BEIJING — While sports fans worldwide marvel at the aerial contortions of the skier Eileen Gu, many in China are professing their admiration for one “Frog Princess.”
Americans who watched Nathan Chen spin his way to a gold medal may be confused to see Chinese figure skating aficionados refer knowingly to someone named “Chen No. 3.”
And although the name of the Russian figure skating star Anna Shcherbakova can be a mouthful for some of her Chinese-speaking fans, a sobriquet that translates to “Daughter of a Wealthy Family” rolls far more easily off their tongues.
“Nicknames are easy to remember,” said Zhou Yuyao, 22, a figure skating fan from Hebei Province. “Russian names are too long.”
Every culture and country coins nicknames, but few do it these days with the ingenuity and gusto of Chinese sports fans on the internet. This impulse has turned the Beijing Olympics into a weekslong lesson in cross-cultural wordplay.
The motivation behind this phenomenon, as Zhou noted, is fairly simple. Official phonetic transliterations of international names into Chinese — a language whose written characters convey sounds but also distinct concepts and things — can be long, unwieldy and in producing strings of unrelated characters, basically nonsensical.
陈三 (‘Chen No. 3’)
But that same linguistic complexity makes the process of creating nicknames, for both domestic and international public figures, fruitful and fun for Chinese fans.
Names to Watch
- Kamila Valieva: The doping case surrounding the Russian figure skater, who will be allowed to compete but won’t be able to receive medals, echoes another dark Olympic era.
- Kaillie Humphries: The bobsledder, who left Canada after accusing her coach of mental abuse, won gold for the U.S. in monobob.
- Erin Jackson: The speedskater’s gold ended a U.S. drought and made her the first African American to medal in the sport.
- Chris Corning: The American snowboarder, who is more calculating and quiet than his competitors, thinks his sport has an image problem. He wants to fix it.
Methodologies for making them vary, from the simple to the puzzlingly referential: people zero in on physical characteristics or personality traits; play around with phonetic and visual puns; or toy with references to public utterances, news events or some bit of obscure history.
Eteri Tutberidze, who coaches several Russian figure skating stars, has an oddball nickname — “Instant Noodle Sister” (方便面姐) — that makes a lot more sense once you have seen her dense, blond curls.
This sort of evocative nicknaming has deep cultural roots in China, according to Shaohua Guo, a professor of Chinese language at Carleton College. Children receive nicknames to offset the earnestness built into the meanings of their given names. Even for adults, the relatively low number of common surnames in China, as well as given names that are typically only one or two characters long, provide more incentives for differentiating aliases.
“Chinese people almost compete over who can be most creative with these,” Guo said.
青蛙公主 (‘Frog Princess’)
Gu’s “Frog Princess” (青蛙公主) nickname, which she uses on her Chinese social media accounts, stems from a green helmet she once wore in competition. While that origin seems simple enough, Chinese fans online have also been using other nicknames this month that might require more explanation for outsiders.
Take “Guai Ling” (拐凌): Here, fans created a phonetic smoothing of the first two syllables of Gu’s Chinese name, Gu Ailing, to make a well-meaning joke about the fact that the she speaks Chinese with a Beijing accent. (The accent is often the subject of gentle ribbing in China for its contractions and jammed-up syllables.)
“It is a way for fans to express their affection for athletes,” said Yao Jiahui, 23, a figure skating fan from Hunan Province.
Yao, referring to Chen by his Chinese name, Chen Wei, noted that some fans called him “Tigger” (跳跳虎), using the Chinese translation for the Winnie the Pooh character.
“This comes from the popular recognition of his superior physical fitness and excellent jumping ability,” Yao said of Chen (who has been called some nastier names online this month by detractors).
One of Chen’s other nicknames, “Chen No. 3” (陈三), requires some understanding of international figure skating history. In the eyes of Chinese skating fans, he is the third prominent skater from North America with the Chinese surname Chen, which, in English, can also be spelled Chin, Chan or Tan, depending on the original dialect. Before him came Tiffany Chin, who was the U.S. national champion in 1985, and Patrick Chan, the 2018 Olympic gold medalist from Canada.
