Monday, July 11, 2005

The Chinese Philosophy of Swearing

Found this article: Lin Siyun 林思雲, "探討中國與外國的罵人哲學 Inquiry into the Chinese and Foreign Philosophies of Swearing" while surfing for something else totally unrelated and thought it too good to pass over without a mention. The writer, a columnist then in Japan (or so I gathered), compares the case of the Chinese, the Japanese, and English speaking people, and attempts to draw conclusions about the cultural characteristics of the three. Those who can read fanti Chinese should read the original, but I've translated a large chunk below for your reading pleasure.

Though the writer wrote with the Chinese in mainland China in mind, many of his points do appear to apply to Singaporean-Chinese as well. And I wonder if there is a local version of the contrast between the Chinese vs. the 'Anglo-Americans', i.e., between the Chinese speaking vs. English speaking Singaporean-Chinese. And I'm sure my learned readers will have their own thoughts about the specific variation of the Chinese philosophy of swearing exemplified by the good Southseas (nanyang 南洋) Hokkien speaking folks (a bit more below).

I do not know much about the Indian or Malay cases, if you have any thoughts on these and others, by all means leave them in the comments. But watch your language please, this is a family friendly site.

notes on translation: I have tried to be literal, but obviously, that's not always possible: some terms have shades of connotation and force for which English equivalents are not easy to find, while some sentence structures that are perfectly fine in Chinese end up convoluted when rendered literally in English. So, there's a bit of dynamic equivalence here and there. I have consistently rendered waiguoren 外國人 (i.e., anyone who is not a Chinese) as "Foreigners", while 英美人 (i.e., British and Americans; or more fashionably, people of the Anglosphere) is always "Anglo-Americans". All the stuff in parentheses are my own notes.

finally: The situation among the Chinese speakers in Singapore is more remote from the case of the mainland, being much more (Southseas) Hokkein and Cantonese oriented as we are in this department. Among the putonghua speakers on the mainland, the standard swear is, as the writer mentions, cao ni ma (操你媽), cited as the "national swear" of the Chinese (if you don't believe me, cut and paste the Chinese characters and google for them, or do the same for the jianti characters). This swear is seldom encountered in Singapore in that specific form, but does (I suspect) bear a (linguistic) relation to certain other more commonly encountered ones. In any case, all of the cited Mandarin Chinese swears have (semantic) Hokkien equivalents.

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From: Lin Siyun 林思雲, "探討中國與外國的罵人哲學 Inquiry into the Chinese and Foreign Philosophies of Swearing", Epoch Times (Oct 29, 2004)

The Chinese philosophy of swearing is totally different from that of the Anglo-Americans or the Japanese. The Chinese believe that to directly insult a person's character (the Anglo-American way) or belittle his abilities (the Japanese way) are not the best methods; rather only by abusing the person's elders and ancestors can the biggest insults be achieved. For this reason the "national swears" of the Chinese: ta ma de (他媽的; lit. "his mother's..."), cao ni ma (操你媽; lit. "---- your mother"), etc., all do not directly abuse the person being swore at, but abuse the person's mother; cao ni nainai (操你奶奶; lit. "---- your grandmother"), cao ni zuzong (操你祖宗; lit. "---- your ancestor"), etc., on the other hand, are intensified versions of cao ni ma.

In a word, the Chinese philosophy of swearing aims to "make you lose face". To come up with ways to make the person swore at lose face is the modus operandi of the Chinese when swearing. Ancestors are venerate in the Chinese tradition, so to swear at one's ancestors is seen as a serious insult and injury; it is the one thing that is most capable of making the other lose face.

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".) [edit: the correct transliteration of 八嘎牙路/馬鹿野郎 should be bakayarô, not bakaro. Lin has a paragraph (not translated) explaining the origins of this phrase in the Shiji 《史記》; you can read the story on which the swear is based here.]

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.

The Chinese philosophy of swearing reflects their preoccupation with "face". When foreigners swear, they do not always raise their voice even while being very spiteful; but the Chinese considers that a lower voice when swearing is ineffectual; rather swearing must be done loudly (jiao ma 叫駡). It turns out that when foreigners swear, the abuse is meant for the ears of the person swore at, and so there is no need to do it with a loud voice. But when the Chinese swear, they do so not merely for the ears of the person swore at but for everyone else. The point of swearing loudly is to make the person lose face before others.

