Perhaps you've seen this character resembling a face somewhere. Perhaps you didn't even recognize it as a Chinese character; until recently, many native readers of the Chinese language themselves wouldn't have, either.
The character dates back thousands of years to the earliest Chinese script but fell out of common rotation. In 2005, however, it made a comeback; perhaps fittingly so, on a Taiwanese online forum. Those who saw it quickly noticed its resemblance to a face, particularly one expressing distress. The character quickly became an online icon (小图案 xiǎo tú'àn), or emoticon (表情符号 biǎoqíngfúhào), representing helplessness, defeat, sadness, or frustration. Its identical pronunciation to the character 窘 imparted upon the symbol the meaning "embarrassed" as well.
Jiong's popularity spread quickly to the Mainland, where it spread online through forum postings, chat software, and viral videos, and then made the transition back into the "offline" world as marketers and designers re-appropriated the character as an icon of sophisticated, urban, in-touch youth. It appears on T-shirts, bags, notebooks, and in 2008, Chinese sportswear manufacturer Li Ning released a pair of "Jiong" sneakers.
Online, the character is sometimes used in conjunction with "失意体前屈" or "Orz," another Internet-language phenomenon created c. 2002 on a Japanese online forum and meant to represent a person kowtowing or crawling under a table in despair, where "O" is the head and "rz" are the body and legs. "Orz" has many variants, including substituting 囧 for the "O" to represent extreme despair, as in囧rz.
This modern use of an ancient character is not without controversy, however, with detractors calling it a bastardization of classic Chinese language. But the character's original meaning itself is at best an educated guess; of the four meanings scholars have argued it to have, the most widely known among the public today is "brightness" or "light that shines in through the window."
This article was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 27 ("Faces").