"Obsolete" Chinese Words

People’s Daily has an article on the changing Chinese language entitled 49 obsolete Chinese words (part 1, part 2, part 3). The really annoying thing about the article, though, is that it tells you the English translation of the obsolete words without telling you what the actual Chinese words are. (The second most annoying thing about the article is that some of the words are definitely still in use.)

After Ken of ChinesePod blogged about the article, Olivia of the Academic Team provided a list of the Chinese words referred to in the article in parts 1 and 2. I reproduce that list here, adding the missing ones, and deleting some obvious ones (like VCD):

– neighbor 邻居 [I don’t really get this one; I still hear this word all the time] – danwei (work unit) 单位 [this word is also not gone yet] – poet 诗人
– reformer 改革家
– special zone 特区
– conductor (on buses) 公交售票员
– radio cassette player 收录机
wanyuanhu (10,000+ yuan household) 万元户
daoye (profiteer) 倒爷
– Chongqing of Sichuan Province 四川省重庆
– Royal Hong Kong Police Force 香港皇家警察
– welfare-oriented public housing 福利公房
– State Planning Commission 国家计划委员会
– Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications 国家邮电部
– Ministry of Electronics 国家电子工业部
– Hainan Development Bank 海南发展银行
miandi (taxi van) 面的
– Idall (electronics brand) 爱多
– Millennium Bug 千年虫
– Fenhuang Cola 汾湟可乐
mao (lit. “cat,” slang for “modem”)
– family letter 家书家信
– Blue Seal Household Register 蓝印户口
fenbi (0.01 yuan coins) 分币
dageda (big clunky mobile phones) 大哥大
tianzhijiaozi (a name for university students) 天之骄子
– Yaxiya Department Store 亚细亚百货
– Old Fengjie Town 奉节古城 [picture on Flickr] – jiefang shoes (“liberation” shoes) 解放鞋
– Super Variety Show 综艺大观 [official CCTV page] – marital status certification 婚姻状况证明

If you have any revisions for this list, please leave a comment.

Notes: Kevin of Wefang Radish also discusses the People’s Daily article, as does Shanghaiist, where Micah points out in the comments that Danwei.org has published something similar before (but shorter, and also without the Chinese characters), citing New Weekly as the source.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. The title of the original article in the 新周刊 is 《十年:什么东西消失了?》 so the article is more about history than about language (intertwined as they are). A cursory search shows that Sina.com has the whole New Weekly tenth anniversary special edition reprinted online, including the article in question.

    Interesting, I showed the bit on 猫 to my language partner at work on our first meeting because I couldn’t figure out what the article was talking about, and her first-impression was that it stood for “mouse” (because of the sound). Not till she read the explanation could she tell me that it meant “modem”.

  2. It’s somewhat interesting, but all in all a thinly disguised attempt to show how much China has “progressed” in the last years. “Hong Kong Royal Police” is an obsolete word now? Come on, that’s nothing but self-righteous celebration of Hong Kong belonging to the “motherland” now. Meanwhile, in reality, Hong Kong police has not changed much (despite dropping the “royal” prefix) and thankfully, the People’s Police still has nothing to say in Hong Kong.
    Same with the SEZ. An ordinary Chinese citizen still needs a permit to even set foot into one, so how exactly is it obsolete?
    A couple of words try to get the message across that China is not so bureaucratic anymore. Very well, but simply renaming them doesn’t change the problem.
    And the modem, finally… at least I use one everytime I’m in China. I’m looking forward to the day it will become obsolete, but that day hasn’t arrived yet.

    Oh well, it’s the People’s Daily, so what can you expect…

  3. I had no idea a slang term for ‘modem’ was 猫. Makes me wonder what other animals one can find around a computer.

    Did everyone just miss some directive issued from 中南海 about how the 特区 don’t exist anymore, or what? Pretty much every business in Shenzhen or Zhuhai are gonna have to change their names now that such a distinction is no longer de rigeur.

    And how is ‘VCD’ no longer acceptable? Any market in China will have throngs of people yelling this word combined as an infix in the phrase “HELLODVDCDVCD?”

  4. Interestingly, even the New Weekly anniversary list is an edited, expanded version of an earlier series of articles – in this case, two columns by New Weekly lead writier Xiao Feng: 20年间被PK掉的人或物 and 20年间被PK掉的词 (which appears online only in a condensed version).

  5. Just wanted to drop in and say thanks! Your page has been very helpful to the new group of foreign teachers here at my university in Hangzhou. Although many of us have been in China for more than a yr already a colleague found your site and emailed it to all of us to “have a look.” I appreciated many of your teaching suggestions as well as wonderful blog posts such as this one…nice to know what terms the Chinese folk around me might not be used to hearing…although I agree that some of these still seem to be used everywhere I go.


  6. @Ben: I don’t think it’s so much a conspiratorial piece on emphasising the power of the CPC or anything… I think it’s just a fluff piece with the author trying to be clever. I get 10 e-mails like this from good-natured (non CPC supporting) friends a day telling me how much life has changed since the seventies and how we don’t use “dude” and “beta” anymore… well, ok, I still use “dude” and “beta” is on damn near every Web 2.0 Web site now, but… yeah…

  7. Huh? Conductor has gone as well? I thought there are still a lot in Beijing… at least when I was there.
    And poet??
    Neighbour and Danwei are obviously not gone…

    Comparing with Neigubour, I was a bit surprised they didn’t list 同志 actually, for its original meaning of course.

