Life in the 2D World

All over the world, Japanese animation has become so well known that it has its own terminology and subculture. In China, some people are also obsessed with the world of Japanese anime, comics, and games (ACG, 二次元 èrcìyuán), so much so that they often don't leave the house or have difficulty functioning in the real world. These types of people are called otaku (a Japanese word), either as an insult or sometimes as a self-identifier. In Chinese, they are called 宅男 (zháinán) or 宅女 (zháinǚ).


As with any cultural label or stereotype, there are many ways to be a 宅男 (zháinán) or 宅女 (zháinǚ). The most visible way is to dress up as a character from an animated series, comic book, or game. Most often this kind of cosplay (dressing up in costume) can be seen at comic conventions,  colloquially referred to as a comic con. Thousands of people pay tribute to their favorite characters by dressing as them, sometimes even acting out their favorite scenes or stories. Other people adopt a character's style -- in part or entirely -- every day.

In China, the main characteristic of 宅男 (zháinán) and 宅女 (zháinǚ) is someone who prefers to stay at home to engage in their hobby or fascination with anime, comics, or games, spending much of their time in the 2D world 二次元 (èrcìyuán). They often are not comfortable functioning in 三次元 (sǎncìyuán), or the 3D real world, and avoid face-to-face social situations when possible. In recent years, as comic books have become successful Hollywood movies and, therefore, more socially acceptable, some people are casual fans of these once-nerdy entertainment forms.

Chinese animation and comics are not very popular, even among native speakers. The most popular animated and illustrated entertainment continues to be produced by Japan, the worldwide leader in illustrated subculture entertainment since the 1980s. TV shows and movies are imported to China and either dubbed or subtitled. Many people travel the short distance to Japan to purchase comics and see movies in cinemas there, one of the few reasons 宅男 (zháinán) and 宅女 (zháinǚ) will leave the house to indulge in their hobby.

So the next time you see someone wearing a fantastical outfit with brightly colored hair, you'll know that it's not Halloween or a costume party, most likely it's a 宅男 (zháinán) or 宅女 (zháinǚ) living in 二次元 (èrcìyuán).

This article is part of our new online Chinese course. An efficient way to learn Chinese language for working and living in China.