Tag Archives: Chinese folk speech

Chinese Insult


  • Original Script: 成事不足 敗事有餘
  • Romanization: Cheng Shi Bu Zu Bai Shi You Yu
  • Transliteration: Complete things not enough fail things have sufficient
  • Translation: You’re not competent enough to accomplish important things, but when it comes to failing you’re really good at it.

Context: My mom taught me this. She didn’t really teach me this I guess, she used it to describe my brother. You normally use this when someone makes a stupid mistake. I think it’s funny. Definitely Chinese speakers would have heard it before. You use it to roast someone. I would be offended if someone used it on me but in a lighthearted way. It’s a phrase that’s been around for a long time.

Analysis: This insult is an example of humorous folk speech that serves to embarrass someone else while being able to hide behind the notion of humor. Using folklore speech in this situation might be a way of relying on a sort of “vernacular authority” instead of directly insulting someone which could disclaim individual blame. Because humor is very specific to culture, this insult being common in Chinese culture might suggest that they have a more blunt and harsh culture in comparison to American culture where this insult might be taken more seriously.

Slogan: “Two lines, one stripe, 干!”

Text: “两横,一竖,干!”
Pinyin (Simplified): liang heng, yi shu, gan
Translation: Two horizontal, one vertical, fight!

G is a Chinese international student from Anhui Province, Hefei City in China. During high school, he played in a soccer team.
G: “It’s about my soccer team in high school. It’s what we do before game. It’s a like slogan that we do before a game. Every player comes and together to form a circle and we put our hands together and we yell it. And the slogan goes “两横,一竖,干!” It’s not really a good translation, it’s like fighting but not in a good way. We’re using it positively but not in a good way. It’s almost near “f**k” but it’s a positive way we’re using it.”

There is an interesting juxtaposition to be mentioned with the positive denotation of such a negatively connoted word in this chant. This folk phrase, or folk chant is said for good luck and to release tension. It invokes a feeling of unity and comradery between players, which completely changes the meaning of the word in this specific context and therefore, changes the tone of the chant. On the surface level, it is merely a saying that describes how to write the word “干“ in Mandarin. The word itself, as G describes, means something negative and almost taboo whenever spoken aloud in a social setting different from this one. Perhaps because of the presence of the specific competitive sport team-player like atmosphere and tension about competing at all, this phrase seems to take the aggression of the phrase and repurpose into a chant of good luck and release of nerves. The act of doing it with fellow team members joins this community together and that they have something to share strengthens their bond. The meaning changes once it is uttered aloud in this context, making this folklore exclusive to this group of people and therefore only understandable to those who can understand the context that it is said in. This phrase has the exclusive purpose of bringing good luck and releasing tension similar to that of a charm.

Phrase: “A Senior is Half a Teacher”

Text: “一个学长,半个老师”
Pinyin (Simplified): yi ge xue zhang, ban ge lao shi
Translation: One senior is half a teacher.

N is a junior at USC, majoring in Communications. N is an international student from China, Anhui Province. When N was a high school student, he was in a soccer team on campus which is the community he refers to in this phrase.
N: “There’s this sort of tradition, more like a phrase. The phrase is ‘一个学长,半个老师’ (yi ge xue zhang, ban ge lao shi). It’s like, ‘a senior is equal half a teacher, or half a coach. It’s part of a tradition in my soccer team when a junior would just, like, make the freshmen do whatever they want them to do. That’s just a tradition, I guess.”
Is that like a criticism of experience?
N: “I think it’s because in China, the people who go to sports, they don’t need to have really good grades. They just go to high school or college with their sports, they just go to practice. They’re more like a street gang, like a clique. So, because they’re bad, they want to control the people who are new.”

