The word suzhi has become central to contemporary China governance and society. Reference to suzhi justifies social and political hierarchies of all sorts, with those of "high" suzhi being seen as deserving more income, power and status than those of "low" suzhi. This article examines the rise of the word's popularity during the reform era, the ways in which its meaning has been transformed, and the relationships of the word to earlier discourses. It proceeds through three sections: a linguistic history, a genealogy of related discourses and an analysis of the contemporary sociopolitical context. The historical section focuses on the spread of the word across various political and social contexts during the reform era. It examines the ways in which the word operates semantically and the challenges to translation these semantic structures pose. The genealogical section explores the historical antecedents of the meanings of the word in earlier political and social discourses both in and out of China. Finally, the sociopolitical section examines the uses to which the word is put and asks what the rise of suzhi discourse tells us about contemporary China's governance, culture and society.