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December 31, 2013

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A dreamy, smoggy, funny year

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In 2013, people were buzzing about gold-buying big mamas, obnoxious bear children, vulgar new rich, manly women, academic tyrants and goth kids with spiky hair. Yao Minji explains the buzzwords.

The year 2013 is ending without much fanfare and some disappointment, especially for those whose annual parties and lucky draws were canceled. In 2013, President Xi Jinping proved he was serious in launching a campaign against corruption, high living by public servants, official pomp and lavish spending. He talked frugality and meant it.

Last weekend, Xi himself paid a surprise visit to a Beijing eatery, lined up and paid for his own meal of pork buns, green vegetables and stir-fried pig livers and intestines. The tab came to 21 yuan (US$3.40).

After dozens of arrests for graft and continuous reminders that extravagance would not be rewarded, many companies did not organize regular year-end banquets and get-togethers. Even the upcoming CCTV Spring Festival Gala Show will forego the LED screens that cost millions last year.

It was a very long and trying year — no wonder Chinese people want to celebrate its end.

They survived the largest outbreak of H7N9 that killed 45 people on China’s mainland between March and August.

They didn’t suffocate in the smog Airmageddon that smothered many parts of China including Shanghai, a manmade airborne plague that worsens in winter.

They were not arrested for corruption, embarrassed by online photos of themselves and their mistresses, or caught flashing smiles and expensive watches at accident scenes.

They survived gridlock and auto exhaust fumes when no-toll highways were jammed for hours and traffic moved at a snail’s pace during the October 1 National Day.

They were not poisoned by cadmium-tainted rice from Hunan Province. They managed, or maybe they didn’t, to evade tasty rat meat sold as lamb. And they didn’t fall prey to the latest swill oil scandal involving industrial recycling of waste cooking oil.

In Shanghai, they survived thousands of dead pigs in the Huangpu River and its tributaries, endured the city’s longest and hottest summer since 1934, and did not get poisoned by a university roommate who wanted to teach them a lesson on April Fool’s Day.

They managed to communicate, tweet, gossip, spread news, help each other, crack jokes and critique almost everything, despite an Internet crackdown.

Jade Rabbit

Chinese Dream, enunciated by President Xi, became the new catch phrase and nationwide subject of intense study. “Dream” performances, exhibitions, books, and movies were everywhere.

People were encouraged to talk about fulfilling their dreams. And dreams were also realized as the 10th Magic Boat (Shenzhou) spacecraft was launched, the Moon Goddess (Chang’e) III lunar probe released the Jade Rabbit (Yutu) rover on the moon. It is China’s first touchdown on the lunar orb.

In summer, Chinese dama, or middle-aged women, challenged Wall Street wisdom by betting that gold would go up and buying a record amount. In winter, tuhao, or the extravagantly rich, were snapping up property in the bankrupt, crumbling “Motor City” of Detroit.

Xue ba, or academic “tyrants” (actually obsessive students), stunned the public with their packed study schedule and immense spending on books, while thousands of pretty women proudly announced themselves nu han zi, or manly women, not girly girls.

The best-selling book and box-office sensation “Tiny Times” depicted a glossy material life of Shanghai young people wearing beautiful designer fashions, buying jewelry, driving race cars, going to glamorous events and, of course, reading Shanghai Daily as they sipped high-end coffee in trendy cafes. Young people adored them. Critics reviled for representing the worse excesses of consumerism.

Another pop culture hit was the film “So Young” that captured the hearts of millions of young Chinese who felt nostalgia for simpler, more innocent times in their school days.

Best-selling books included “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China” and “Zhu Rongji on the Record: The Road of the Reform 1991-1997.” Also on the list was a Chinese Harry Potter-like fantasy story in which a Chinese teenager lands in an American school and learns how to slay dragons — the author is one of China’s wealthiest writers Yang Zhi, better known as Jiang Nan. One of best-selling translations was Richard Wiseman’s “Rip It Out,” translated in Chinese as “Positive Energy.”