This phrase is circulated throughout the students. It isn’t a proverb which relays some form of wisdom or life lesson to the listener and it is also not a joke, as there is no humor behind the reality of the statement. It observes a complex power dynamic and metaphorically summarizes it in a concise way, likely as a call to how unfair such a hierarchy is and an acknowledge about the inevitability of its insistence in the school system. It’s a stereotype of athletes at this school widely known and accepted by the students, a blason populaire of this community of soccer players. Such speech is usually created by an external audience, the students who are not in the soccer team themselves but are familiar with it. When asked why the juniors bully the lower classmen, the answer could be this phrase. It is a lighthearted observation of the corruption and power play at school and its unfair treatment of the students, so much so that N associates this phrase with his specific team. Simultaneously, it encourages no revolt against such a system, already knowing full well the impossibility of change that could come from speaking up. This acceptance adds to the stereotype, almost perpetuating its truth.

Chinese Enigmatic Folk Similes

Background: A friend and I were talking about the COVID-19 situation in the US. She mentioned that at late February, when COVID started to spread in the US, some people bought masks and sent them to Wuhan, China to support the medical workers there. She brought up this common saying:

Main piece: 


Pinyin: ni pu sa duo he——zi shen nan bao

Transliteration: A mud Bodhisattva crosses the river——She can’t even save herself.

Context: This piece of folk speech is often used to describe people who are well-intentioned to help others, but are themselves in dangerous or unstable situations. In the context of COVID, the informant means that it is kind for those people to send masks to Wuhan, but their very own lives are at stake in the US already.

Analysis: This is an example of a particular genre of folk speech in Chinese, 歇后语 (xie hou yu), which has been translated as “Chinese enigmatic folk similes” or “quiz-cracks”. Different from proverbs, an enigmatic folk simile doesn’t directly offer a conclusion or an advice. Different from riddles, an enigmatic folk simile doesn’t propose an explicit question and doesn’t have an answer. Enigmatic folk similes often contain multiple meanings. Its form is often separated into two parts. The first part succinctly tells a story, often alluding to historical or religious instances, and the second part provides a proverbial conclusion that is in line with the context created by the first part, but often with deeper connotations. In this case, the story, “a mud Bodhisattva crosses the river”, requires the audience to imagine and suppose that mud dissembles in water, and therefore a mud Bodhisattva in a river, no matter what good intention she has, might perish before she is able to help others. The deeper connotation is that regardless of good intention, one must first be responsible for themselves before considering others, or else no one is benefitted. 

For different versions of enigmatic folk similes, see 

Rohsenow, John Snowden. A Chinese-English Dictionary of Enigmatic Folk Similes (xiēhòuyǔ) = Han Ying xie hou yu ci dian. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991.

“Even cold water will get in your teeth” (喝凉水也塞牙)

Original Script : 喝凉水也塞牙

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Hē liángshuǐ yě sāi yá

Transliteration : Even cold water will get in your teeth

Full Translation : If you are meant to be unlucky, you will be unlucky no matter what you do

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Denver, Colorado. His family moved to the United States before he was born from mainland China. Even though his first language was technically English, as his family used Chinese at home, he grew as a bilingual student. Here, he is describing a proverb that his grandparents and parents taught him when he was young. He told me that since he couldn’t remember in detail and had to ask his parents again, a lot of the dialogue is summarized. He is identified as Z in the dialogue and this piece was collected over a phone call.

Z : What does it even mean by ‘water getting in my teeth’? It’s something that is not possible because water is a liquid without any smell or taste. This proverb thus means that if you are unlucky, you will be unlucky no matter what you do. If you are trying to drink water and you’re meant to be unlucky, a water will get between your teeth and you will be annoyed by it. 

Analysis :

This short proverb and its explanation added a humor factor in it. Rather than explaining it with other food or drink items, the proverb talks about water ‘getting in one’s teeth’, which is something no one has ever and will ever experience before. This reminded me of the Korean version of this proverb, “an unlucky man will break their nose even if they fall backwards (재수 없는 놈은 뒤로 자빠져도 코가 깨진다)”. In this Korean version of the proverb, it also talks about an impossible combination of happenings; first, one falls backwards and is expected to hurt his backside of his head but second, he ends up breaking his nose, which is located on the front side of their head. This also indicates how unlucky events seem inevitable and unavoidable because it is destined to be so for people.