Pekingese put-downs

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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:  xìng 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.

According to zdic, déxìng 德性 ("morality; virtuous / moral character" –> "disgusting; shameful") is the same as déxíng /déxing 德行 ("moral caliber; moral integrity" –> "disgusting; shameful").

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:

For me, it probably means that someone behaves inconsiderately in certain ways, particularly spitting on the ground, leaving garbage everywhere, not flushing the toilet (despite the fact that few people flush the toilet anyway), defacing a library book, etc.  I think women do use it more often than men. I guess it might have something to do with the fact that women take these issues more seriously….

From the female director of a Mandarin training center in China:

It's a very interesting expression! I agree, so far as I can recall, mostly women use this expression, because guys are so easy to curse but women tend to be cleaner when they want to curse. So 没素质 becomes popular among women. Guys can easily say: cao4, ya1 sha3bi1.

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]

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18 Comments »

  1. AntC said,

    November 8, 2013 @ 12:33 am

    Thank you Victor for another fascinating tidbit.
    … the most condescending sneer I've ever seen in my life … a very strong, drawn-out emphasis …
    But! But! myl is always telling us how there's no such thing as ironic/satirical tone of voice. Would that pronunciation have been taken as condescening in a different conversational context(?)

    [(myl) Attitude and emotion are certainly conveyed by facial expression, as Victor notes, and also by mode of vocal performance. What I've called into question is that there's an intonation (or a "tone of voice", which is different) that means specifically "what I mean is the opposite of what I literally say".

    From Victor's description, this case seems less to be an ironic inversion (as in using "Oh, great!" when something bad happens) or a lexical inversion (as in using "sick" to mean "cool"), but a culturally conventionalized application of the Maxim of Relevance: If I bring up virtue or morality in a context where it's clear that I disapprove of your behavior, the implication is that what you're doing is not only unwise or impractical but also immoral. A milder English-language example of a similar conversational ploy would be saying "Manners!", meaning "mind your manners", i.e. remember and obey the rules of etiquette.]

  2. Duncan said,

    November 8, 2013 @ 2:01 am

    Is that all she said? 德性, just like that? Because I have never heard of it used like that.

    An expression like, 瞧你這副德性, which is similar to the comment made by the female grad student ( 瞧他那点素质) would sound completely natural to me, but just two words, 德性, alone, that doesn't make any sense to me.

    I'm a native Mandarin speaker from Hong Kong (bilingual alongside Cantonese since childhood)

  3. Victor Mair said,

    November 8, 2013 @ 7:02 am

    @Duncan

    Yep! Déxìng 德性 ("morality; virtuous / moral character" –> "disgusting; shameful")! That's all she said. Just like that: nothing more, nothing less — as I was at pains to describe in my original post. I was stunned when I heard her say it, because I thought I understood what the expression meant, which — according to the superficial signification of the morphemes — should have been positive in its implication, but she was obviously using it in a totally negative sense. And, in answer to AntC's question, she said it with a sneer creased on her face, almost with a snarl.

    In my many stays in China, I later heard déxìng 德性 ("morality; virtuous / moral character" –> "disgusting; shameful") used *by itself* as a denunciation on numerous occasions, but **always by women in Beijing, and never anywhere else**.

    I probably heard déxìng 德性 ("morality; virtuous / moral character" –> "disgusting; shameful") in action about a dozen times, and was always puzzled by it, before I finally decided that I had to ask native Pekingese speakers how something that is manifestly so positive in its implication could be applied in such a thoroughly negative fashion. They had a hard time explaining to me how it worked and what it meant. Together, we had a difficult time coming up with a suitable translation of the pejorative application.

    So far as I know, this happens only in Beijing, only with women, and is part of the arsenal of special Pekingese locutions. I doubt that you would ever hear it in formal speech or in Putonghua / Guoyu (Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM]).

  4. Theophylact said,

    November 8, 2013 @ 10:06 am

    I've certainly heard (and used) "stay classy" in exactly this sense.

  5. Michael Hill said,

    November 8, 2013 @ 11:30 am

    Fascinating–thank you for this post. I remember hearing comments in Taiwan that people who engaged in rude or bad behavior "had no sense of public morality" 沒有公德心, which went straight back to sermonizing by intellectuals like Liang Qichao. This included everything from littering to parking a car illegally in front of your garage door.

  6. cameron said,

    November 8, 2013 @ 12:12 pm

    And it'd be easy to imagine "classy" all by itself in the same sense.

  7. julie lee said,

    November 8, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

    "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,…."

    As VHM's post says, 素质 (suzhi) means a person's quality, breeding, cultivation, good manners, etc.

    Like @Theophyact, I also connect 素质 (suzhi) with the word "class" or being "classy", not in the literal sense of social class, but of admirable personal quality and cultivation.

    Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives among the the meanings of "classy"
    —- "elegant, stylish", and
    —-"having or reflecting high standards of personal behavior", as in "he's a classy guy",
    "a classy gesture". It is elegance and beauty in the moral sense.

  8. Alfred W Croucher said,

    November 8, 2013 @ 6:28 pm

    With reference to breeding, I'm not sure if it has the same meaning but in the late 70's the most common out down I heard was 'mei jiaoyang' 没教养。

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 8, 2013 @ 6:47 pm

    Is this similar to saying "Manners" to mean "Your manners are bad", or "Language" to mean "Your language is bad"?

