At a mere $492 USD*, Apple is offering its latest iPhone at a much more palatable price for its fans in mainland China than previous iterations. Nevertheless, the term “kidney machine” (肾机, our translation) is still used to refer to Apple’s smartphones.

I bought a new phone. I'm no longer a 'kidney phone-ian', gonna use the leftover money to buy games.
Bought a new phone. I’m no longer a ‘kidney phone-ian’, gonna use the leftover money to buy games.
Screenshot (492)
Sh*t, got water into my “kidney machine”!
Screenshot (493)
I finally have money for a “kidney machine”, though only enough to buy a “kidney machine” 6.

A Kidney For An iPhone

Four years ago, a 17-year-old boy from Anhui province sold one of his kidneys in order to buy an iPhone. Through Tencent’s QQ messaging app, he connected with several black market kidney agents who found a buyer for his kidney and made arrangements for the surgery. After the operation was over, the 17-year-old received 22,000 RMB for his kidney (link in Chinese). Subsequently, his health began to deteriorate.

Thus, the term “kidney machine” was born. It’s worth noting that at the time, iPhones weren’t exclusive just because they were insanely expensive. Even if you had the money – in those days, an iPhone ran for about 10,000 RMB or almost 1,500 USD – you might not be able to buy one due to a limited stock of iPhones in mainland China. Hardcore Apple fans from China, as well as enterprising Apple resellers, would sometimes travel all the way to New York City to line up for an iPhone (or several).

Though iPhones are much easier to get a hold of nowadays, the term “kidney machine” has stuck. Even with the rise of higher end Chinese phones, such as Huawei’s Mate series, iPhones are still the most expensive smartphone in China. For now, the “kidney machine” label belongs to Apple.

‘Lost In Translation’ is a weekly column that covers netizen-speak from China’s Interwebs. China’s internet slang is a fast-moving linguistic phenomenon and staying fresh has never been harder. Here, you’ll find new words or phrases every week with a breakdown of what they mean, how they’re used, and how they came to be.

*This price refers to the 16 GB iPhone 5SE. The 64GB version is sold for about $612 USD in mainland China.

Eva Xiao is a tech reporter based in Shanghai. Contact her at or evawxiao (wechat & twitter).

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