It used to be that one can often find people who do "street swearing" (ma jie駡街). Though this phenomenon is rare in large cities today, it is still frequently encountered in smaller towns. The one doing the "street swearing" is usually a woman, and she can swear in the streets for several hours at a time—until her voice is hoarse. The aim of "street swearing" is twofold: one is to tell everyone that she has been bullied or taken advantaged of, and so she is angry and wants to achieve a bit of catharsis by swearing out loud; and a second is to give the person with whom she is angry some deterence by way of punishment, attempting to cause him to lose face so that he will not dare to bully her again. Women who do this are often called po fu (潑婦; i.e., shrew).

There's something here that foreigners often find perplexing: in swearing, the "shrew" certainly humiliates the other, but to shout all that vulgarity before a crowd, doesn't that also damage her own image and debase her own reputation? Is it really worth it? "Street swearing" is a double edged sword: when used to cut someone else, the person too is cut. Why don't the "shrews" understand this principle? In fact, the damage to the "shrews'" reputation is often greater than that caused to the person targeted, a most un-remunerative transaction. So why would they do such a silly thing?

It turns out that shrews have a special confidence in themselves: they firmly believe that they are absolutely good persons, that justice is unconditionally on their side. Because of this, they believe that no matter what they do, people would not form a bad impression of them. And so they are emboldened to go ahead and swear with the worst language, totally unworried that their own reputation would be affected. We encounter this psychology of the shrew not merely in real life, but also online where we often find netizens who swear at others in discussion forums. These netizens seem not to understand that swearing at others is a double edged sword: doing so will bring damage to your own reputation and the loss is usually greater that that brought upon the other person's reputation: a most un-remunerative transaction.

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further notes:

A reader asks: What about (English) insults such "son of a B----!" and "bastard!"? They seem to be derogatory to the parents rather than the intended target. Actually, SOAB was briefly mentioned in a different part of the article which I didn't translate. I suppose the writer's take on them would be that they are nevertheless still directed primarily at the person swore at rather than the parents. After all, we are talking about "YOU are a son of a..." etc., rather than "you MOTHER is..." even though by swearing such at the person, some bit of abuse is reflected upon the mother. In any case, to call someone a "bastard" is to make a statement about him; the mother is involved mainly by implication. In other other words, in abusing the guy, you (indirectly) hit the mother as well. The Chinese modus operandi, on the other hand (according to the writer), is to directly abuse the mother and let that reflect on the person you are actually targeting. In other words, to hit the son, you abuse the mother. (On this account, to achieve the effect of calling someone "bastard", the Chinese way would be to call his mother an adulterer, and by implication, that he has been born out of wedlock.) Anyway, insults along the lines of SOAB have direct Chinese equivalents (e.g., 婊子養的, 狗狼養的, etc.), so the contrast between the Chinese and Anglo-American modus operandi cannot be absolute but only a matter of tendency.

and then some:

Cited on Simon's World; follow-up on Spacehunt, who suggested "if the points raised by Lin Siyun are true, then Hong Kong-style swearing is truly the fusion of East and West". Interesting. Most recently picked up on this forum, which also turned up various "your mother is so..." type insults. That's good, as it shows that the putative Chinese modus operandi may not be as unique as Lin Siyun paints it to be. "Mother----er", however, falls squarely into the analysis offered in the previous paragraph (it's about the person directly, that he is a you-know-what-er; the mother gets hit indirectly). Still, I do think that he has a point as far as the usual tendencies go--that is, I think it does say something that the default swear in putonghua Chinese should take the form it does.


Just noticed that this post has been picked up by a blogging Catholic priest who likes Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hmm.

add: I was curious how the post circulated; but I see it now. He picked it up from InfernoXV, who was also recently mentioned by Anthony.

some more: (July 20)

This post is picked up by Language Hat, who also has posts and links to swearing in other languages. The post about Chinese swearing also links to a National Review article by John Derbyshire, which mentions Lu Xun's 魯迅 famous essay "Lun tamada 論『他媽的』". I remember reading this years ago in my dad's Complete Lu Xun (魯迅全集). I doubt that I'll have time to translate it soon; but it should be fun. (update: done!)

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