  10. Phil Bowler said,

    November 9, 2013 @ 12:14 am

    Here in Jilin, my wife confirms that she might use either 素质 and 德行 in criticism of someone’s bad behaviour, but not on their own as in the Beijing examples.
    Incidentally, I am wondering why Victor refers to the people and dialect of Beijing as ‘Pekingese’. To me, that’s just a kind of dog! Given that it’s become standard in English to use the name Beijing rather than Peking, shouldn’t we also refer to ‘Beijingese’ and (perhaps) ‘Beijingers’?

  11. Victor Mair said,

    November 9, 2013 @ 12:35 am

    @Phil Bowler

    Here's your answer:

    Pekingese 2,780,000 ghits (of course, a lot of those refer to the cute dog breed; do you want to start calling the dog a "Beijingese"? — and how about the crispy duck?)

    Beijingese 9,510 ghits

    Beijinger 316,000 ghits (I myself sometimes use this for the inhabitants of Beijing [when I'm not discussing their language intently])

    Peking duck 643,000 ghits

    Beijing duck 305,000 ghits

    Pekingese language 885 ghits

    Beijingese language 8 ghits

    Pekingese dialect 2,360 ghits

    Beijingese dialect 102 ghits

  12. julie lee said,

    November 9, 2013 @ 11:27 am

    @Alfred W Croucher
    Yes, another older putdown was "mei xiuyang 沒修養 (no cultivation)"。 A lot of emphasis was on (self-) cultivation xiuyang修養。In our family, if we behaved badly (quarrelled, fought, was lazy, etc.), my dad would snap, " Chousin 畜生 !! " (chusheng in Mandarin) , which meant "Animal !!" It was drummed into us by centuries of moralists that cultivation was to separate us from savage animals and make us human.

    What interests me about the Peking use of "dexing 德行" (virtue, virtuous conduct) and "suzhi素質" (breeding, cultivation) as putdowns (through lexical inversion or sarcasm) is that we've heard communism described as a materialistic ideology, and in fact I learned in university that communism was materialism, Marxism was dialectical materialism; yet here in Peking (Beijing) speech there's this tremendous emphasis on dexing 德行 (virtuous conduct) and suzhi素質 (cultivation), which are anything but material or materialistic.

  13. Phil Bowler said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 8:23 am

    @Victor Mair
    Thank you. I suppose the dog will remain ‘Pekingese’ because as a breed it is no longer specifically identified with the city. The same goes for other breeds with geographical names. Now that I’m in China, I no longer eat Peking duck, but Běijīng kǎoyā 北京烤鸭 ("Beijing roast duck") instead.

  14. Brendan said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 6:28 pm

    For what it's worth, this usage of déxing (which I think I've seen more often as the homophonous 德行, "virtuous conduct") has been around for some time: it turns up in the 1997 现代北京口语词典, edited by Chen Gang et al:

    【德行】(德性)déxing – 讥讽人的话,指人的言行、举止、仪表、容貌不美好。如:你的女儿,叫男子这么按,你连一声也不发,德行!

    and in fact it goes back even earlier: there's no entry for it in Yang Yuxiu's 1984 老舍作品中的北京话词语例释, but the 漢語大詞典's first citation for this usage (which is the second definition it gives for 德行) is from the first act of Lao She's 1950 play 龙须沟: “你没有那个瘾,交不上捐你去坐监牢。德行!"

    I've certainly heard it plenty of times — usually aimed at me by my wife, though maybe those are just the times that stuck in my memory. The use of déxing on its own does strike me as likelier to come from a female speaker, but I wonder if things things mightn't start to even out a bit when the word turns up in sentences.

  15. Brendan said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 6:37 pm

    Pushing this back a little further: the 現代漢語大詞典's entry under 德性 — which gives this usage as the third definition — doesn't give an example of the word being used on its own, but it does have an even earlier sarcastic usage of 德性 from Act 3 of Cao Yu's 1936 play 'Sunrise': “胡四……你瞧見這個麼?大爺有的是洋錢。可就憑你這德性(向黑三),一個子也不值!”

  16. qmmayer said,

    November 13, 2013 @ 2:00 am

    Small point on the "Pekingese" usage: I most often hear the Beijing dialect referred to as "Beijing hua" among language learners. I have to say, "Pekingese" does sound peculiar to my ears. While I imagine that term doesn't work for most people, obviously this blog is not for the uninitiated.

  17. Ryan Vande Water said,

    November 15, 2013 @ 1:58 am

    I can attest to suzhi currently being a rather effective means of skewering someone. I often discuss with my driver on the way to/from work the things that I find different between US culture and Chinese. He readily admits that many chinese suffer from "su zhi hen di!" (very low upbringing) When I mentioned this to my Chinese teacher, she turned about 5 shades of red and told me that I "wasn't allowed to say that. It's like insulting my children… *I* might be able to say they are not well behaved, but you never can!" :^) I can't imagine what her reaction would have been if I had actually said it *to* her.

  18. Nick Lamb said,

    November 15, 2013 @ 10:15 am

    This approach is also seen in the slang / jargon of the video game Starcraft 2, although this vocabulary is more associated with (South) Korea than China.

    It is in the nature of this game that the opening is quite slow and formulaic (for a minute or two at least) giving experienced players time to briefly exchange typed greetings. Most commonly "glhf" short for Good luck; have fun. Most games end when one player's loss seems unavoidable and they explicitly surrender rather than play out the defeat, often after typing "gg" (Good game), the victor may then reply "gg" back. This is somewhat like the ritualised hand-shaking at the end of many real world games.

    Because of this convention however, if you are (or seem to believe you are) winning, then writing "gg" is seen as rude even though wishing someone a "good game" doesn't carry such an implication ordinarily – because the implication is that you're declaring the game over (and yourself victorious) unilaterally. Commentators refer to this as a "manner gg" because it displays bad manners.

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