It was an eventful, dangerous, controversial and dreamy year and Shanghai Daily has picked the most talked-about events, people and buzzwords.

Dama and tuhao 大妈 & 土豪

Dama or big mamas and tuhao or the vulgar rich are the two groups that most exemplify the Chinese appetite for bling.

Together, they are gobbling up gold as prices decline, cheap real estate in bankrupt Detroit, wineries in France and ranches in Australia. Of course, they have private jets and opulent, overdone homes.

Dama became famous worldwide when they surpassed Wall Street tycoons in shoring up gold, spending 100 billion yuan (US$16 billion) in two weeks in April on 300 tons of gold.

The big mothers helped sustain the price at US$1,468 per ounce. Before the Chinese gold rush, the global gold price had slumped by 15 percent in three days in what some considered a scheme by Wall Street moguls.

The gold rush continued through June, reemerged in October and has been on the rise in the past two weeks as gold prices dropped and dama rush to the rescue.

“What else can I buy? The stock market is so risky and funds are no better. There’s a limit to how many houses I can buy and I don’t know anything about art. Gold is always the safest investment. I’ll buy more if prices drop again. It’s the best way to invest my savings,” said Yang Lingdi, 56, shop owner who has invested more than half a million yuan in gold in the past year.

The term tuhao, or wealthy people without taste, has its roots in the Communist campaign against oppressor landlords in early 20th century. It has recently been resurrected. It literally means “earth rich,” with tu meaning “dirt” or “local” and hao meaning “despotic.”

Today it’s not venomous but mildly mocking, referring to China’s nouveau riche who love to be flashy. People even say it of themselves in a light, self-deprecating way.

The word has become extremely popular since September, around the same time the gold-colored iPhone 5S was released and became a coveted item.

The phrase “Tuhao, let’s be friends” spread quickly on the Internet.

“Don’t label me tuhao. I am not because I have a dream. Tuhao are flashy, tasteless and all about money,” said investor Wang Zhiqiang, in his early 30s, who’s planning to organize a group of tuhao investors in Detroit real estate.

Big mothers and bear children 大妈 & 熊孩子

Chinese aunties (dama or big mothers) and bear children are among the most difficult creatures to deal with. For Chinese, before Western media made dama famous, it had a different meaning.

Guang chang wu, or plaza dance, refers to group dancing in public plazas, and the dancers are most often dama. The aunties say it’s their right to exercise in public with loud music, even late into the night, while many young people are annoyed by the noise as they try to rest, work and put babies to sleep after a long and tiring day.

Unable to understand or persuade each other, the two sides often clash. Around the country, policeman were called, excrement was poured on the dancers, a Tibetan mastiff was unleashed to bite the aunties and small metal pallets were thrown. Still the dama continue to dance.

“Dancing is absolutely legitimate. We’ve worked all these years ... It’s our only entertainment and people still complain. They should install sound-proof windows. We are dancing in public areas,” said Zhang Lihua, 51, a retired accountant.

Xiong haizi, or bear children, was first used in north China to describe naughty children. It has caught on nationwide, describing spoiled only-children who misbehave in public, throw tantrums and break other people’s belongings.

They are holy terrors who disrupt everything. But their indulgent parents, also single children, praise the beastly little bears as cute. They don’t stop the behavior and teach them manners.

Children’s education, especially values and ethics, is a hot topic as the first generation of single children (little emperors) become parents themselves and treat their own children as royalty. “Dad, Where Are We Going?” is a popular TV reality show in which celebrity fathers demonstrate their child-rearing values.

“That’s outrageous. People are just unhappy so they hate elderly and they hate children. Children are bound to be naughty, what’s the big deal?” said Sherry Yang, 27, a marketing specialist with a five-year-old son.

