Why is a mobile phone in China known as a shouji (手机, roughly, “handset”)? At least in the 1990s, some people knew the rare machine as a dageda (大哥大). I’ve been reading Jack Linchuan Qiu’s new book, Working-Class Network Society: Communication Technology and the Information Have-Less in Urban China (MIT Press, 2009), and he offers some background:
The term shouji was popularized by a blockbuster movie a few years ago about how the mobile phone influences upper-class Chinese families, especially in extramarital affairs (53–54).
Qiu’s aim is to understand the ways working-class people use information and communication technologies, but first he remembers his first encounter with a mobile phone in 1996. He and his friends called it dageda.
Gangster movies from Hong Kong played a major role in popularizing the device as dageda, meaning literally “Big-Brother-Big,” which was the default nickname for a mobile phone in the 1990s. Socially, dageda was very different from shouji, although the underlying technology was roughly the same. One has to be a Big Brother (dage, i.e., a powerful man) to enjoy dageda connectivity. The assumption is gendered, excluding gang outsiders, and very much about power hierarchy. In movies, dageda is usually used by the Big Brother of some group to negotiate drug deals or send out fateful commands such as assassination orders or the release of a hostage. Sometimes it is also an assault weapon because it is thick and heavy (54).
There you have it. The next time I have something very important or illegal to do, I’ll call my phone something else. Qiu writes that the move to the more widespread distribution of mobile phone use and the attending massive price drop makes the shouji concept more current and less exclusive, but I hope that doesn’t make us all prone to extramarital affairs.