What’s a Selfie in China?

Word of the week: zì pāi


One unexpected benefit of living in China is the internet freedom. Many people don’t agree with me here because they think government censorship (the so called great firewall) reduces internet freedom. But what I mean is not freedom on the internet, but freedom from the internet.

As a student I spent hours a day going through a seemingly endless stream of selfies (zì pāi) on Facebook. The Chinese for selfie, zì pāi, is a fairly simple construction. The word zì means “self” and pāi is the verb “take” as in “take a photograph”, so zì pāi is to “self-take (a photograph)”, that is to “take (a photograph) of yourself”

even pets like to take selfies sometimes

even pets like to take selfies sometimes

My English translation might seem a bit awkward but it’s actually a very common construction in Chinese. Lots of people like to zì pāi, and these people usually also zì liàn. With zì liàn the word zì again means “self” and liàn means “love” so zì liàn means “self-love” or “to love yourself”. Basically if you are zì liàn you are vain.

If you are reading this blog there is also a good chance you are self-studying Chinese. That is zì xué, literally “self-study” (here the English and Chinese match!) If your Chinese gets to a high enough level you might also feel a bit zì háo. háo means “lofty” or “grand” so “self-lofty” or “self-grand” is to be “proud”.

If you can pass the HSK6 you should feel a little zì háo, and you might evenwant to zì pāi with your certificate. If you don’t think you can pass the exam you should be a little more zì xìn. xìn means to “believe”, and so you can probably guess that zì xìn “self-belive” or “believe yourself” means to be confident. And when it comes to learning a language zì xìn is very important.

Unfortunately once my Mandarin was good enough to start using Chinese social networks I soon realised that Chinese people like to zì pāi as much as (if not more than) the average Facebook user does.