chinese slang

 Chinese Slang — An Enduring Tradition

Chinese slang is certainly worthy of a book, and indeed several books have been written about the subject. However, in the old days most of them would have been “banned in Boston.”

It is a bit difficult to discuss Chinese slang because there are so many varieties, in terms of usage in different dialects as well as terms confined to specific sub-cultures.  Nevertheless, there is no doubt that slang expressions employed to heap scorn on others can be as salty as the Dead Sea. One gets the impression that Chinese and English are dueling for the title of “language most fecund in fetid expressions.”

Origins of "Slang"

Actually, linguists have not even come up with a hard-and-fast definition for what “slang” is. The origin of the term dates back to the 18th century when it was used to refer to the specialized vocabulary and idioms of marginal groups such as criminals and tramps. They used there own lingo in order to disguise the real content of their conversations from outsiders. Even today the primary goal in the use of slang is to identify with one’s peers. Yet, slang is not something to be dismissed out of hand as déclassé, since linguists and philosophers assure us that in many ways the metaphors we use shape the way we think and act. That is to say: language and culture are inseparable.

The term “slang” is now used generally used to refer to highly informal words and expressions not considered as standard in a language or dialect, whether newly coined terms or extended meanings for previously existing words. Slang is deliberately off color and designed to violate the dignity of serious speech through over-familiarity.  A good test of whether or not a word or expression is slang is to ask whether the speaker would be comfortable using that particular wording in the presence of an individual of higher social status or greater responsibility—such as a scowling boss. In many cases, slang is thus a flippant violation of social taboos. That is why there are so many slang words referring to things related to sex, the use of alcohol or drugs, violence, or unrestrained emotions such as anger or contempt. (Actually, some expressions can do double-duty; e.g. “I’m pissed.”)

Fast Quote
sales@thetranslationcompany.com
800.725.6498
Get a Quote Today!

Slang in Other Asian Languages

An interesting question is whether all languages are equally rich in terms of slang, especially insults and sexual references. Anyone who has lived in Japan for an extended period of time knows that the Japanese, although by no means devoid of vituperative language, do not in normal social intercourse engage in many foul-mouthed exchanges. The number of expressions regularly used to berate others seems rather limited. Perhaps it is a paucity of imagination that makes the irate Japanese blurt out the tried-and-true bakayaro, aho or chikusho (chusheng in Chinese). I, for one, am convinced that in a potty mouth contest with a Triad member or a busload of American high schoolers a Japanese yakuza would definitely come up on the short end.

Perhaps this is due to the fact that traditionally the Japanese language has relied heavily on grammatically stratified levels of speech and the extensive use of honorifics. If two individuals from different social classes were carrying on a conversation, the person of lower social rank would be expected to use honorific language, while his social superior could reply in far less polite language. It could all get quite complicated. Although in modern society language loaded with honorifics is less frequently used, except in business situations, the Japanese still frequently find it difficult to speak impolitely. In fact, one way of expressing criticism is to speak even more politely than one normally would in a given situation.

The Chinese language relies far less on the use of honorifics, although of course there are definite ways to express politeness or differentiate social status. Yet surely the Chinese tend to be more unrestrained in their use of expletives and insults than do the Japanese. That is readily apparent in quarrels between drivers or the bantering bickering at street markets. Of course, there are many expressions in modern Chinese slang which have been adopted from English (or even Japanese) or which have to do with specialized subcultures like the gay community (homosexuality is sometimes referred to as duanbei , literally “brokeback”), druggies (those who xidu – “suck drugs”) or netizens (many of whom have become experts at evading the GFW (Great Fire Wall) censorship imposed by the Chinese government).

Fast Quote
sales@thetranslationcompany.com
800.725.6498
Get a Quote Today!

Possible Modern Phenomenon

However, the question then arises as to whether Chinese slang is a modern phenomenon. Perhaps an unfortunate byproduct of the reform and opening up policy?  A little investigation readily shows that not to be the case. Some of the profane terms used for the sexual organs can be traced back for more than 1,000 years! That is certainly cultural continuity.

In this regard, there is a fascinating, recently reissued book titled Chinese Characteristics (1894), written by an American missionary by the name of Arthur H. Smith who spent four decades living in the Chinese countryside. A collection of entertaining and insightful essays originally published in a Shanghai newspaper, Chinese Characteristics is said to have been the most read and influential book about China by an American prior to the publication of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth in 1931.  Smith’s book was soon translated into Chinese (and retranslated again during the 1990s) and had an enormous impact on Lu Xun, perhaps modern China’s greatest writer. In fact, Lu advised his students to give careful study to the contents of this critique on the Chinese national character, since he believed that only by reforming themselves as individuals would the Chinese people be able to modernize and “stand up.”