Academic tyrants and manly women 学霸 & 女汉子

In 2012, gao fu shuai (tall, rich and handsome 高富帅) and bai fu mei (white, rich and beautiful 白富美) were the most desirable people in China. This year the public seems to adore xue ba, academic tyrants (obsessive students) and nu han zi, manly, independent women, not weak girly girls.

Academic tyrants first made news last October when a video of Tsinghua University honoring student Ma Donghan went viral. It revealed a schedule packed from 6am to 1am, with prep, classes, review, English practice, community volunteering and other activities. Slogans such as “Fight on,” “Try your best, “Love study, even PE” were scrawled over the schedule.

She became a hero. People said she was a role model and her schedule was even busier than some of the government officials. This year, more academic tyrants have been revealed online, inspiring national worship, including Zhang Anqi, a “Mensa Goddess,” and a Fudan University student who owns 8,000 books and has opened a free library.

“I’ve never felt particularly smart or like a goddess. I’m just devoted to what I do. What I’m proudest of isn’t my IQ but my persistence in dreams of scientific research,” said Zhang, 21.

While many young Chinese women post their overly polished selfies to show they are the white, rich and beautiful, other young women are eager to demonstrate that they are nu han zi, or manly women,

It’s the latest buzzword for strong, independent women who don’t overdo the femininity. Their appearance and behavior flies in the face of traditional expectations for Chinese women to be soft, fair and virtuous.

These nu han zi wear avoid the color pink, have more guy friends than females. They seldom or never get manicures and seldom get their hair “done.” They don’t rely on men to carry their luggage or open their soda bottles.

“Most women who call themselves nu han zi really are manly women, but it reflects how we, the new generation of Chinese women, respect and admire the kind of tough/strong women seen on American TV and films,” said nu hanzi Sella Chen, 31, a communications specialist.

Smart vs wash, cut and blow 杀马特 & 洗剪吹

A typical sha ma te (from the English word “smart”) is an exaggerated, tacky copy of a gothic, heavy metal rocker with whitened face, heavy eye makeup, lots of tattoos, spiky hair dyed purple, blue, yellow, pink or any color. Their hairstyle is called xi jian chui (wash, cut and blow), offered by the cheap hair salons they patronized. They send lots of selfies with exaggerated poses.

These “smarts” are often young migrant workers in their teens or early 20s, mostly guys working in salons, tattoo parlors and massage shops. Mostly in smaller cities, they consider themselves very fashionable; there’s a strict hierarchy in their groups.

They are dismissed as strange.

“I’ve been on the news. People don’t understand us, but our family has expanded so quickly. One day we will be fashion trend setters and more numerous,” said Ma Ge (Bro Ma), 22, a high-ranking “smart” in Hunan Province.

Have more children and retire later

Acclaimed film director Zhang Yimou, previously considered a national hero, found his image tarnished (to say the least) overnight when family planning officials said he grossly violated the one-child policy for most urban couples — another case of Chinese celebrities getting away with something that ordinary people are punished for.

Online posts said the director has seven children, one with ex-wife, three with the current and three with mistresses. Officials said he has violated the policy with two extra births and it was reported that the director is subject to a fine of 7 million yuan (US$1.15 million). He has acknowledged the three children with his current wife and apologized,

It was reported that 24 provinces levied more than 20 billion yuan in fines for extra births in 2012. The urban one-child policy has been relaxed to allow two children if one parent is an only child. Further details will be released soon.

Not many people will rush to have a second child, since the cost of raising one child is very high. But in advance of the new regulation, people have flown to Hong Kong and other countries to have a legal second child and escape a fine.

Relaxation of the policy is partly due to China’s rapidly aging society and concerns about a shrinking labor pool.

Meanwhile, China is drafting a plan to postpone the retirement age — currently 60 for men and 50 or 55 for women in most case. It is expected to be 65 for both men and women. Officials said it would be enacted in “tiny steps,” postponing retirement by a few months each year for a smooth transition.

