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污 [wū]  is used widely in Chinese modern world, existing in lots of situations in daily life and playing an significant role. Although the major definition of 污 is to describe dirt, it associates with contamination. However, 污 should be defined as pollution as it is a serious problem in modern society. With the meaning of pollution, it has been used negatively considering the global environmental deterioration. 污 also has another meaning that is neutral. It is an adjective that is similar to "cheeky" in English. The character 污 describes someone who makes cheeky sexual jokes. This definition became popular online by the quick expansion of dirty jokes and comics, and many internet users find their personal interests in it.


The genesis of the keyword

The earliest form of “污” characters was seal script, which means that it began to appear in the Qin Dynasty. However at that time, it did not write "污", instead it was "汙"; In seal script(篆书) and official script(隶书),the left side of “污” means water flow (氵); the right side 于, means gas/air(气) was first blocked and then passed through, while water flow was blocked, it was easy to pollute. Regular script (楷书) is 污, which means that water(氵) is not enough(亏) clean. The original meaning is to stop the accumulation of sewage, extended to dirty/polluted. In 《说文解字注》("Shuo Wen Jie Zi Zhu") page 2237, it wrote "污,浊水不流也。" , it indicates that this word was taken as pollution from the very beginning. In the attached file, it shows the transformation of 污 : File:污的演变.png

Glossary of its explicit dictionary meanings

During the pre-modern days, 污 [wū] is used to describe dirty and filthy[1]. The word itself is associated as unattractive, undesirable and negative. However, the character 污 is now commonly combined with 染 [rǎn] The combination of the two characters, 污染 [wū rǎn], creates a new formal and modern definition with the meaning of pollution. A popular topic in regards to pollution in China's society is marine pollution. An example using 污染 is “水的污染” [shuǐ de wū rǎn]. The sentence translates to “pollution of the water”.  In terms of popular culture, people have created slangs with the symbol 污. A popular usage of 污 in popular culture is describing someone who is cheeky[2]. In other words, it is used to describe someone who tells sex jokes. On the other hand, a common phrase that is used on the internet is “污力滔滔” [wū lì tāo tāo]. This phrase of expression describes someone who enjoys talking about sex.[3]

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

An elaboration of its variegated meanings, actual usages, and value-loaded implications in Chinese popular culture, to be substantiated with concrete examples. The actual meanings and their implications are typically diverse and variable. The most active problems of meaning are always embedded in actual usages of the keywords. The section can be further divided into five parts:

Ocean Waste

1.The multiple explicit meanings and implicit connections people make when use the keywords to discuss their everyday experiences:

污染(Pollution) is the most commonly used word for 污, among which marine pollution can be called a more serious one, because many pollution can directly or indirectly lead to marine pollution, and even some little things ignored by people may cause very serious harm. On Zhihu and other platforms, there are often people who popularize this knowledge. They put pictures that have been seriously polluted on the Internet to reveal the real ocean. People throw plastic, toys, bottle caps and other unwanted garbage when they go to the beach into the sea, which may cause fish to eat by mistake, get stuck and die.[4] The degree of pollution in different places is often reported on TV. People discuss these pollution problems on platforms such as Douban and Tieba, and call on everyone to report environmental pollution behaviors around them together with the media. In the comment area below, many people spontaneously describe the pollution of the city they live in, and some media leave their contact information below to make sure others can communicate with them for the masses and report, so as to arouse the attention of the local government.[5]

In modern society, 污 is also regarded as a network buzzword, used to describe a person's thought is not pure. Many people associate a normal sentence with sex related things. For example, in the ancient poem, "停车坐爱枫林晚。"(Stop the car, because I love the late autumn maple forest.) Many people make fun of it and write it as "停车做爱枫林晚。"(Stop the car and have sex in the Maple Grove in late autumn).[6] This kind of phenomenon is more and more in the contemporary China, many idioms, such as "鞭长莫及" and "日久生情" are attached with the meaning of pornography.

2. A shared body of words associated with the keyword in our general discussions of Chinese culture and society:

Firstly for the meaning of decribing dirt and filthy, it can be associated with 脏乱差[zang luan cha], a new popular word combine three adjectives together to describe a dirty stuff. 脏[zang]means dirty, 乱[luan]means messy and 差[cha] means bad. When they come together can be related to 污[wu] to describe a terrible place.

