Fun bun pun

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The case of activist Gweon Pyeong 권평 / Pyong Kwon / Quan Ping 權平 is now going to trial in China.  Gweon stands accused of wearing a t-shirt with three Xi-themed slogans printed on it:

"T-shirt slogans" (11/7/16)

In this post, I would like to explore in greater depth one of the three slogans, namely "Xí bāozi 習包子" ("steamed, stuffed / filled bun Xi").

In the earlier post, I explained how Xi Jinping acquired that curious nickname.  It's really not that offensive, and it is by no means vulgar.  But just what does it imply to call Xi Jinping, China's supreme leader, a "steamed, stuffed bun"?

Within the first year of studying Mandarin, I learned the expression "tǔbāozi 土包子" ("earthy steamed stuffed bun", i.e., "country bumpkin, hick, rube, clodhopper, backwoodsman, boor, dolt, yokel").  Among my Shandong in-laws, who were themselves sometimes called "tǔbāozi" by others, this characterization was used in a not very deprecating way, indeed often somewhat affectionately.

The same expression can also refer to a "(grave) mound; tomb", and was so used at least already during the Qing period (1644-1912).

Before proceeding further, just a few words about the morphology of the term "bāozi 包子".  Bāo 包 means "wrap, fold, pack; bundle, bag, package") and -zi 子 is a noun suffix.

As a matter of forensics, in trying to assess just how bad it is to refer to another person as a "bāozi 包子" ("steamed, stuffed / filled bun"), I asked a number of my graduate students and colleagues from China about the signification and implications of the term.  I was not prepared for the variety of their opinions on the subject.


I think the original context of referring to someone as a "baozi" is for a diffident person who is shy and doesn't want to show his emotion (like a baozi having everything inside). Then this diffidence can also make the term "baozi" have the meaning of weak and cowardly (like the softness of baozi). So I think that when you say "he is a baozi", it could mean that he is diffident / cowardly / shy. However, tubaozi 土包子 is different, because it means "country bumpkin" like you said, and the baozi here doesn't necessarily have the above implications.


"Baozi 包子" can also mean "shòuqìbāo 受气包" [VHM: lit., "receive anger /insult bag / bun"]. Is it like the English expression "someone is a doormat"? As for why Chinese people use "bao 包" rather than "shòuqì méndiàn 受气门垫" [VHM: "receive anger / insult doormat"], I guess it is because a baozi 包子 is very soft. There is another saying, "s hìzi dōu jiǎn ruǎn de niē 柿子都捡软的捏" [VHM:  "when choosing a persimmon, you always pick out the softest one by pinching it"], so " ruǎn shìzi 软柿子" ("soft persimmon") means "coward".  A soft persimmon looks like a bāozi 包子. I think tǔbāozi 土包子 has a connotation of being cowardly.

A friend of mine told me she thought the bāo 包 in shòuqìbāo 受气包 [lit., "receive anger /insult bag / bun"] means "s hābāo 沙包", sandbag. Or something like what the boxers use in training [VHM:  "punching bag"].


I have never thought about why people use bāozi 包子 ("steamed, stuffed / filled bun") for the expression tǔbāozi 土包子 [VHM:  "country bumpkin", etc.] instead of jiǎozi 饺子 ("dumpling"), etc. I tried to search it online and saw someone's explanation that country bumpkins have never seen the outside world like they were the stuffing inside the bāozi 包子…  Also, maybe when the term tǔbāozi 土包子 [VHM:  "country bumpkin", etc.] was invented, eating bāozi 包子 was a rural thing, since most people in developed cities eat rice, noodles, and other refined food instead of bāozi 包子.

I do know that bāozi 包子 now is used as a negative term to refer to someone as cowardly and weak (who doesn't know how to react when other people are bullying him). For example:

Nǐ bùnéng zhème bāozi, ràng tā qīfù.


"You shouldn't be such a baozi [lit., 'so baoziish'], letting him bully you".

Nǐ zhège rén zěnme zhème bāozi!


"How can you* be be such a baozi [lit., 'so baoziish']?"