陈四妹 (‘Chen No. 4 Little Sister’)
Following this logic, the nickname “Chen No. 4 Little Sister” (陈四妹), has been given to another current American skater, Karen Chen.
“My mom told me about it because she sometimes likes to read the Chinese forums,” Karen Chen said. “It’s cute that they give us skaters nicknames. I like nicknames. My Instagram handle is @karebearsk8. It’s not professional — it’s literally from a nickname a friend would call me.”
In America, the obituaries for sports nicknames were written long ago.
Consider the sad bynames that litter the otherwise colorful landscape of the N.B.A. What remains is a collection of hollowed-out alphanumeric codes (KD, LBJ, CP3), uninspiring nods to body hair (The Beard, The Brow) and vague abbreviations (Melo, D-Rose).
Contrast that to the high-level wordplay powering the names N.B.A. stars receive from Chinese fans. For instance, Nick Kapur, a professor of East Asian history at Rutgers, pointed out that Klay Thompson was known to some Chinese fans as “Soup God” (汤神). Chinese fans often use “God” to refer to anyone highly skilled in some field. The Chinese character for soup is also the first character of the official transliteration of Thompson’s name.
汤神 (‘Soup God’)
“Some are more straightforward,” added Kapur, who wrote a viral Twitter thread on basketball nicknames a few years ago. “Charles Barkley was called ‘Flying Pig.’ He was kind of chunky, but he could also jump high. So they’re giving props, but also: ‘You’re fat.’”
Kapur said the nicknames could be ironic, affectionate and teasing all at once.
Take, for instance, “Bucket of Scallion” (葱桶), a nickname given to the Chinese Olympic figure skating duo of Sui Wenjing and Han Cong. Sui once made fun of her own physique, saying her waistline looked like a bucket. And in Chinese, the word for scallion is similar to the name Cong. So fans, naturally, put them together.
The logic behind “Daughter of a Wealthy Family” (千金) for Shcherbakova is both poetic and literal.
“Her overall performance is elegant,” Peng Minjian, 27, a figure skating fan from Jiangxi Province, said of Shcherbakova. “And she came from a rather wealthy family.” Peng runs a verified figure skating news account on WeChat and has several nicknames to his credit.
And then there is “K Baby” (K宝), the widely used nickname of Kamila Valieva, a 15-year-old Russian figure skating phenom, that nods to her youthful virtuosity. The name was echoing across social media this week after the revelation that Valieva had tested positive for a banned substance in the run-up to the Games.
葱桶 (‘Bucket of Scallion’)
Sui Wenjing and Han Cong
The names, fans and scholars said, tended to be created and tossed around by die-hard fans on social media platforms and message boards — as part of what Xin Yang, a language professor at Macalester College, described as China’s “carnivalesque online youth culture” — before crystallizing for wider use.
The Chinese short track speedskater Ren Ziwei, who won a gold medal in the 1,000-meter race, is nicknamed “Elephant” (大象), either for his large frame or his unstoppable presence, depending on the version of lore.
But it is the Russians, with their dominance in figure skating — the most popular Winter Olympic sport in China — and, yes, their sometimes long names, who seem to inspire the most creative naming.
Zhou pointed, for instance, to Alexandra Trusova, another Russian skater. Chinese fans on the internet refer to her as “Shasha” (莎莎) because of the basic transliteration of her Russian nickname, Sasha. But they also fondly call her “Czar” (莎皇).
“The way she skates is very dominating and bossy,” Zhou said. “Figure skating women are bound by traditional aesthetics — elegance and softness. But Shasha is not like that.”
Claire Fu contributed research.
Photographs by Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times (Nathan Chen); James Stukenberg for The New York Times (Gu); Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times (Karen Chen); Cary Edmondson/USA Today Sports (Thompson); Doug Mills/The New York Times (Sui and Han). Photo illustrations by The New York Times.