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The origins of Shanghai’s weird slur against outsiders

A worker recycles CD players at a workshop in the township of Guiyu in China's southern Guangdong province June 9, 2015.
Reuters/Tyrone Siu
What do hard drives and migrant workers have in common?
By Nikhil Sonnad
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Shanghai natives usually refer to the migrants who come to their city from elsewhere in China as waidiren, literally “people from another area.” That makes perfect sense. But there is another, more befuddling term for them: “hard drives.”

To find out why, we’ll have to look to a geeky internet forum, Chinese censorship, and a convoluted reference to hard-drive maker Western Digital.

Shanghai natives don’t much like waidiren, who they see as uncouth blemishes on their otherwise pristine city. Migrant workers have a tremendously difficult time getting recognized as locals by the hukou registration system, a severe blow to their economic and educational opportunities.

Here is a Weibo user (link in Chinese) responding to a post about a reprehensible waidiren security guard who regularly takes drinks from a corner shop without paying:

Having the same nationality as hard drives is truly humiliating.

Another response to that same post adds:

Hard drives have made the word “compatriot” completely repulsive.

So why ”hard drives?”

An answer posted to Quora summarizes the history as follows: Commenters on the popular Shanghai-based tech discussion forum kuaidishan, or “Broadband Mountain,” frequently expressed contempt for waidiren. That caused the word to be blocked from the forum.

In China, though, censorship usually just leads crafty internet users to find new ways of saying the same thing. Broadband Mountain switched to using an English acronym for waidiren, WDR. The forum blocked that, too. Then a few more variations were tried and banned. Being a forum for geeks, they substituted waidi (“another area”) with xibushuju, the Chinese name for hard-drive manufacturer ”Western Digital”. The last part of waidiren—the ren—just means “people,” so now they had “Western Digital People,” a kind of Chinglish acronym that resolves again to WDR.

And then that was blocked.

Finally they discovered on an unblockable phrase: “hard drive.” Finding examples of Weibo posts for this story that use the term in this way was no easy task, amid streams of news about actual hard drives. And what would a tech forum be if all mentions of “hard drive” were automatically removed?

A few other possible explanations are explored in a recent blog post from Victor Mair, professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, but the Western Digital origin story is the most widely accepted.

Upon discovering this usage, one Weibo user came to the perfectly logical conclusion (link in Chinese) that locals, or bendirenshould be referred to as “BDR”—”Blu-ray Disc People.”

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