We’ve discussed Spanish and Russian swearing, and had a brief go at Chinese; now, courtesy of Dinesh Rao, I direct your attention to a more detailed post on the latter over at From a Singapore Angle, wherein a Chinese article by Lin Siyun, “Inquiry into the Chinese and Foreign Philosophies of Swearing,” is discussed and in part translated. Some very interesting stuff:

When a person does something wrong, the usual way in other countries is to swear at the culprit himself; the Chinese way is not to abuse the culprit directly, but to swear at his mother and ancestors. Foreigners found this peculiar way of doing things very hard to understand: This person did wrong, what’s it to do with his mother or ancestors? Anglo-Americans will say “F— you”, but usually not “F— your mother”; the Japanese will say “You bakaro“, but normally not “Your ancestors bakaro.” (bakaro = 馬鹿野郎 or ばかやろう; roughly, “dumbass”.)
And when the Chinese swear, they seldom use terms that displays racial discrimination (unlike the case of the Anglo-Americans), and in any case, such terms are rare in the Chinese vocabulary. Take the often encountered waiguo guizi (外國鬼子; i.e., “foreign devil”): if we were to think it through, we’ll realize that it actually contains an element of “respect”. It seems that the Chinese would only call those foreigners who had been able to bully or invade them “devils”—such as meiguo guizi (美國鬼子; i.e., “American devil”) or riben guizi (日本鬼子; i.e., “Japanese devil”). China fought wars with India and Vietnam before, but they don’t usually say yindu guizi (印度鬼子; i.e., “Indian devil”) or yuenan guizi (越南鬼子; i.e., “Vietnamese devil”)—it is as if these are not good enough to be guizi.

I don’t agree with everything the author has to say about English swearing, but I’m glad to know about the distinction in deviltry.


  1. Sarcy Fenian says

    Hmm, interesting. I can remember at home a choice insult was the displaying of the middle finger (what the Germans call “der Stinkfinger”, if I remember rightly) accompanied by the exclamation, “yer mother!”
    Comparitive swear-formations in Gaelic and Mandarin — there’s a research grant in there somewhere…

  2. “And when the Chinese swear, they seldom use terms that displays racial discrimination.”
    Of course not. Instead of being bigots, the Chinese admire those of other races to such a great extent that they name toothpaste after them.

  3. they seldom use terms that displays racial discrimination (unlike the case of the Anglo-Americans)
    I have to wonder what type of Anglo-Americans the author is hanging out with.

  4. Jimmy Ho says

    A syllable (ya) is missing in the transcription for the Japanese “national insult”: it should be bakayarô, according to the kana added by Huichieh Loy and the Chinese transcription used by Lin Siyun in the original article (bagayalu 八嘎牙路).
    Wouldn’t the right equivalent of “Nigger” and “Jap” be “Chink”, rather than “Chinaman”?

  5. Jimmy Ho says

    Articles about “national linguistic habits” are by nature easy to criticize, but it is obvious that, as Christopher Culver mentions rather ironically, Lin’s statement about the “seldom” use of racial slurs in Chinese is inaccurate. Heigui (Cantonese hag gwai) 黑鬼 is another -very common- kind of “devils” she omits to mention (even when talking about the English N-word), the black ones. I’d be the last person to say that there is no serious racism in China. However, I don’t think the infamous Darlie (fka “Darkie”) / Heiren 黑人 (the neutral denomination for Black people) toothpaste/peppermint is the right example to pick. That poison is a Western product (you can see here that in an early version, it was simply phonetically transcribed as Teqi 特奇).
    Did you know that there is a “pirate” version called “Bairen yagao” 白人牙膏 (White man toothpaste)?

  6. Jimmy Ho says

    “Phonetically transcribed as Teqi 特奇”
    I should have written the Cantonese reading: deg kei, which was probably the basis for the transcription from English. Blame it on my Mandarin bias.

  7. bathrobe says

    I’ve heard 老黑 used to describe a black man.

  8. Though we Americans rarely resort to taking pot-shots at a fellow’s mother as an immediate explatives, we do have an entire category of insulting jokes named just for the occasion of insulting someone’s poor mother. Interesting article, though.

  9. bathrobe says

    As for Darkie toothpaste, I was under the impression that it was originally a Malaysian brand. I actually remember when they changed the name. ‘Darkie’ belongs to an era when racial epithets were still allowed in English. Times changed, and so did the name of the toothpaste. Perhaps because 黑人 is not a racially offensive term (unlike ‘Darkie’), I presume they didn’t feel the need to change the Chinese name.

