From Shakespeare's pithy put-downs to insinuating someone knows his own mother in a biblical sense, the art of insulting people is strange, extremely colourful and varied across cultures and dialects.
Insults around the world often relate to bodily functions, intelligence, incest or social status. China's insults are no different. Many of the insults, especially the cruder ones, are obvious once you know a few words, and for the language student those words (hint: think genitalia and mating) can be found in most dictionaries and even on Google Translate.
But some of the best insults are more nuanced than just exchanging someone's given name with a four-letter epithet. While I am by no means an expert, here some of my personal observations on insults in the Middle Kingdom:
Jibe-slinging practice with yak. Photo: knowyourmeme.com
Lost (and found) in translation
Words that are benign in one language can take someone aback when translated to their mother tongue. If a stranger in the UK told me that I was "too fat," I'd be insulted, while in China, women faced with this accusation may just pat their bellies and agree that they'd like to drop a few pounds. Likewise, calling someone a "pig" is harsh in both Chinese and English, however loving Chinese couples may call their partner nicknames with "pig." As an experiment I tried this on my sweetie, and emphatically can't recommend using the word this way in English. Young Chinese people, though, have a different view: "It's a cute, intimate way to express feelings," one friend explained to me recently.
All visitors know that these lines are drawn somewhere in the sand; the problem is the wind is blowing and we're not always sure where the line between cultures lies. As author Jeff Yang wrote in a tongue-in-cheek comment published on the San Francisco Chronicle's website: "Call a Chinese person's baby ugly and she might forgive you, but tell her that Chinese food is disgusting and you have crossed a line that cannot be un-crossed."
Speaking of cuisine, my Cantonese-speaking friends often tell each other to "eat sh*t" or to "go die." In English those are awful things to tell someone over the lending of a two-RMB pencil. Funnily enough, Chinese learners are often drawn to the former insult because it is pronounced remarkably like an English word often used as a high compliment – "sexy."
I was a little disappointed to find on coming to China that most women I met don't curse as much as the men. "It's not ladylike," I was told. A few of them let loose after a beer or two but would blush redder than a lucky money packet if they heard profanity-laden American action movies accurately translated. One friend from Guangdong Province explained that she felt comfortable joking with insults that instructed her friends to do something, eat something, go somewhere, etc. but would feel bad if she traded more personal insults, like "you (fill in the blank)" with her galpals. I might take a friendly jibe at a girl by calling her a hooker in English, but if I translate that to Chinese, it sounds much worse than I meant it, for example the strong phrase "cheap goods" jian huo 贱货.
China has so many different regions and dialects, common insults have multiple variations. One sound can also be represented by a few written characters, which can soften or sharpen an insult. Other words might be too intrinsically funny to be offensive. One friend says in her opinion one of the worst Chinese insults—to call someone a turtle's egg wang ba dan 王八蛋, basically insinuating that they don't know their father—can be either funny or serious because it has the character egg, dan 蛋.
Also, as anywhere, your relationship with the speaker of the insult is important in how offensive it is. A friend from Hunan Province says she thinks even the sentence "You're a nuisance" ni hen tao yan, 你很讨厌 can be quite insulting, depending on the intention in the mind of the speaker.
The comical and the nonsensical
Many serious insults in Chinese may sound comical when translated to your native language—if someone thinks you're telling a baseless lie and selling you a load of bull, they might exclaim loudly, dogfart, goupi 狗屁. Also, telling a man that he's wearing a green hat (dai lu mao zi 戴录帽子) indicates the speaker thinks the man is a cuckold.
Strangely, some numbers can even be insulting in Chinese. Being called 250 or er bai wu 二百五 means they think you're a fool, and calling a woman a 3-8, or san ba 三八, is like saying she's a witch, only spelled with a 'b'.
The stories behind these insults are a little obscure—one story has it that 250 is half of the ancient standard measure of 500 and so it's the equivalent of saying someone is half baked or not playing with a full deck. Another story is that an emperor was offering a reward as a trick to catch some assassins but instead of one killer, four turned up. He couldn't prove if any of them were lying or not so he gave them each a quarter of the 1000-liang gold reward and then had them summarily beheaded. Calling a woman a 3-8 is a much more modern insult. It is said to refer to International Women's Day, held on March 8th every year. So it's accusing a woman of being an uppity feminist.
What you are can and will be used against you
Speakers of English may or may not find being called "low class" offensive, depending on their background, but in Chinese saying that someone has no taste, mei pin wei 没品味, is definitely insulting. Ni mei jiao yang 你没教养 or, 'you're not educated,' is another quick putdown that sums up a loss of credence of anything this person says or does.
Also, while in daughter countries like Canada and New Zealand, getting rich quick sounds like everyone's dream; in a country like China with a complicated history of personal wealth, calling someone nouveau riche or bao fa hu 暴发户 can also be an insult to their taste and refinement. Often, people who need to be taken down a peg or two get compared to farmers, as in the colourful phrase from West China which calls a hickish person a tu bao zi 土包子, or dirt dumpling, though a simple exclamation of 'peasant' nong min 农民 probably gets the point across.
For lesser slights, gentler, but still unkind insults include airhead (lit. silly melon) sha gua 傻瓜 and stupid ben dan 笨蛋.
Let's not forget that something as simple as the word 'foreigner' can be insulting to some ears, or from some lips. The widely used Cantonese term for foreign people "gweilo" or "ghost" is not exactly a warm soubriquet, though the speaker may not mean for it to be insulting. One of the least well-meant (but not the worst, I suppose) names for a foreign person in Mandarin is 'foreign devil' “yang gui zi” 洋鬼子.
During business negotiations people might be tempted to let fly with a muttered pian zi 骗子 'swindler' or shenjing bing 神经病 'sick in the head', but be aware that if these are used at work it will seem like a big loss of face for the person being called the name.
And, one final tip: If you think you're being insulted, a dignified response may be, 'Don't scold me" or "bu yao ma wo“不要骂我!
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Keywords: Chinese insults things not to say in Chinese swear words Chinese insulting someone in Chinese common Chinese slurs
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