The Chinese language is great at nicknames. Everyone seems to have one. People who have just met often give each other familial nicknames like ‘aunty’ or ‘uncle’. I’ll often get called ‘big sister’ (JiěJiě 姐姐) by younger children, who are often called ‘little friends’ or (小朋友 XiǎoPéngYǒu ).
Supreme Leaders aren’t spared either. Take Kim Jong-un for example, who China’s netizens like to refer to as ‘Fatty Kim the Third’, ‘Fatty Kim the Second’ being his late father, Kim Jong-il, and ‘Fatty Kim the Great’ being, of course, the original Kim.
As a little gesture of goodwill to North Korea, who weren’t too happy about the name, China recently banned its use on the internet. So if you search for ‘Fatty Kim The Third’ directly, that’s 金三胖, you’ll get this on Baidu (the top Chinese search engine):
And this on Weibo (the biggest social media site):
On Weibo at least, the effort seems a little half hearted. Not only does ‘Fatty Kim the Third’ still auto-complete in the search bar, but you can easily get round the ban by replacing any of the characters in the name with the pinyin version (phonetic reading using roman alphabet).
Searching for ‘金三pang’, for example, yields a host of Fatty Kim jokes. One blogger lists more than 10 variations on the name (my favourite is ‘Second Fatty-Plus’) to illustrate the fact that ‘Brother Kim’ has underestimated the flexibility and creativity of the Chinese language.
This microblogger invites his readers to sing along to a little song he has written:
‘Oh, Fatty Kim The Third,
You’re once as fat as Fatty Kim The Second.
Oh, Fatty Kim The Third
You’re once less fat as Fatty Kim The Fourth.’
Nicknames aren’t reserved for sizeism though. China’s first couple also go by the names of Xi Dada (习大大 ‘Daddy Xi’) and Peng Mama (彭妈妈 ‘Momma Peng’). Chinese Wikipedia’s (百度百科 Biǎdùbǎikē) dedicated page to the nickname ‘Xi Dada’ says it ‘binds the people and secretary-general together’, ‘fills the whole society with familial warmth’ and is full of ‘love, respect and expectation’. Impressive for a nickname, no?
Of course, there’s nothing to stop such names being used in a mocking way, but giving politicians nicknames, especially familial ones, makes me a little uncomfortable. In Britain, we laughed at Boris Johnson, whose nickname, ‘BoJo’, conveys some of the buffoonery he’s always been known for. But it wasn’t as funny when he went from ruffle-haired prankster to pro-Brexit campaigner, helped swing the vote to ‘leave’, and ended his routine by vaulting neatly into the position of Foreign Secretary.
It’s ok when politicians are trying to get rid of their nicknames: it probably means you’ve hit a nerve, as in Kim’s case. And it’s fine when they’re ambivalent: I doubt Theresa May is too offended by or interested in propagating her Chinese name, ‘Aunty May’ (梅姨 MéiYí).
But when you’re not sure if a nickname was created by the adoring masses or a politician’s PR campaign, it’s creepier than the tipsy uncle who gets too handsy with the kids at Christmas. It smacks of populism, and looks suspiciously like the gateway to a cult of personality, perhaps explaining why Chinese state media have reportedly been told to cut down on their use of ‘Xi Dada’.
I quite enjoy being called ‘big sister’ by Chinese children in the street: it instantly creates a feeling of inclusivity and a degree of familiarity. But that doesn’t mean I’ll try to follow them home for dinner or think that I might actually be their long-lost sibling. Nicknames are a great way of laughing at people we don’t like, or are afraid of, or of trying to establish a bond with people we admire. But let’s not be lulled into a false sense of security by believing that a nickname really does give us a special connection with a politician, that because the nickname is silly and it sticks that we think we’re in charge, or that a politician is as invested in our interests as our family because we jokingly call them ‘daddy’.
Like most news over the last week, the ‘Fatty Kim’ business has largely been eclipsed by Donald Trump, another joke that ended in tears. ‘Fatty Kim’ has been relegated to the kind of bite-sized article that you’d stumble on by accident, forward to a friend for a laugh and then forget about. But if the day of ‘Papa Trump’ ever comes around, I hope we’ll all be paying a bit more attention.