  10. Hi: I’m the guy who translated Lin’s article. Thanks for the link by the way.
    re: bakaro / bakayaro –basically, my bad. Adding a note to correct it.
    Lin does have a paragraph in which he gives an account for the origins of the phrase. According to him, it’s from a story in the Shiji (史記), the historical classic written in the Han Dynasty. You can read that story here:
    re: racial slurs. I think Lin should not have conflated them with the generic swear. Obviously the Chinese have their (our) share of racist attitudes and racial slurs. That aside, the question whether any broad conclusions about culture can be drawn from the default insult/swear (the ones people use on each other within the culture, say) is still an interesting one.
    Finally, I would take Lin with a good pinch of salt–it’s very likely that a polemical context is involved (the last para. about swearing in the internet chat rooms).

  11. Lin is trying way too hard to make the Chinese appear distinctive. I would guess that abusing someone’s mother or ancestors is one of the most common types of abuse that crosses human cultures. In Arabic “koss ummak”, in Russian “yob tvoyu mat'”, in Italian “figlio di puttana” (which insults your mother indirectly, as does the very common Anglo-American “son of a bitch”) are all extremely common.

  12. Jimmy Ho says

    That follows the laowai 老外 model. There is a similar, but more directly pejorative construction in Greek (palio-).
    Lao 佬 ending is also common (Meiguo lao, Riben lao, etc.), and has a disturbing popularity in the West with the Cantonese gwai lo 鬼佬 (Mand. ‘guilao’), which some people in Hong Kong are taught to replace with the allegedly more polite yêng yen 洋人.

  13. Jimmy Ho says

    (I was responding to bathrobe.)

  14. I would definitely agree that Lin is trying too hard. But I think a distinction can be made between insults that abuse the mother directly and the actual target only indirectly, as compared to those that abuse the target directly but indirectly hits the mother as well. “SONB”–which, incidentally, has perfectly good Chinese equivalents–would be in the latter category. I do not know Arabic or Russian so I can’t tell if “koss ummak” and “yob tvoyu mat'” belong with the first or the second category. But examples of the first category from other languages would be interesting. In English, there are, of course, the “your mother is so…” series of insults.

  15. Hi, Huichieh,
    I asumed ‘bakaro’ was a typo, since you had the right kana, evidenced by a link to the Japanese Wikipedia.
    The problem with general (national-level) swearing studies is that the “default insult” doesn’t say much about one’s culture if you don’t conflate it with the other swearing alternatives specific speakers may have in mind. If a Taiwanese insults me in Guoyu (it being our only common language), I have to know what he would say if we were speaking in Taiyu before I start drawing conclusions.

  16. From another Lin Siyun column (about the use of ‘Shina’ in Japanese):

  17. Jimmy: Good point. ‘National level’ generalisations are always rather iffy, especially considering as complex a case as China. I believe this is so especially for the groups whose native dialect is not exactly close to putonghua–i.e., in the south.
    Incidentally, I’ve never heard “cao ni ma” in Singapore before, even among the putonghua (we call it huayu) speakers. The most common swears here are Hokkien (a cousin of taiyu) and Cantonese based. (But even then, many of the more common ones do directly abuse the mother…)
    What do the taiyu speakers say anyway?

  18. Funny, the “shina” article was the one I was looking for when I stumbled upon his “cao ni ma” article.

  19. Why is ? an element in insults? Does it mean something other than “old” in this context?

  20. This is how I see it: neither 老- and -佬 are themselves perjorative. 老 is a very common prefix that can be found in all sorts of friendly or endearing contexts; e.g., 老+surname as a form of address. Likewise 佬, which is basically just “guy” or “fella”. 和事佬 = peacemaker (“peacemaking guy”). Even 美國佬 = Yankee (“American fella”). Some -佬 and 老- combinations are perjorative, but I don’t think it’s simply because of the lao.

  21. Swearing by/at mothers used to be perfectly non-existent in Swedish. The preferred area was not for example religious entities, like God and his family, but mainly the underworld and its inhabitants.
    Nowadays, I’m sad to say that the 他妈的 ta made / ёб твою мать type has been introduced and is increasingly used among young people. To me, it is disgusting, and not even carrying a fraction of the force of Hell and its occupants.
    OTOH, the 他妈的 seems to have been diluted into meaninglessness, like the famous case of the USAian college girl’s “Shit, I stepped in the poopoo.” There’s an interesting short story by no less than Lu Xun, from 1925, on the Chinese expression. Unfortunately, I have it only in a Swedish translation from 1974, so I don’t know where to find the original.

  22. A copy of the original Lu Xun essay is here:
    I’m halfway through working on an English translation.
    Yes, “tamade” and “made” are rather diluted. This is from the ending of Lu Xun’s essay:

  23. caffeind says

    >they don’t usually say yindu guizi (印度鬼子; i.e., “Indian devil”)
    A friend from Malaysia (native Cantonese speaker) told me the traditional term of abuse there was “Kaling gwai”, derived from the former kingdom of Kalinga in South India.