Lu Xun himself certainly did learn from the book. The characters in his classic novella The True Story of Ah Q (Ah Q Zhengzhuan) seem to have stepped right out of the pages of Smith’s book.  Although Smith’s book would certainly not be considered politically correct by the post-modern academic crowd, it is a great read, with chapter titles like: “The Absence of Public Spirit,” “The Absence of Sincerity,” “The Absence of Sympathy” and “Contempt for Foreigners.” Smith obviously loved the Chinese people, but didn’t hesitate to point out their faults.

Fast Quote
sales@thetranslationcompany.com
800.725.6498
Get a Quote Today!

The Art of Badmouthing?

In his discussion of “social typhoons,” for example, Smith contended that the Chinese had raised the art of badmouthing to a high degree of perfection. He declared that this national talent for trash talking was instilled in children while they were mere tots, and that therefore it became second nature to all Chinese.

Smith notes in this regard: “The moment that a quarrel begins abusive words of this sort are poured forth in a filthy stream to which nothing in the English language offers any parallel.”

He points out that high government officials and Confucian scholars if provoked could spew forth venom as well as any fishmonger.  Smith characterized Chinese abuse as a “ball of filth” and always ear-splittingly loud. A Chinese quarrel was inevitably a reviling match full of low language and high words, with bystanders more often than not egging on the combatants. This is interesting because the Chinese are often characterized as a nation of pacifists. Yet psychologists point out that descriptions of arguments (like those of sports contests) tend to favor war metaphors, such as “indefensible position,” “shoot down his argument” or “demolish his argument.” Argument is war!

Smith also gives an interesting description of omnidirectional verbal assaults he calls “reviling the street.” For example, say someone had had their property pilfered, by whom he didn’t know. He might retaliate by climbing onto his roof and shrilly screaming invective at his invisible tormentor in a process of public reviling. It all boiled down to a matter of face. When two belligerents were engaged in a toe-to-toe shouting match—a form of street theater to maintain or cause loss of face—eventually a “peace-talker” was likely to step in. Even if such a peacemaker did not step forward, usually no serious physical harm resulted. In most instances, the worst that happened was that each of the two belligerents would end up pulling on his opponent’s pigtail. (Shades of Ah Q?) Smith considered it highly fortunate that the Chinese did not walk around carrying swords like the samurai.

Fast Quote
sales@thetranslationcompany.com
800.725.6498
Get a Quote Today!

Has anything really changed?

Not so much.

Lacking a Bible or other sacred text or a universally recognized Supreme Being to blaspheme, Chinese sadly do not possess the naughty, naughty talent for shocking by abuse of the sacred. A Chinese can make up for it, however, by going after an adversary’s ancestors with the incredibly nasty “Screw your ancestors” (Cao ni zuzong.)  Or he can raise the ante by mockingly adding “back eight generations” or better yet “eighteen generations.” That should be enough to make the honorable ancestors turn over in their graves. There are also numerous equivalents of the “Yo Mama” epithets to be found in the Urban Dictionary. Grandfathers and grandmothers can be readily substituted as the target of the declamation as well.

Since Chinese must be ever ready to produce a nasty put-down, quantitatively they probably stick to old mainstays like shoubuliao (“I can’t stand it”) qisiwole (“I’m  really angry.”) Or for more fire power, they can employ tamade (Damn!), wangbadan (literally a “tortoise egg,” but used to refer to “bastards” whether by birth or self-development), or qunide (“get lost” or “up yours”). However, because of their very frequency these insults or other similar expressions of discontent have become somewhat pro forma, so more loathsome alternatives have come into use so that the recipient will take the sting to heart.

It should be added that in Chinese eggs get a bad rap, as evidenced by the frequently used expressions bendan (fool), huaidan (wicked person), hutudan (“scrambled”—as in the head—egg) or qiongguandan (a “down-at-the-heels egg”). I know of no terms of endearment using egg, such as the British term “good egg.” This actually seems a bit odd since in the Chinese creation myth involving the production of the various elements of the physical universe from the body of the giant Pangu; all this takes place after the great progenitor’s birth within and subsequent emergence from a cosmic egg.

