Course:ASIA319/2020/"Awkward" (囧)

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(From top to bottom) Jiong (囧) written in Regular script, Clerical script, Seal script, and Oracle bone script.
(From top to bottom) Jiong (囧) written in Regular script, Clerical script, Seal script, and Oracle bone script.

After its popular reemergence from the internet in 2008, the word “Jiong” (囧) have made significant impact among the Chinese netizens and beyond. As one of the oldest pictographs in the Chinese language dating back the to the Oracle bones[1]. The term‘s original definition varies from a form of description for "window" to identification of specific geographic locations, although its predominant usage appears to be meaning "light", "bright", or "brightness"[1][2]. A critical piece that makes Jiong an incredibly interesting case study, as we will see, is it's deeply rooted misuses.

The 2008 internet reinvention of the term have instilled in Jiong brand new meanings. Due to its pictographic nature, resembling that of a human face in distress, Jiong (囧) is adapted by the Chinese netizens as an expression for "awkwardness", "gloom" and "embarrassment"[2][3].

Jiong (囧)is critical for the field of Chinese pop cultural studies for the term shows the significance of the internet and its influences on Chinese cultural discourse. The popularization of the term is an example of internet-empowered mass-participation. The popular re-interpretation of Jiong (囧) closes the gap between mass and elite/high culture, this process is also a sign of popular creativity, discourse and desire of expression[4]. Jiong (囧)can therefore be seen as an expression of anti-establishment, anti-elitist sentiment and democratic-participation among the Chinese masses through the use of internet.

Adding on, importantly, we need to appreciate the cultural-economic value of Jiong (囧). The market incorporation of this reinvented term can be seen through the 2010 film Lost on Journey (人在囧途)which ultimately sprung into an entire franchise consisting of three additional installments: the 2012 Lost in Thailand (泰囧), the 2015 Lost in Hongkong (港囧), and the 2020 Lost in Russia (囧妈).

The genesis of the keyword

The emergence of Jiong (囧)from the Chinese pop cultural scene can be traced to 2008, with a steady rise in popularity among the Chinese netizens. By 2009, the term have also gained significant academic attention among scholars varying in proficiency[5][6]. The academic discourses around the term is polarized, with certain groups championing the "flexibility" and creativity of the Chinese language"[1][2], while others passive-aggressively remarks that "it is a sign of culture and virtue to use Chinese in its proper form." (使用规范汉字是一种教养).[4]

The term, as described in the introduction, has been reinterpreted as "awkward", and at times even "depressed" or "angry" from its varied ancient definitions[4]. Jiong's popularity can be seen from its multiple adaptations by a variety of platforms from blogs to video-sharing websites. At one point, there even exists an website entirely dedicated to Jiong: (, The term was for a time so influential that from QQ message boards to Baidu tieba (a popular online forum similar to reddit), Chinese netizens, especially the post-1990s generation (90后), start to brand themselves as Generation "Jiong" (囧一代)[4].

The term's popularity reached its peak by December of 2012[7]. It is highly likely that this is due to the debut of Lost in Thailand (泰囧).

Trailer for Lost in Thailand.

Transmedia Case study: A popular, transmedia example of Jiong is the web e gao series The Call of Jiong (囧的呼唤) by the Chinese influencer: Hawk Ao (敖厂长) First debuted on July 25, 2008 in a sub-forum of Baidu Tieba discussing the videogame "Command and Conquer" series[8], the currently running 12-year-long web satire have garnered hundreds of thousands of fans around the Chinese-speaking communities across the globe. The contents of The Call of Jiong ranges from lighthearted gameplay parodies to social critiques. For example, Hawk Ao's most viewed video on YouTube is Call of Jiong Episode 211, which reveals the scheme of a "dating website", reaping 3.4 million views.

Episode 211 of The Call of Jiong

Discourse over its nuanced, reinvented definition remain an underlying theme of 囧. It is yet, undoubtedly true that there exists a socially-critical aspect surrounding the connotation of the word 囧.