  24. 特奇 teqi means something like “especially strange”. A lot of phonetic translations can also be parsed for meaning. It was not really less pejorative than hei ren “black man”.

  25. John Emerson says

    Huichieh: There is an American joke:
    A: “Hey, guy, I fucked your mother”.
    B: “Go home, Dad. You’re drunk.”

  26. “Canto-core” band Say Bok Gwai (Die White Devil) does a song “Chinese Racism” with the memorable chorus “Hak gwai, bok gwai, hak gwai, bok gwai”. The low and high tones of “hak” and “bok” contrast nicely. MP3 at:

  27. bathrobe says

    Mandarin has a lot of ways of abusing people.
    I like 丫挺, short for 丫头养的, which I understand means ‘a bastard brought up by a low-class single mother’ (someone might know better).
    I also like 老不死, a term of abuse for an old person (an ‘old thing that refuses to die’).

  28. bathrobe says

    With regard to ‘bakayaro’, many Chinese know the expression as ‘bakaro’. This is presumably because this was how it was heard at first hand during WII. When spoken roughly, coarsely and rapidly, as it no doubt was by Japanese troops, it sounds very much like ‘bakaro’ (or bagharo’). As an aside, if you pronounce the Japanese word ‘bara’, meaning ‘rose’, with a strong French accent (i.e., uvular r), you will get ‘baka’ pretty much as it is pronounced by rednecks and yakuza.

  29. I have only recently acquired any sustained interest in Chinese, let alone any competence in it or comprehension of swearing in it. But I had heard that I fucked your mother was the standard theme in the relevant domain, rather than anything to do with the person addressed being implicated in the cao thing with tade ma, which seems generally to be the line adopted here. So, what’s most idiomatic and correct? Wo cao… or ni cao…? I’d hate to be caught committing some social gaffe…

  30. Jimmy Ho says

    John, “teqi” could as well be read as “particularly/remarkably extraordinary”, as a characterization of the peppermint’s effect (on breath, etc.). Both ‘te’ and ‘qi’ are very common in brand names and advertizing. You are of course quite right to note that it is not merely a phonetical transcription, nonetheless, there is no direct connection to Black men, except for the fact that, when read deg kei (in Cantonese) it transcribes the English word “Darkie”.
    “Heiren” is not a pejorative word. It is the usual, polite, neutral way to refer to Black people (and it is actually the word used in the official decision to impose the change of the “Darkie” logo). “Heigui” is an unambiguously racist expression and the closest to “nigger” or “darkie”, while “laohei” seems to be in between (it sounds condescending to me, but I’m interested to hear about it from native speakers, since I myself have only witnessed the use of “heigui”).

  31. Jimmy Ho says

    Huichieh, I’m sorry, I realise that I owe you a few responses as well. i’ll try to come back later. (Oy, and I also have to respond to LH, my fellow LKJ and Cavafy amateur!)
    Bathrobe, I didn’t know about bakaro in China. May I ask you from which area were the people you heard it from?

  32. Noetica: I can’t believe that I am actually handing out advice about swearing… (“Is it time to have a chat with the reverend? Dear,” I can imagine my wife saying…), but here it is. The standard form cao ni ma has the implied subject “I”–so, the reconstructed full form would presumably be *wo cao ni ma…, but I’ve never heard that before. The slightly more impersonal ta ma de is more akin to an exclamation (general “for effect” swearing, say, rather than swearing aimed directly to abuse someone), since the explicit subject is a “his”.
    Incidentally, I think it is good linguistics to differentiate between the two sorts of speech situations–swearing at someone, and swearing for effect (even if with the aim of making someone uncomfortable).
    Contrast “F— you” said by one person to another, with “this piece is f—ing awesome, man” also said by one person to another (in a music store, say). In the latter, the person could be aiming at making, say, making the other people in the store uncomfortable; but the speech situation is still different from the first case.
    Jimmy: No problem.

  33. bathrobe says

    I heard ‘bakaro’ in Beijing, from quite a few people. It’s very well known. (I used it once at a taxi driver — from a distance, of course — and got a visible response.)
    Also, my understanding is that the ‘ta made’is short for ‘cao ni ta ma de ge bi’. Ehem!
    And as for the distinction between swearing at someone and swearing for effect, one has to be careful. The mere use of ‘ta ma de’ can be construed as swearing at someone, even if it was used ‘for effect’.

  34. Thanks for the edification, Huichieh Loy. I’ll now get back to my study of the rudiments, as opposed to the rude-I-meants.

