After a long day of classes at Fudan University, I came home to find a flyer hanging in a baggie on my door. Its intermixing of Chinese characters, pinyin, and bits of English caught my eye. It was an advertisement for a food delivery service called Line 0 / 令号线 (website here).
Inspired by the work of Victor Mair at Language Log, I decided to document the flyer and do some basic analysis. (Update: Got a response from the Real McCoy, who elaborates on the front of the flyer here.)
Transcription and Translation:
一个成功吃货的腔调 (bī) (gé)
“The tone / tune / tone of voice of a successful foodie”
“Open to read”
I’m puzzled by how exactly the pinyin “bī gé” relates to the characters it purports to gloss, which are pronounced “qiāngdiào.” I’m guessing it’s part of the joke / clever marketing scheme, and relates to the inside content.
So there’s four cartoons on the inside illustrating how life gets better when you use the advertised food delivery service. I’ll transcribe and translate one of these to give a sense of what’s going on.
Transcription and Translation:
“Weekend, with a bunch of special friends”
“Normal foodie: really busy”
“Cooking away really hard…”
“When can we eat already?”
“The idiotic foodie: makes instant noodles”
“No need to be polite, everyone… Eat more!”
“Nima / Nyima / Your mom!!!”
“The successful foodie: Line 0”
[in place of his eyes is written:]
“Pleased / proud / satisfied”
“What? You can even order in lobster?”
“So smooth / dreamy!”
“Wow! There’s dry-wok bullfrog!”
Lot of interesting things going on here. First, the title of this section indicates a homoerotic / homophobic undertone to the whole thing. The term “jīyǒu” 基友, which I translated as “special friends,” has a very interesting history. In short, jī 基 was used in Cantonese to transliterate the English “gay” (since it’s pronounced “gei1”), but over time, it came to mean “close friends of the same sex” in internet slang, without any explicit sexual connotations. At least, so says this entry on Baidu encyclopedia.
“Èrbī” 二B is apparently a slang term for “idiot / moron / fool.” The second syllable, written here as the roman letter “B,” refers to a vulgar character pronounced “bī,” meaning “cunt,” often written with the characters 屄 or 逼. The term feels very crass to me, but I’m not a native Chinese speaker. All I know is that this is another reason why Arby’s will never take off in China!
Similarly, in the thought bubble of the friends in the second section we find the characters 尼玛 (nímǎ), which are usually used to transcribe names like “Nima” or the Tibetan “Nyima.” In internet slang, however, it’s used as a cover for 你妈 (nǐmā), meaning “(F***) your mom!” The change of tones corresponds precisely with the old internet meme of the grass-mud horse (cǎonímǎ 草泥馬).
Which brings us to the structure of the ad. This is also borrowed from an internet meme, one which apparently peaked in 2011. The meme lists three pictures with the headings “pǔtōng” 普通 (normal), “wényì” 文艺 (artsy / hip), and “èrbī” 2B (stupid / moronic). Here, for instance, is a version of this meme featuring President Obama:
And here’s one (without the headings) featuring Basketball superstar Yao Ming 姚明:
So what’s the deal with such a crass advertisement for a food-delivery company? My guess is that because I live within walking distance of two universities, they’re trying to market themselves to college students, who will find the slang amusing or hip. However, as I mentioned, the memes referenced herein are at least several years old, an eternity in internet time. The marketing ends up being funny because it tries too hard to be “with it.” Part of being “with it” in China is tapping in to internet slang and foreign-derived vocabulary.
Questions still to be answered:
-What exactly does “(bī) (gé)” on the front mean?
Update: The answer is that it’s a phonetic transcription of English “bigger,” usually using the characters 逼格. An example can be found in these iPhone ads. (Thanks to Anne Feng for pointing this out.) Victor Mair discusses those ads here. He also notes how bīgé can mean something like “awesome / cuntish style” in his blog post responding to this flyer here.
-What character does the pinyin “shi” in the upper part of the cartoon refer to?
-Does the term 二B seem vulgar to young Chinese speakers, or is that just my own impression?
Any thoughts or theories would be appreciated in the comments section.
Finally, for reference, here are close-ups of the other three comics, which I will not transcribe and translate right now.