Unfortunately, 囧 is gradually fading out of popular usage by 2020. According to Google Trends, the popularity of the term has fell to the level of pre-2008[7] - in other words, as far as mass-cultural participation is concerned, 囧 have nearly again, submerged back into its mode of being as an obscure pictograph for the most part of the past 5000 years. The sole cultural products preventing the totality of such a fate are the 囧 movie franchisees that made millions by incorporating the term, and the e gao series by the internet celebrity Hawk Ao.

Glossary of 囧 and dictionary meanings

The word 囧 (pronounced as Jiong) is most commonly used to express the emotion of awkwardness, sadness or even embarrassment. An umbrella term in Chinese internet slang for a set list of negative emotions that is usually used in internet conversations. [9] In this sense, the definition of the word is defined solely by it's pictorial nature; the character resembles a 'shocked' or 'sad' face which is why people associated the word with emotions such as 'awkward' or 'sad' in the first place. The root of this definition of the word can be attributed to the emoticon culture of the internet.

Dictionary Meaning

The original definition of the word Jiong relates more to 'window', 'patterned window', or 'bright'[1]; originating from the glyph pattern of the character in early writings. This original definition is less used by present day culture but the original definition of the word also pulls it's meaning from the pictorial nature of the symbol.

An elaboration of its variegated meanings, actual usages, and value-loaded implications

1.The multiple explicit meanings and implicit connection (Bill)

For academic reading, the author always have deeply recognize the word “ 囧” and in the articles, author always analysis this word in academic understand. For example, the author Wang Zhen connect it with ontology and vehicle( Ben Ti and yu ti). The author said the relationship between ontology and Vehicle is rely on their similar. In the website, people always connect two accidence that they are not perceive both of accidence are depend on each other. The purpose for them is to realize the new material. The author believe this word is already use character for Chinese hieroglyphs, she said the 八 is symbolized eyebrows, and the square in 囧 is symbol of people’s mouse, so the whole word is the describe of people’s face. She said  from the surface for this word, we know this word means upset and depression.[4]  In popular press, people can use this word to replace one sentence even for one paragraph. For example, overseas student always play video games in spare time, if they find their teammate is inability in the game, they are always said this word to express theirs unhappy. For the online discussion,, students are always talk about PowerPoint and group presentation, but if some teammate forget do theirs work, this word are always appear on the group chatting. So In our experience, where we go, where we will 囧。

2. A shared body of words associated with the keyword (Ben)

  • Bull/Cow(牛)popular definition: “Powerful", "incredible” - usually a "clean" alternative to the buzzword “cow cunt"(牛屄)[9]. The term strongly associates with 囧 through the phrase :"(囧 is) the must 'bull' (incredible) Chinese character in 21st Century" (21世纪最牛汉字)
  • Thunder (雷)popular definition: "shocking", "terrifying"[10] (most commonly at the sight of certain display of embracement, awkwardness) 雷 is usually used as an adj., i.e. Man-shocking video(雷人视频) The relationship between 雷 and 囧 are henceforth commonly cause-and-affect.
  • Bright (爽)[11] Popular definition: "exhilarating" "open", "clear" [12] Ironically, this antonym's "original" definition is the same as that of 囧,both indicating "brightness". In the context of poplar interpretation, however, the term 爽 clearly stands in opposition to 囧.

3. A Counterpart term in any Western or non-Chinese popular cultures? (Emily)

A "cringe" emoji. One can see the resemblance to 囧 if they were to focus on the brows.

A western buzzword that relatively resembles a counterpart to 囧 would be the term Cringe. There exists a discourse between the dictionary definition and popular interpretation of the term cringe. Formally, cringe is defined as "to suddenly move away from someone or something because you are frightened" according to Cambridge dictionary.[13] The popular misuse, and misinterpretation of the term is '"embarrassing", or "making feel uncomfortable."'[14] A media expression would be the "Cringe Compilations" on YouTube, which in turn somewhat relates to the above-mentioned word “shocking" 雷, The term is most commonly used as an adjective e.g. "Cringy", "cringey" or "cringeworthy". (Ben)

Chinese Internet Iǐyǔ, and Western Internet Slang

Iǐyǔ (term for Chinese Slang culture) and Western slang seem to have shared traits in the culture of online slang language words like Jiong in terms of attitude behind the word and the context it's used in internet popular culture. The symbol of 囧 is similar to expressions of western emoticon culture (emojis); where the meaning behind a word lies behind how it actually looks[9]. The 'sad' face seen in the character of '囧' expresses an awkward or sad emotion in the conversation; used more as a non-verbal expression much like how emojis are used in western internet slang as non-verbal ways of expressing sentiments.