  35. Noetica: You are welcome…
    Bathrobe: That was very helpful! At one point in his essay, Lu Xun coyly said that he has in fact removed a verb and a noun, and changed it from to the third person in talking about tamade. I guessed that the verb had to be cao, and ni has been substituted by ta. But I wasn’t sure what the dropped noun was. Can you tell me which ge and which bi this is? (If you can enter Chinese characters.)
    re: swearing at vs. swearing for effect. The distinction is not in the words used, but the character of the speech situation. Presumably some swears could be used for both purposes… Context will be determinative in those cases.

  36. bathrobe says

    ‘ge’ is 个, ‘bi’ is a character I’m not sure of, but it means ‘cxxt’. Could it be this one? 屄

  37. bathrobe says

    By the way, when I say that ‘bakaro’ is well known in Beijing, I don’t mean that people use it with each other. It’s just that it seems to have become part of Chinese folklore what the Japanese said during the war and everyone knows it.
    Another well known Japanism is ‘mishi mishi’, for chi fan 吃饭. This is obviously a mangled version of the Japanese word ‘meshi’, which is a masculine word for ‘gohan’ (rice, food, meal).

  38. bathrobe says

    A final comment: I think 丫头养的is actually a reference to a person’s mother being a servant.

  39. bathrobe says

    A final comment: I think 丫头养的is actually a reference to a person’s mother being a servant.

  40. Jimmy Ho says

    I heard ‘bakaro’ in Beijing, from quite a few people. It’s very well known.
    That’s interesting. I never stayed too long in the North, so I guess I didn’t have the opportunity to hear it (or maybe I wasn’t paying attention).
    Cao ni ma ge bi” is indeed very common, though I am much more used used to the very common Cantonese version, “diu nei lou mou hai” 丢你老母*. A “joke” some Cantonese youths find amusing is to greet foreigners with “Hai lou!” and watch them smile and reply. They hear “hello!” when they have just been called “cunt-guys”.
    Taiwanese rapper MC HotDog 热狗 has a funny song (despite some unnecessary sexism) called “Hanliu laixi” about how bad TW pop sucks and there ought to be a Chinese alternative to Korean Hip Hop. The refrain starts with “Cao ni ma ge bi” repeated several times. The lyrics booklets renders it as “操你妈个B”. Note that they romanized the last word (I am not sure either about the character for Cant. “hai”) and the “cao” is not written with the specific character (“penetrate” + “flesh “).
    Then, there is the infamous character “gan”, and “qu ni”, “qu ni made” (see a well-known Cui Jian song), etc.

  41. Jimmy Ho says

    I think 丫头养的is actually a reference to a person’s mother being a servant.
    A very young servant (can we say ‘maid’ here? yatou was a servile condition in the “old society”) is indeed the meaning of the word (which is before all a synonym of ‘nühai’ or ‘guniang’ = ‘girl’), but you were right about “a bastard brought up by a low-class single mother”, since a yatou is not supposed to be married, and even less so, to have any children. The insult does imply that the person it is addressed to is a “bastard”, an “illegitimate” child.

  42. Bathrobe says

    People in Beijing trot out ‘bakaro’ when they find you can speak Japanese 🙂

  43. When I lived in Changsha (Hunan Province), the racial/ethnic slurs were laowai, yanggui (not weiguo guizi), and da bizi (big nose). Mostly they were used lightheartedly (at least in my presence). Da bizi is interesting to me because it refers not to the length or overall size of the nose, but to the high bridge of the nose more typical of europeans.
    a curse i heard most often was ‘dogfart’ (goupi) or fan gou pi.

  44. Yes, I heard ‘dogfart’ in Taiwan as well.

  45. There is also a Chinese word meaning ‘dog semen’ (gousong, I think it is) that is used to indicate something worthless.

  46. all this is way to in depth for me i just want to know what this guy is saying to me in a game(WOW)i play.
    This is what he say’s: wo cao ni ma de da …and then a bunch of capitol B’s ……anyone know what this is and maybe tell him off in his own language ? he’s a chinese gold farmer on this game.
    thanks in advance

  47. Read the comments above yours. It’s all there.

  48. QWe’re going to China in March. Just want to know what to listen for that might be an insult (I assume I’ll know by the circumstances and tone of voice) and how to respond. I have a bunch of textbooks to study and I assume that they, like all language textbooks, will focus only on nice, polite things to say and hear.
    I’ll be traveling with my wife, so I assume I will have no need to learn that other vast, uncharted linguistic territory that textbook language lessons tiptoe around: sex.

  49. QUOTE JAMES—————————————
    all this is way to in depth for me i just want to know what this guy is saying to me in a game(WOW)i play.
    This is what he say’s: wo cao ni ma de da …and then a bunch of capitol B’s ……anyone know what this is and maybe tell him off in his own language ? he’s a chinese gold farmer on this game.
    It means ill ***** ur mother and the BBBBB mean tits. Say his a dirty gold farmer by saying * ni zhe ge si nong ming. Chao ni zhi ji the ma.

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