[*VHM:  it is very difficult to convey the nuance of nǐ zhège rén 你这个人 ("you this person"); it adds a tone of disparagement and exasperation to the rhetorical question]

From my understanding, people use bāozi 包子 this way because they can relate the cowardly person with the white, soft bun which you poke; it breaks and doesn't bounce back.

I just thought of another reason for the use of bāozi 包子. When you actually steam bāozi 包子 in the bamboo steamer, they become really bloated. But after they cool down, they become small again. People call the process of becoming bloated as shòuqì 受气 ("receive steam*"). A slightly different term from bāozi 包子 is shòuqìbāo 受气包 (the meaning is the same, referring to someone who gets bullied and takes all the negativity and doesn't say a thing). People still use the term "shòuqìbāo 受气包" [VHM: lit., "receive anger /insult bag / bun"] nowadays but bāozi 包子 seems to be more colloquial and informal.

*[VHM:  the word for "steam" here can also imply "insult, anger"]


I try to understand bāozi 包子 separately from "tǔbāozi 土包子" ("earthy steamed stuffed bun", i.e., "country bumpkin"), but what occurs to me is just a pure, beautiful food. Sometimes in daily life, we do use bāozi 包子 in referring to another person, when this person looks chubby, and cute (mostly used on girls).

So I cāicè 猜测 speculate / postulate / surmise / conjecture that the derogatory meaning of "tǔbāozi 土包子" ("earthy steamed stuffed bun", i.e., "country bumpkin") is lost when tǔ 土 [VHM:  "earthy; rustic"*] is omitted.

[*VHM:  cf. the tǔ 土 of tǔhuà 土话 ("earthy / colloquial speech; patois")]

 When all is said and done, calling someone a "bāozi 包子" ("steamed, stuffed / filled bun") is pretty tame.

[Thanks to Jinyi Cai, Fangyi Cheng, Jing Wen, Yixue Yang, Maiheng Dietrich, and Jichang Lulu]


  1. Y said,

    April 9, 2017 @ 9:13 pm

    I once heard some girls in Honolulu call a chubby boy a manapua, which is the Hawaiian term for a Chinese steamed pork bun. They were just being mean.

  2. Jenny Chu said,

    April 10, 2017 @ 12:20 am

    Now I am starting to think of all the terms I know in other languages for similar meanings ("country bumpkin"/ "redneck"/ "hillbilly") and none of them are nearly as eloquent as 土包子.

    An interesting side note: just now, I wanted to reference the Vietnamese word nhà quê, which can I guess be somewhat insulting if you use it in a nasty way (although mostly I heard it used for country bumpkins, sometimes I also heard it used for unsophisticated business practices, like not knowing the difference between an invoice and a receipt). I typed it into Google Translate because I don't have the Vietnamese keyboard on this device, and found that it is rendered in English by GT as "boor"!! I never would have taken that as a translation.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    April 10, 2017 @ 7:56 am

    I was going to write a comment on the character tǔ 土 ("dirt; earth; soil") and its many implications, but once I started I realized that it is such a fertile field that I have to write a separate post. Stay tuned.

  4. Jim said,

    April 10, 2017 @ 7:14 pm

    Asian wannabe

  5. Rachel said,

    April 13, 2017 @ 8:14 am

    This seems as good a place as any to post this; hopefully I'm not distracting from the thread:

    I've noticed, several times in different contexts, English speakers referring to 包子 as "bao". Not "baozi", just "bao". "I want to eat some bao" or whatever.

    I don't think I've ever heard a native Mandarin speaker refer to just 包, without at least a 子, or some other modifier such as 肉。 My sense of Mandarin is that using just a monosyllabic "包' breaks the rule of 'most words in Mandarin are at least two syllables'. Has anyone encountered bāo alone in everyday speech from native Mandarin speakers?

  6. Terry Collmann said,

    April 14, 2017 @ 7:20 pm

    Jenny Chu: well, "boor" originally meant "countryman, peasant" in English before it meant "coarse or insensitive person".

  7. David Marjanović said,

    April 15, 2017 @ 10:59 am

    Boor looks related to German Bauer, "farmer".

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