4.Compare and summarize multiple meanings in their distinct contexts while digging into a range of ideas and values; (Yibo)

The use of "jiong" in the movie "囧妈” refers to the movie content of describing dumbfounding journey of the protagonist accompanied by his mother whereas in the app "Jiongjiong Delivery" (囧囧外卖) it serves as an symbolic presentation of related to the logo for the customers to easily memorize. Comprehensively, the term "jiong" is often used as an negative expression of emotions which could be refer to as awkwardness, embarrassment, depression or even self-mockery of the given circumstance. Mostly the post-1980s or 1990s generation use the term as to scoff at the situation of themselves or the others.

5.How dictionary meanings are transferred, distorted, or subverted? (Bill)

As we know the word awkward(囧) on the internet tool means upset and depress to express our feeling, however, if we transfer it on another sentences, the meaning will be opposite and negative with the original ones. For example, in dictionaries we can not find the meaning about this word, but Chinese and another Asian people always explain it as bright, we can regard it as a vigorous word, because it is just a word. Although it is Asian means, sometimes if we migrate it to another language, the means will not be change obviously because 囧 is not Chinese and Asian original means, if we transfer it into English, the English word for it is awkward, the meaning of it in English dictionary is causing difficulty and it is hard to deal with, it is almost same as the Chinese meaning. However, in China, although there are many people use this word to express theirs upset feeling, this word is always express in another context. For example, the sentence we want to find a right way in the awkward life.( 人生囧途中)  in this sentence this word express the hard life for everyone. In contrast, another context contains different meaning for this word. For example, he is a dog, but he always regard himself as a cat for across the road, are you feeling awkward. This word in this sentence has some discriminate meaning, even it likes abuse for someone.  Not only in China, in others country,this word is used in many ways,and others country have plenty of image about it. As we know, Korean people always express on the website after watch the sports or others games. For instance, in the lol final games this year, the Chinese team always beat them on final and grab the champion in the march, some Korean radical people express theirs unhappy and say “ we lost for Chinese team, too 囧”, it is a shame thing.” According Korean culture, this word have dirty meaning, and pissed” and Chinese people always laughed them only imitate Chinese people although they are lost.