Fast Quote
sales@thetranslationcompany.com
800.725.6498
Get a Quote Today!

English Slang Compared to Chinese Slang

As in English, some of the nastier references in Chinese slang are to bodily orifices or the excretions produced by them. Seeing as how Chinese characters are at least partially pictographic, the hanzi used for these things can be quite graphically suggestive, even a bit shocking. For that reason, alternative characters are usually given in electronic dictionaries or computer programs. (If the terms are included at all.)The cao in the expression Wo cao (a phrase commonly used to express anger or for emphasis) is very much a case in point. Dog insults are also rife, such as gouzaizi (SOB),  goupi  (B.S.)  or gouzazhong (mongrel or “mixed blood”). Or pigs can be thrown in for good measure as in gouzhiburu (“worse than a cur or swine”).

Of course, not all slang results from a failure in anger management. When happy or impressed a Chinese might well declare something ku (derived from the English word “cool”) or niubi  (“awesome”). Food is never very far from the thoughts of a Chinese, so naturally there are any number of slang expressions involving vittles.  Chi doufu (“eat tofu”) means flirting with a girl (or maybe getting a little feel), and if the lady responds with dianyan (“electric eyes”) that could mean the fellow gains access to her mantou (literally “steamed buns,” but in this case referring to her breasts.)  The end result may be dallying in the land of “clouds and rain.”

Some slang has even been embraced by the educational establishment. For example, many textbooks for learning Chinese today teach the expression jiayou, which literally means “add gas” but is used to cheer on one’s favorite sports team or otherwise encourage someone. Perhaps, in the future some of the more obscene phrases will find their way into the mainstream. After all, in the English-speaking world it is not all that long ago that use of the term “jazz” was considered taboo in polite society. Now jazz is taught in the schools—along with The Great Gatsby.

Fast Quote
sales@thetranslationcompany.com
800.725.6498
Get a Quote Today!

But I guess that’s better than having the kids read Huahuagongzi  (Playboy magazine).

chinese communist jargon

Chinese Communist Jargon

It is impossible to understand modern China without at least basic familiarity with the history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). That, however, is not always such an easy undertaking. Despite the fact that the Party has been in control of the country (with the notable exception of Taiwan) since 1949, not only are the inner workings of the CCP byzantine and hidden to the eyes of outsiders (witness the recent case of former high-muck-a-muck Bo Xilai), there is also the problem of Communist jargon to be dealt with.

Introduction

The Chinese Communists have always had a penchant for formulating catchy phrases, often to accompany mass campaigns to mobilize the entire country, whether it be to ferret out class enemies or quite literally swat sparrows and flies. Often these for a time ubiquitous slogans enjoy the lifespan of a cicada, before being relegated to the dustbin of socialist history; their ultimate import having been proven to be as weighty as a pheasant feather.

At other times, Communist jargon has defined the stakes in some of the most important ideological battles in party history. For example, in 1963 at the height of the Sino-Soviet polemical battles, a philosopher and member of the CCP Central Committee by the name of Yang Xianzhen came under intense criticism, and was later jailed, for advocating the Hegelian position that two ideas or positions will combine into one through a process of growth and change. Yang’s philosophical concept was equated with the idea of peaceful coexistence then being promoted by USSR supremo Nikita Khrushchev.  Mao

Emerging Debate

Zedong and his followers countered that the only orthodox position could be “one divides into two” – i.e. the concept of “class struggle.” Already in 1957 in a speech entitled “A Dialectical Approach to Inner-Party Unity” Mao had declared, “One divides into two – this is a universal phenomenon, and this is dialectics.”

Actually, this debate on the unity of opposites (one) and the opposites in a contradiction (two) had long existed in classical Chinese philosophy. However, Mao used it as the basis for his line on class struggle elaborated in his famous treatise “On Contradictions.” Mao argued that contradictions are universal and that Chinese society (and the CCP itself) teemed with them. He and his associates therefore used this slogan as a cudgel to thump their opponents both within and without the party. In his drive for Party unity (of course under his thumb), Mao enlisted this concept as the philosophical justification for going after the “revisionists” he loathed so.

All of this helped set the stage for the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution.

Fast Quote
sales@thetranslationcompany.com
800.725.6498
Get a Quote Today!

CCP and the Cultural Revolution

Here it should be noted that although the CCP was founded in August 1921, in its early days when it was still tied to Moscow’s apron strings, it pretty much stuck to the formulaic standard Marxist-Leninist rhetoric. It was only after the Long March and establishment of the Party Center under Mao at Yanan that it really became linguistically adventurous.