Secondly for the meaning of describing corrupt, it always exists as 贪官污吏[tan guan wu li], as a Chinese idiom that combined two same meanings together to describe that officials who are greedy for money and take bribes. This use of 污 is similar to English as filthy officials can also represent officials that offciers corrupt people’s money.

For another meaning to describe cheeky people, it gives new understanding of 去污剂[qu wu ji], which means detergent that could remove stains at usual but in some specific context means that people become polite instead of talking sex jokes. Moreover 内涵[nei han] always exists with 污, as this word gets new meaning similar to 污, showing that some stories are  associated with sex. Mostly stories about 内涵 and 污 may exist on the web, apps or small magazines.

3. Counterpart term in any Western or non-Chinese cultures:

污has the same direct translation in Cantonese. Thus, it has an equivalent usage in Cantonese as it is a language very similar to Mandarin. On the contrary, 污has the same definition of dirty in English. However, there is not an equivalent usage with the meaning. In the English language, dirty is an exclusive definition that it simply relates to being unclean or being cheeky. The translation of 污does not have as many different definitions in English than in Mandarin. For example, dirty in English cannot be replaced by the word pollution as it could in Mandarin.

4. Comparisons and summarization of multiple meanings in their distinct contexts:

污 is one of the marginal culture. 污 deviated from mainstream values. There are some reasons why the 污 was created. First, the marketers do the advertisements related to the content of 污. 污 is a good way to help them attract attention from the audience. Although 污 is related to pornographic contents, it used the different ways to present it. Many people just think it is very interesting which is the reason why people accept this kind of culture. People want to use the污 culture to arouse other people's interest. It is also a way to help people find similar people. People who accept 污 culture can make up a small group. They talk about the jokes and make instant memes which are related to 污.  

5. How dictionary meanings are transferred, distorted, or subverted:

The amount of污’meaning increases as the development of Chinese culture. As mentioned before the new understanding of 污 is about sex jokes. It seems like modern people use their wealthy imagination and association extends the exterior understanding of 污(describing a dirty thing ) to the interior understanding (describing a “dirty” personal thinking). This extension is due to the wider using of Internet that people get a convenient access to get filthy information and they are curious and requiring. People’ s mind are opened and willing to know. However, with the existence of restriction that sensitive words may be shielded. As a result, people discover the new meaning of 污 as a safer word compared to similar words like “色”[se]  to prevent being shielded because those word obviously representing filthy information that are easier to be detected by the collection of sensitive words. Above all, the meaning is expressed from its original state and can be freely used in more situations. The restriction of application of several words, not only 污, becomes less strict in Chinese culture.

Social, cultural, and political problems

What social, cultural, and political problems are suggested through the usage of the term? Many of these social, political, and intellectual issues and conflicts are thought through as we are conscious of the keywords as elements of the problems. Tip: Focus on the moments when scholars, journalists, reviewers, or the public make complaints over the practice, institution, or perspective implied by the keyword. Those moments are often very telling occasions for you to diagnose the actual developments and meanings of the term, especially their extension, variation and transfer;

  • 污—污染(environmentally polluted)

Reason 1: education

In the school, students usually learn professional knowledge, but lack of how to become a good person, resulting in the overall quality of students is not high, especially in cities with low economic level and education level. In a variety show in early October, several young artists went to the aquarium to interact with dolphins. However, two female idols kissed dolphins with makeup and lipstick. They were named by the "China cetacean Conservation Association" and criticized on Weibo.[7] They were condemned on the Internet. However, many people said that they did not know they could not do make up to contact dolphins. This kind of basic knowledge should be known by most of the society, but the ignorance of many people is caused by the lack of education in schools and family.

Reason 2: social problems

Pollution is a kind of social problem. When human society develops to a certain stage in technology, it needs to start to cultivate in the spiritual level. But obviously, the society does not pay too much attention to this problem, so the average quality of society is lower than that of developed countries. When you see a man on the road and trying to stop him by throwing rubbish on the road, your friend tells you, "forget it, everyone does same thing." So you don't do it. Although there will be cleaners throwing the garbage into the garbage can, if everyone can do their individual job, the pollution will not be so serious as today.