Social, cultural, and political problems

The term “jiong” comes from a symbolic variation of correlated emoticons which expresses embarrassment or depression. Given its visual resemblance of one’s facial expression when feeling sad, the term “jiong” has been adored by the younger generation online to symbolically illustrate the circumstances of feeling awkward as so to other negative emotions. Following the popularity of the term “jiong” amongst the internet, the word itself has generated relating ideas and thoughts through its usage. Mass consumerism of “jiong” on the internet alternatively creates problems upon its usage. Due to its characteristic of being a relative variant of words in existence, “jiong” has been considered an internet-based term rather than a formal word in modern society. In other words, the popularized term “jiong” has been interpreted alternatively in comparison to its former relative. Meanwhile, the cultural meanings have also been varied to complete different stages to represent emotions relating to embarrassment amongst the web-based community. As the consumers of the term “jiong” are relatively younger, they are capable of learning and memorizing such terms rather easily and quickly. The learning cycle could be shortened in comparison to senior consumers, it could only take hours from occasionally browsing internet-based terms like “jiong” to interpret the precise representation and eventually the correct expression of emotions using such terms. Consumerism amongst the term inevitably brings confusion as millennials fancy the convenience of learning through the internet. That the online term “jiong” is easily confused with the related formal words. Although the term “jiong” is easily recognized as ideologically representative of the symbolic meaning, overuse or misuse by the millennials of the online term towards academic studies are in need to be avoided in order for it to be distributed online as a symbolic entertainment. Relating concerns were raised by the government officials advocating the urge to ban certain online terms of which have not been included in the Modern Chinese Dictionary as official words of the language. Politically, the misuse of such online terms are incapable of representing the authorized Chinese language. As the internet develops comprehensively, regulations strictly control it. But unofficial online terms are still being distributed and popularized, which means that the concerns over the expression of the lack of authority in such terms could not override how the public adore the spread of such terms. Potential solution to the problem could be to deliver the authentic definition of “jiong” as well as to categorize its usage specifically to the internet or verbal conversations. Assisted by clear boundaries, consumerisms of internet-based terms like “jiong” could be ensured to be appropriate. Traditionally, the ancestor prior to the term “jiong” illustrates different meanings in ancient Chinese which commonly used to describe bright light. Therefore the transition leads to the online term “jiong” could be considered less-relevant to its former meaning. There has been debate over the popularity of the term “jiong” as of its current meaning. Whether it is appropriate to completely discard the ancient meaning of “jiong” and the replacement being no more than a fashionable expression amongst the millennials. Does analogical evolutions of ancient Chinese characters under the influence of contemporary culture forfeits the inheritance of the traditional Chinese culture? The answers vary depending on the perspective as there is not an absolute analysis to agree or disagree with the idea. During the long-term cultural development of China, numerous variations of words follow by the appearance of the derived terms over periods of time. Millennials constantly seek for the popularized expressions of correlated emotions to reflect personality, which is the primary reason for the continuous generation of new online terms. The evolution of culture coordinates with the development of contemporary society, which means the likelihood of people constantly familiarizing themselves with the same words are relatively low. Inevitably, culture changes with time. But the inheritance of traditional culture is not necessarily forgotten. Similar to how popular terms spread through the internet, knowledge regarding traditional culture is easily available online as well. Critiques on how culture varies over time would not suspend the development, however inheritance of traditional culture does not contradict the current cultural development.

Studies related to the keyword

If we search awkward ( 囧) on the internet, we can get around 21900000 results from google, baidu or others search website. In the contemporary China, we can see this word in any communicate tools such as wechat, qq, face book and digital games. Around 20 years old, the word Orz was a popular words to express upset and angry, but in Taiwan people exchange the word O to 囧,so awkward(囧has became the very popular word to express negative mood, and it became a popular culture and internet behavior. Why Contemporary Chinese people replace this word with basic expression sentence. For most Chinese people, they do not know the meaning of this internet words, they are only imitate other’s people online, but recently years, there are many movies about 囧, and these movies gives huge impression for Chinese people, so this word has became popular. For example, most of people have watched “ 人在囧途“, this story reflect the many funny story for travelling, especially some awkward plot become insight point in the movie, The main content for this movie is one worker go to Chang sha for getting his own salary, he meet one rich person who has a unhappiness marriage , both of them began to take many traffic tool to one destination because of surprised experience, in this trip, their trip is strange and adventure, and they become friends although they have different background before. All of the plot in this movie is strange and awkward, the experience from trip also beyond people’s experience, after I want this movie, I know the meaning of the title of movie, I also understand the mean of “ 囧”。This internet word has became popular words after everyone know this movie, people always use this word describe the feeling when they feel depress and when they face the awkward problem that beyond theirs image. So in China, we are always see this word in wechat, qq, even in the digital games. In the modern society, most of people have too much pressure for work and study, but they have to face the reality from life, so people want to use the word to wreak their life situation, so everyday we can hear this word.  


The popularity of similar online terms like “jiong” reflects the diversity of cultural development of the society which is suggested by the likes of millennials. Younger generation intends to diverge the choice of expression into different carriers. In other words, terms like “jiong” with its visual characteristic symbolically represent the emotions while being relatively easy to memorize. Within a specific group, online terms deliver the message as well as the recognition of whether one’s keeping knowledge up to date. Through using terms like “jiong”, people find each other sharing common interests or similar perspectives which brings joy in between communications. As the internet becomes an essential part of daily life in contemporary China, the emergence of new terms would be seen constantly. The existence of online terms are culturally influencing the public which offers a new interpretation of Chinese words. In the future, it could be important to acknowledge the proper usage between online terms and formal words as a precaution of the confusion brought by the frequent use of online terms. Therefore, people understand formal words represent the correlated meaning while fancy using popular online terms instead depending on the occasion.


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