The Rise of the Tuhao

It’s a fair bet that most readers of Wordability will not spend much time thinking about new words in Chinese. But when that word starts to become a social media phenomenon, it’s time to take notice of it and wonder whether it will cross over into the lingua Franca of the Internet as a whole.

Tuhao has appeared millions of times across Chinese social media. The word is actually more than 1,500 years old and means rich landowner. However it is now used to refer to the newly wealthy, the nouveau riche, to bring in yet another language. It has been commandeered in a derogatory way for these people, who flaunt their freshly acquired fortunes with displays of conspicuous consumption, gaudy jewellery, and the latest gadgets, especially the gold iPhone. The words Bling and Tuhao never seem to be far away from one another.

The word, comprised of ‘tu’ meaning dirt and ‘hao’ meaning splendour, got its social media kick from a joke which went viral. A young man asks a Zen master, “I’m wealthy but unhappy. What should I do?” The Zen master responds, “Define ‘wealthy.’ ” The young man answers, “I have millions in the bank and three apartments in central Beijing. Is that wealthy?” The Zen master silently holds out a hand, inspiring the young man to a realisation: “Master, are you telling me that I should be thankful and give back?” The Zen master says, “No … Tuhao, can I become your friend?”

As Buddhist jokes go, I prefer the one about the pizza. But leaving that aside the term has now become a Chinese Internet staple as a way of referring to this particular social trend.

It is very much part of a development in Chinese culture and would not necessarily apply everywhere, but its a neat and effective piece of linguistic shorthand that is perfect for modern methods of communication.

As Chinese presence increases globally, it will be interesting to watch whether linguistic developments such as this cross over into wider usage. Will a domain which has hitherto been dominated by English neologisms starts to become yet another area where Chinese influence starts to dominate?

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