Reason 3: mutual exclusion of economy and environmental protection

The problem of economic development and environmental protection, in the final analysis, is the relationship between man and nature. The essence of solving this problem is to deal with the relationship between good people and nature. However, in the process of economic production, pollution will inevitably occur, such as waste gas and waste water discharged from factories. These toxic substances are diluted in the air and water. Although there is no serious impact on human beings nowadays, once the toxic substances reach a certain amount, human beings have to be responsible for their actions.

  • 污—污秽,不纯洁(mentally polluted)

Reason 1: the lack of sex education

Schools avoid talking about these topics because they are afraid that students will pay too much attention to these topics when they are not mature. However, sex education is an indispensable part of the education process. Only by knowing the body and mating process of oneself and the opposite sex can we better protect ourselves. It is also because of the lack of school and family education, adolescents often learn about sex through other channels which may lead them into wrong way, and even have a stronger desire to try. If there is no correct guidance at this time, teenagers are more and more fond of verbal pleasure, without any conscious, and even make fun of other people's physiological characteristics.

Reason 2: the development of Internet platform forms a “污” culture

In the Internet age, people's access to information is becoming more and more diversified. This kind of low-level and interesting but meaningless joke may bring happiness to people. However, once the sense of propriety is not well mastered, it will cause harassment to others, which will make people disgusted. Everyone can freely expresses their own opinions on various Internet platforms, and they don't need to be responsible for their words, because all of them are using nick names, so that no one knows their real identity in reality. On the live broadcast platform, many women play "edge ball" (擦边球) to show their bodies because more men will reward them so that they can earn more money; men in the comment area make some coquettish remarks, pointing out the anchor's body, saying some jokes and dirty words, and no one feels very obscene. On the contrary, after someone takes the lead to say these dirty things, they start to follow the trend. Many celebrities also use “污” words to attract the attention of the public. As a result, many people in the society think that since the stars are so “污”, it doesn't matter that I become “污”, which causes the “污” culture to become a social phenomenon.

Studies related to the keyword

污 culture is widely used on the internet. With the development of 污 culture, many people think 污 have a bad influence on teenagers. Through analyzing, we want to find an insight into 污 culture and we also want to know the effect of 污. According to Ao (2018), he describes the character of 污 such as entertainment, the age gap and sense making. First, for entertainment, people enjoy talking jokes related to 污 culture. They think it is very funny and interesting. It is a way for young people to relax and release pressure. For the age gap, the 污 culture is used for most young people. Old people do not know what they are talking about. For sense making, people do not talk about content related to 污 broadly. Most people who used the 污 culture think 污 is not 下流 ( low-down behaviour)[8]. Wang et al. (2018) state 污 is not very significant for popularization of science. The process of contact with “污 culture”contributes to the natural opening. Wang et al thinks 污 is a kind of vulgar culture. The government should enhance the supervision and regulation[9]. According to Tan & He (2017), “On the one hand, the spread of network "污" culture creates "possibility space" for the culture and identity of young audiences, provides public sight and discourse guarantee for marginalized things, and also helps to sort out imaginative solutions to a wide range of structural social contradictions. On the other hand, it represents a profound forgetting of true material and spiritual needs. The antagonistic display or exaggeration of "constructed individuals", such as classic texts, blindly advocating "for my own use", creates a kind of pseudo-anesthesia, which makes the young people who are keen on this constantly overstep the bottom line and pay a heavy price while getting pleasure[10]” (p.50).


To conclude this study of 污, it is evident that this character has multiple meanings throughout history. The character was first written in seal script during the Qin Dynasty. The main definition that is relevant to China’s modern society is pollution. As global warming and being environment friendly becoming more common, the meaning of 污 is used more to emphasize how serious the topic is. Education, societal problems and the exclusion of economy and environmental protection have created an ideological critique of the word. In contrast, the informal definition of 污 is describing something “cheeky” while being sex related. The lack of sex education and the development of online platforms have definitely spread the new definition of 污 over popular culture in China. Possible further research should focus on how 污 affects different generations.


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