The plan that also delays pensions isn’t popular, especially among those involved in heavy labor.

Crackdown on Internet rumors

In September, a new legal interpretation was released to provide legal grounds for crackdown on online rumor mongers and to maintain an orderly online environment. Several people who are well-known on the Internet were detained for spreading or fabricating rumors.

The new rules, issued by China’s top court and procuratorate, regulate that individuals will face defamation charges if the online rumors they create are viewed by at least 5,000 Internet users or retweeted 500 or more times.

First Hong Kong-like free trade zone

The first Hong Kong-like free trade area on China’s mainland opened on September 29 in Shanghai, the nation’s financial capital. More than 1,400 companies had registered within two months of its launch,

Launch of the China (Shanghai) Pilot Free Trade Zone has driven up stock prices and ignited hopes to make the city more competitive in the international market.

The first batch of 25 Chinese and overseas companies were granted licenses to register in the zone on the opening day.

Inside the zone, the yuan will be freely convertible under the capital account/in capital accounts, interest rates will be liberalized and the yuan will be used in cross-border transactions.

Airmageddon and pork soup

Air pollution and food safety were among the public’s top concerns in 2013.

Because of persistent fog shrouding northern and coastal cities, 74 cities began in 2012 to publish daily reports on PM2.5, readings of dangerous airborne particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers.

Public reports were ordered by the Ministry of Environmental Protection; they had previously not been disclosed.

This year many Chinese became used to checking the PM2.5 index.

Between January and May, 42 days of “heavy pollution” (PM2.5 of 200 and above) were recorded in Shanghai. It worsened in winter as readings soared to nearly 500 on some days.

The city’s environmental protection bureau said it would take roughly 10 years to solve the air pollution problem. It admitted that city sources — not northern industries and sandstorms — were to blame for most of the pollution.

It has become increasingly clear that China’s livestock industry is a serious source of pollution.

More than 10,000 dead pigs were fished out of the Huangpu River and its tributaries earlier this year. It was not uncommon for pig farmers to save money by doing so. Investigations showed that it was also not uncommon for farmers to sell pigs dead from disease or other reason to Shanghai markets and restaurants.

In the past year, people around China discovered that sometimes what they ordered in restaurants as mutton was really fox or rat meat, seasoned with additives to taste like mutton.

The Chinese Dream 中国梦

While US presidents are fond of evoking the “American Dream” concept to convince people that they control their own destinies, Chinese President Xi Jinping last November sounded a similar theme when he talked about the “Chinese Dream,” or zhongguo meng (中国梦). He said it means pursuing “economic prosperity, national rejuvenation and public well-being.”

It soon became one of the most quoted phrases in the past year. The essence of the Chinese Dream, according to political scientists, is the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation through development with Chinese characteristics. It was applied to titles of reality TV shows, competitions of student paintings, and themes of exhibitions and parties, among many other activities.

“It’s not about a definition, but more about universality,” Thorsten Pattberg, a research fellow at Peking University, said of Xi’s concept. “Everyone has dreams. The question becomes: Can you fulfill your dreams in China and not elsewhere?”

Chinese, especially the older generations, often prefer to envision their lives in terms of goals, not dreams.

Living in a more modern, developed era, however, means a more upbeat, open-minded attitude. Today’s Chinese, whether from a city or a village, are striving to live a life to its fullest — a “dream” life.

In December, China’s first moon rover, Yutu or Jade Rabbit, separated from the lander and continued to explore and take photos after the lunar probe Chang’e III made a successful soft landing.

In June, Shenzhou-10 returned after a successful 15-day space mission in which it docked with the orbiting space lab Tiangong-1. It carried three taikonauts who spent 12 days in the lab and conducted experiments.

Both projects bring China closer to its dream of building a permanent manned space station by 2020, as the country transitions from “harmonious society” to “Chinese Dream,” under new leaders.


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