    Max, aother animal around a computer is a mouse. 😛

  8. 2005 PK
    2006 恶搞

  9. i mean someday they will vanish, i just cannot wait for them disappearance.
    I can give some more examples: 月票/冷饮(now 冰淇淋)/回力牌跑鞋

  10. @ The Humanaught: I agree, there’s not too much party propaganda in here. But I still feel that the main discourse in which this is to be placed is the one of China as a great nation and becoming an even greater nation as we speak. At least some entries (which would otherwise be rather random and meaningless, like the Hong Kong one) lean in this direction, which always rings my alarm bells.
    And dude and beta are very much alive, of course! 🙂

  11. it seems from the context of the article, they may have meant ‘neighborhood’ rather than ‘neighbor’.

  12. There’s still plenty of 面的 shuttling people around the outskirts of second tier cities and the entire countryside, and half of the kids trying to hustle people to get on their 面的 still pass their time by listening to bootleg tapes on their 收录机.
    As for 诗人 being obsolete, that just seems bizarre.

  13. Imagethief beat you to it. And there’s this thing called ‘irony’. It may well be technically illegal in the People’s Republic, but it still exists in at least an underground form, and is known for its guerilla operations.

  14. Chris,

    What did Imagethief write about this? I looked through his archives to the beginning of September, but I didn’t see anything related.

  15. Though calling a cell phone a 大哥大 is quite obsolete, there are other meanings for 大哥大 that well alive.

    In HK, 大哥大 is no longer used to describe a telephone, but rather has meaning related to being a boss man or a person of a gang….. because in it’s origins, only the mafia had enough money to buy a cell phone. Hence 大哥大.

    In Taiwan, 大哥大 is the name of a very popular variety show, it’s name in English is Super Saturday. The show isn’t very good, but when you go over Chiense friends house in a Saturday, it’s always on. Here’s an ad that was sent to my house for ETTV, the Taiwanese station that airs 大哥大. The guy being kissed by the harem of European models, is the host.

  16. if on looks carefully, you will see that 大哥大 is filmed at the 大哥宮!


    right above his head…. on the sign, which I believe to be called a 華平… I’m guessing the characters, but the Jyutping is (C:waa4 ping2)

  17. How is 诗人 obsolete? I heard one calling himself that only a few years ago. What should I call a poet then?
    大哥大 might be obsolete on the mainland, this word is alive & kicking in Taiwan, where it refers to mobile phones of any kind.

  18. How about Tongzhi (comrade)?

    I’ve never really used this one anyway, but I recently learned from a couple of mainland friends that it’s use today means “gay” (as in homosexual).

    (sorry, I can’t type Chinese characters on the lab pc)

  19. The idea of 诗人 is becoming obsolete because poetry is giving way to other kinds of literature in terms of popularity, and because in today’s ultra-现实 society it’s becoming a derogatory term to describe senseless dreamers instead of ultra-literate wordsmiths.

    大哥大 is obsolete because it stands for the idea of brick-like cellphones as status symbols, and because phones of that size passed away with the closure of China Mobile’s analog networks. (So that effectively applies in Taiwan too, even if the word itself is still used, like 诗人.)

    同志 is a good one; it might have been a little too politically sensitive, plus the article was only intended to cover the last ten years.

  20. John, it was an aside at the end of this post: “Irony-free Xinhua hails own success” http://news.imagethief.com/blogs/china/archive/2006/09/26/7520.aspx (sorry, I’m to technically incompetent to make a proper link). He didn’t really write a lot. I believe one or two of the commenters pointed out it was an obviously ironic look at recent changes in society.

  21. Please don’t read this article as a linguistic one. As a Chinese, I know why these words are “obsolete”. For example: poet. It’s not saying the word really disappears rather than the fact it’s very hard to find a poet these days in China. Everybody is after money, no one can bear the loneliness of being a poet any more, for now.

    And please don’t see anything appears on official source as propaganda. Blieve in everything they say sure is stupid, but eaqual all of them with propaganda, you’re not thinking either. They put on articles written by REAL people too! This article actually criticizes on many aspects of the changing life in China. It’s sad some people make comments on something they totally don’t get. Please, this article really is not that political but some people must think that way.

  22. And there’s this thing called ‘irony’. It may well be technically illegal in the People’s Republic, but it still exists in at least an underground form, and is known for its guerilla operations.info

  23. Though calling a cell phone a 大哥大 is quite obsolete, there are other meanings for 大哥大 that well alive.

    In HK, 大哥大 is no longer used to describe a telephone, but rather has meaning related to being a boss man or a person of a gang….. because in it’s origins, only the mafia had enough money to buy a cell phone.

  24. MAO ZEDONG Says: January 18, 2011 at 11:51 am
    1. STOP

    2. LOOK

    3. LISTEN

    chinese characters are Dinosours in the Digital Age… Fossils of an Ancient past.

    Like the Dead corpse of Lenin. Mao Zedong and Ho chi Minh in Vietnam..

    These are fossils of ancient past…

    Stop/look/listen: time to bury Lenin, Mao and Hanzi… No civilized nations uses such old ancient system of writing…

    • What would you have Chinese people use as their writing system then? You might as well be saying that Americans shouldn’t be using the Latin alphabet, as it had been derived from the dead language of Latin. Or you might as well be enforcing an Orwellian system where language, and hence the forming of liberating ideas, is restricted. Language, both written and spoken, is not only an essential part of every culture in the world, but humans’ brains rely on language in some form to be fully functional. That is why people who are born deaf, and who have not been taught a standardized sign language, still learn to communicate with “home” signage. It’s just part of our neurobiology to use language in some form.

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