This will be the first of two successive posts on Pekingese. This one is about insults that, on the surface, seem as though they should be praise.
I first heard the expression déxìng 德性 ("morality; virtuous / moral character" –> "disgusting; shameful") in the early 80s in a Beijing department store on Wángfǔ jǐng 王府井. A customer was trying to get a salesgirl to show her something (a purse, I think it was, maybe a pair of shoes) that was behind the counter, and the salesgirl couldn't be bothered. An argument ensued, which was brought to a screeching halt when the Pekingese salesgirl said to the customer, with the most condescending sneer I've ever seen in my life: déxìng 德性 ("morality; virtuous / moral character" –> "disgusting; shameful"), and with a very strong, drawn-out emphasis on the first syllable, a slight pause in the middle, and then a light dismissive, downward sliding second syllable: ´ `! The customer was apoplectically speechless.
Currently, sùzhì 素质 ("[inner / innate] quality; character; propensity; disposition; making; stuff; diathesis; procatarxis" –> "vulgar; uncouth; coarse; scurrilous") is one of the most disdainful ways to skewer someone you despise. My impression is that this animadversion is also most often used by women, but I may be wrong about that, because I haven't been back since the spring of 2012 and haven't heard it in action with my own ears.
A female graduate student who is a native of Beijing informed me:
I've heard "sùzhì 素质“ in a sentence like " Qiáo tā nà diǎn sùzhì 瞧他那点素质” ("Just look at his meager upbringing"). It was spoken by a female ticket seller on a bus when bickering broke out between her and a passenger. I think it refers to a person who misbehaves.
From a male graduate student who is a native of Beijing:
From the female director of a Mandarin training center in China:
All three of the above commenters are native Pekingese.
Notice that this term is pronounced sùzhí in Guóyǔ 国语 (Modern Standard Mandarin as spoken on Taiwan and as I learned it back in the late 60s and early 70s), not sùzhì as on the Mainland.
A good sense of the basis for the adoption of sùzhì 素质 ("[inner / innate] quality; character", etc.) as a rebuke may be gained by contemplating Jeremy Goldkorn's remarks about his old granny:
My grandmother Kathleen Francis Ernestine Middleton, who considered herself an Englishwoman but in fact was born and spent her entire life in South Africa, used to talk about "breeding". Someone had good breeding, or not. I think that's the way suzhi is used colloquially: if you have no suzhi 没素质 or have low suzhi 素质低 then you are not very well educated, have poor manners, and your parents are probably but not necessarily of a lower social class than than the person talking about you.
A deeper and more detailed study of sùzhì 素质 ("[inner / innate] quality; character", etc.) is available in this article on "The China Story".
Of course, people outside of Beijing are apt to use sùzhì 素质 when reprimanding others for bad behavior, but they would usually say something like "méi sùzhì 没素质" ("no breeding") or "shénme sùzhì a 什么素质啊" ("what breeding, huh?") to express a meaning similar to "you are uncivilized" or "you are an ill-bred boor". People also say "tā zhēn méi sùzhì 他真没素质" ("he truly lacks breeding"), "tāmen jiārén dōu hěn méi sùzhì 他们家人都很没素质" ("their family really lacks breeding"), etc. Being "méi sùzhì 没素质" ("without breeding") is worse than being rude, because it also means that the person being criticized is morally bad.
Naturally, Beijing women are not the only ones to castigate others for lacking breeding, since Beijing men and people from other parts of China also skewer others with this charge. But my impression is that Beijing women are skillful at employing it without a negative or rhetorical question, as they do with déxìng 德性 ("morality; virtuous / moral character" –> "disgusting; shameful") and déxíng /déxing 德行, which I myself have heard on more than one occasion.
About fifteen years ago, I was flabbergasted when I saw two women arguing with each other on the street in Nanjing one evening. With rapier thrusts of their tongues, they were cutting each other to shreds. I couldn't really understand much of what they were saying (it was all in Nanjing colloquial), but the people standing nearby whom I asked about the content of their imprecations praised both of them for being skillful in their use of common (and some not so common!) terms for maledictory purposes.
I'm not so sure about Nanjing execrations, but a touchstone of Pekingese denunciations seems to be the ability to turn expressions on their head and make them mean the opposite of what they superficially convey.
[Thanks to Jing Wen, Zhao Lu, and Ziwei He]