Emoji first emerged in Japan in the 1990s as a way for people to quickly communicate through visual information. They’ve become mainstream around the world thanks in part to the rise of smartphones and social media platforms.


But while emoji are familiar to many, the same symbols can have different meanings in different cultures.


China is a case in point. The country is known for generating creative, peculiar internet memes—ones sometimes deployed to subtly mock authorities. People there have also developed a system for using emoji subversively so that a smiley face can actually convey contempt.The Chinese use emoji primarily on the nation’s two biggest social media platforms: Weibo, with its 313 million monthly users, and WeChat, with its 700 million. The emoji keyboards in these services offer symbols and a style different than what you’d find in, say, WhatsApp.


Here’s a quick guide:


Smiley Face


On the surface: Happiness.

Chinese Meaning: A despising, mocking, and even obnoxious attitude.


Background: The upper “muscle movements” here could explain why the face is considered less friendly and more hostile. “If you take a closer look at the eyes, the orbicularis oculi (the muscle near that upper eye corner) does not move, and the orbicularis oris (the one near the mouth) tightens, which is a sign of suppressing a smile,” notes An Yong, a user on Zhihu, China’s answer to Quora. The answer has garnered some 16,000 likes since last June.


Guidance: Don’t use it as an expression to say you’re happy about something. Maybe use these instead, since the muscle movements seem to be smiling genuinely:


Smiley Face With a Waving Hand


On the surface: Goodbye with a smiley face.

Chinese Meaning: “I despise you and really don’t want to talk with you. Please go away.”


Background: Thanks to the smiley face, this is not a simple goodbye, but rather a mocking expression used to respond negatively to whatever one objects to.

Guidance: If you see this emoji, you might want to change the topic, or just keep your mouth shut. If you wish to retaliate sarcastically, consider sending back two waving hands. Or just deploy