A Chinese song, called "Shengpizi" (Lit. unfamiliar characters), went viral in China after it was posted on TikTok, or Douyin in China, in early December 2018 by Chen Keyu, a Chinese post-1990 singer. One of the attractive parts of the song is how it cleverly incorporates characters and idioms that are rarely used in day to day life. One common joke among netizens attempting the song is that they feel bad for letting their high school teachers down.
So far, Chen's video has nearly 3 million likes and the song itself has become an online phenomenon with numerous people both at home and abroad recording and posting videos of themselves trying to sing the song.
In a video on TikTok, Alice Roche astonishes her Chinese and French friends by singing a Chinese song she just learned as they sit together at a kebab restaurant in Paris. At the end of the video, Alice remarks jokingly that the song was very easy, even though her proud demeanor hints that the song is anything but easy.
而歪果仁网友@白女王伊丽莎白 甚至穿起了汉服，一边比划手指舞一边唱《生僻字》这首歌，轻松get 4万多个赞！
Some foreigners have taken to wearing traditional Chinese clothing in their videos, such as netizen Bainüwangyilishabai (White Queen Elizabeth) who posted a video of herself dressed up in costume performing a little "finger dance" while singing the song. The video has more than 43,000 likes.
Netizen Shaun_Gibson stunned Chinese viewers on TikTok with his great handling of this song. His video has earned 550,000 likes and 26,000 comments.
Other netizens have gone a step further by changing up the lyrics and coming up with versions in Cantonese or other local dialects and even Japanese and English.
Chen Keyu told the Global Times that the inspiration to write "Shengpizi" came from the way some internet slang repurposes characters that are rarely seen outside of Chinese dictionaries.
Chen particularly liked a slang phrase that plays on the visual component that comes with Chinese characters, that phrase being you shuang ruo zhuo or "又双叒叕."
The first character you (又) means "again" in English and is very common in Chinese. This is followed by another common character shuang (双) meaning "pair." The last two characters, however, are not used often today; the third character ruo (叒) is the name of a tree from Chinese mythology, while zhuo (叕) roughly means "continue." While the meaning of these two characters have nothing to do with "again," the fact that these characters are made up of multiple "again" (you/又) characters inspired netizens to put them altogether to create a slang idiom that roughly looks like "again, again2, again3 and again4" and is humorously used to emphasize that something or someone is going on ad infinitum.
上文中的ad infinitum 是个固定搭配，意为“无限; 无穷”。如：This cycle repeats itself ad infinitum. （这个周期一直循环往复。）
Chen noted that when he was inspired to create the song back in 2017, the college exams, or gaokao, were getting ready to take place.
"If senior high school students can learn some words and phrases from this song that would make it worth it," Chen said.
Although he was surprised to see how popular the song has become, Chen understands why people would become enamored with it.
"Since people don't recognize those characters, they are more eager to learn the song," he explained.
"But looking more deeply, I believe it is a sense of cultural pride that makes people love this song." Over the course of the song, the lyrics pay tribute to the history and culture of Chinese characters, saying "stories lie in every stroke." He spent around half a year writing the song. When choosing which characters to use, he considered carefully their structure and rhyme.
Zou Yafei, Chen's teacher and a professor at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music, told Global Times that she thought the pronunciation of Chinese characters fits the tune of "Shengpizi" very well.
She said the style of the song can be considered as belonging to the genre known as zhongguofeng, or Chinese traditional-style, songs which usually use the ancient Chinese pentatonic scale or incorporate traditional Chinese cultural elements or images in their lyrics. This type of music is nothing new to Chinese music lovers as it has gained popularity in China since the early 2000s through popular Chinese songs such as Jay Chou's "The East Wind Breaks" and "Mistake in the Flower Fields" by Wang Leehom.
Although "Shengpizi" features some rap, "strictly speaking, this song is not a rap song," Zou explained. Despite this, Sun said she feels that the song's quick rap-style rhythm has helped attract young students who love that kind of music.