar with where the derivational function is more obvious, for example 钉ding1 ‘nail’/ding4 ‘to nail’; 好hao3 ‘good’/hao4 ‘to like’; 散san3 ‘scattered’/san4 ‘to scatter’; 中zhong1 ‘center’/zhong4 ‘to hit the center’; 种zhong3 ‘seed’/zhong4 ‘to grow’. I present a table of examples on p. 17 of Packard (2022) 'A Social View of the Chinese Language'. Amazon kindle version lets you read the first 2 chapters for free.

  20. Chris Button said,

    April 14, 2023 @ 10:57 am

    @ Jerry Packard

    The discussion here seems to be about a later secondary emergence of yuan2 for a character that was always traditionally read as yuan4.

    For example, Pulleyblank’s lexicon only seems to include the yuan4 variety.

    However, it looks like the Guangyun recognizes yuan4 and yuan2. So maybe the yuan2 is not secondary after all but a relic of the non-suffixed form after all!

    I suppose that would then nullify a good chunk of the discussion above!

  21. Jerry Packard said,

    April 14, 2023 @ 12:48 pm

    And Baxter and Sagart don’t offer an Old Chinese reconstruction for yuan2 either, but do have both yuan2 and yuan4 for Middle Chinese, with yuan4 having the reflex of -s (h) and yuan2 having nothing (bare stem).

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