Regardless of the fact that Mao Zedong’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was an unmitigated disaster for tens of millions of people, it did result in such an exuberant outpouring of incandescent polemical sloganeering that to date even the fire-breathing North Koreans have been unable to match it—despite admittedly heroic efforts.  Indeed at least a hundred linguistic flowers bloomed for translators working in the late 1960s, even if these blossoms were often of distinctly malodorous varieties.

China watchers in Hong Kong and elsewhere who were trying to fathom the momentous events taking place in the PRC and explain them to non-Chinese had to scratch their heads and try to make sense in English or other foreign languages of such epithets as the “Stinking Number Nine” (referring to intellectuals—considered the worst form of undesirable), “black gangs” (all targets for persecution), “monsters and freaks [demons]” (literally “cow ghosts and snake gods,” referring to scholars and cultural and ideological “specialists”), and the “Palace of Hell” (Mao’s name for the Chinese Communist Party’s Propaganda Department.)

Long before the cataclysm struck, Mao had been known for the earthy aphorisms he employed in attacking his political opponents. For example, he characterized members of the CCP who preferred a go-slow approach to agricultural collectivization as “tottering along like women with bound feet.” Incidentally, he had always enjoyed liberally lacing his speeches with scatological references, especially fangpi (literally “break wind”) for anything he wanted to denigrate as nonsense or “bullshit.”

Fast Quote
sales@thetranslationcompany.com
800.725.6498
Get a Quote Today!

Full Steam Revolution

Once the Cultural Revolution had picked up full steam and fanatical Red Guards were running amok, destroying art and religious treasures and annihilating their opponents (with the luckier ones simply being thrown into the “cowpen”—a euphemism for any kind of rathole), Mao was suggesting the “sign of a true revolutionary was his desire to kill.”  The Red Guards responded with revolutionary gusto: “Those who oppose Chairman Mao will have their dog skulls crushed.”

All in all, the Cultural Revolution might not have been a dinner party, or a time for writing essays or painting pictures, but it nevertheless was a language extravaganza.

One of the more imaginative inventions of China’s version of “Mad Men” was the cult of Lei Feng (which is occasionally revived with amusing results even these days) under the rubric “Lei Feng Spirit.” During the 1960s a mass nationwide movement was carried out to learn from this paragon of proletarian rectitude. But who exactly was Lei Feng?   Born into a poor peasant family in 1940, but orphaned at age seven, Lei Feng more or less grew up within the bosom of the CCP and joined the People’s Liberation Army and the Party itself in 1961. In August 1962, while serving with a transport unit near Shenyang in northeastern China, he was struck down by an errant log which fell off a nearby truck. Thus at the tender age 22 ended the illustrious career of Lei Feng.

However, the belongings (soon to be relics) which he left behind included a diary (which would be reprinted for nationwide distribution) and a bedraggled copy of the Selected Works of Mao Zedong. Lei Feng’s musings that he would like to become a model soldier and Party member, and that he delighted in going out of his way to help people were lauded as earth-shaking insights, and photographs or other renderings of his innocent face soon became commonplace everywhere in China. The Learn from Lei Feng Movement fitted in nicely with Lin Biao’s efforts to further politicize the PLA. Despite his premature demise, Lei Feng had earned Communist-style canonization.

It should be noted, however, that Lei Feng was not the only such Chinese Communist saint. During the Cultural Revolution, for example, “Iron Man” Wang Jinxi had been much praised. This drilling team captain in the Daqing oil field was said to “ignore his personal safety and exchange his life for oil.” Actually, this revolutionary dare-devil died of illness in Beijing in 1970 while serving as a member of the CCP Central Committee. Then there was Chen Yonggui, the crusty, patriarchal leader of the much-ballyhooed Dazhai commune in Shanxi province. The Maoists adopted “learn from Dazhai in agriculture” one of their favorite mantras, and although he could barely read Chen was made a vice-premier of the PRC. Chen was quickly put out to pasture after the Cultural Revolution.

Fast Quote
sales@thetranslationcompany.com
800.725.6498
Get a Quote Today!

Unfolding of Mao's Influence

No sooner had Mao’s chemically-enhanced corpse been readied for posterity than his “soulmate” Jiang Qing and the rest of the “Gang of Four” were arrested and thrown into the slammer by their CCP comrades. At the head of the Party now was Mao’s anointed successor (“With you in charge, I am at ease.” [Ni ban shi, wo fang xin]), namely the colorless Hua Guofeng, who made valiant but ultimately futile efforts to prevent the doughty and ever wily Deng Xiaoping from returning center stage. The one great sloganeering contribution made by Guo during his lackluster tenure was the “Two Whatevers.”  “We firmly uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made and we unswervingly adhere to whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave.” In other words, he was advocating “Maoism light.”

Wrapping himself in the Mao’s mantle did Hua little good however, as by 1980 Deng had effectively taken over control of the party. Hua was subjected to the traditional thousand cuts treatment, successively losing his positions as premier and Party chairman, and thereafter quickly fading into insignificance. His death in August 2008 went largely unnoticed since it occurred during the Beijing Olympics.  Suggestively, Hua Guofeng wasn’t even the guy’s real name. His real name was said to be Su Zhu, but he later adopted the revolutionary moniker “Hua Guofeng”—which might be translated as “spearhead for China”—when fighting the Japanese. Actually, there was some contention as to his real identity. At one point the Hong Kong media reported that he was actually the eldest son of Mao Zedong born out of wedlock (or at least he claimed to so be.)  Perhaps we could say Hua’s entire career was that of a living slogan, a cipher in proletarian garb.

Of course, Deng Xiaoping’s way with words became well-known worldwide.  He developed the concept of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (i.e. Party members + relatives and the rich shall inherit the earth).  His adage that it doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice also remains very much alive today.  This phrase has been embraced by feline lovers around the world (although rejected with scorn by fans of rodents.) Of course, Deng had no qualms about letting the dogs of war loose on the students and other protestors in Tiananmen Square either. In any event, Deng was far from a one-trick pony.

The tenures of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao as top guns in China were rather fallow in regards to sloganeering. Their representative policies were the “three represents” and “scientific-development outlook” respectively. Hardly soul-stirring.

Fast Quote
sales@thetranslationcompany.com
800.725.6498
Get a Quote Today!

New Catchphrase with the Current Leader – Xi Jinping

Things are looking up under the current leader Xi Jinping, who has come up with an intriguing new slogan for mass consumption, namely Zhongguo Meng.  Chen Sisi, the perky lead songbird of the musical troupe fielded by the PLA’s nuclear missile corps has even crooned about it in a hit song.  This catchphrase can be translated as either “China Dream” or “Chinese Dream” depending on how you care to interpret it. As with many campaign slogans, the interpretation is important. You will have to do the interpreting yourself, however, since the Chinese government has steadfastly refused to explain what it means.  Nevertheless, Xi has established the goal as the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by the middle of this century.  Some of the PRC’s neighbors might have the feeling that China has already revived quite enough for their taste.

In May 2013, Xi Jinping declared that China’s youth needed "to dare to dream, work assiduously to fulfill the dreams and contribute to the revitalization of the nation."  The most popular interpretation seems to be that it is merely a Chinese equivalent of the “American dream”—namely a promise of prosperity and “making it big.” It neatly encapsulates the promise of new opportunities and upward social mobility. Party cadres and educators speak of little else. Little kiddies are even getting into the act, penning essays or making drawings inspired by the hazy, lazy dream theme. All healthy fun, no doubt.

Fast Quote
sales@thetranslationcompany.com
800.725.6498
Get a Quote Today!

Interpretations and Implecations

However, a more sinister interpretation is also possible, namely that it is a nationalistic clarion call to pursue the path of big power chauvinism.  A blueprint for carving out China’s “place in the sun.” Such an interpretation was certainly not lost on the military audience Xi addressed in December of last year when he specifically spoke of a “strong army dream.”

That phrase undoubtedly reminded his listeners of the controversial 2010 bestseller by PLA senior colonel Liu Mingfu titled China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era. In that book Liu argued that China and the United States were engaged in competition as to which would become the most powerful nation in the world, and that there could be only one Numero Uno. The first step was for China to be able to prevent Washington from blocking the reabsorption of Taiwan or getting involved in the contentious South China Sea disputes. Liu believes that this duel for global supremacy does not necessarily have to result in another Pacific war, but that China should be ready for such an eventuality.

What would Confucius think of the “China Dream” phenomenon?

Surely not much. When once asked what would be his first move if allowed to run a government, the sage answered that he would engage in the “rectification of names.”

Or as the March Hare told Alice, “You should say what you mean.”






[recaptcha]




No Free Email Accounts


[recaptcha]