Scholar-hegemons in China

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In "Nerd, geek, PK: Creeping Romanization (and Englishization), part 2" and other Language Log posts, we have delved into the terminology for nerddom.  In the course of our discussions, we seem to have arrived at a consensus that it's difficult to find a Chinese term that conveys well the notion and nuances of the English word "nerd".

Now, in the March 1 issue of Global Times, a Chinese government publication associated with the People's Daily, there is an article entitled "Nerdy slang becomes pivot of education arguments" that attempts to promote the term xuébà 学霸 as a sort of equivalent to nerd.

The article begins:

Nerds and bookworms in China are having their day. A new slang term called "xueba," which literally translates to "academic guru," has been spreading on the Chinese Internet for over a year. The term is used to label students who study all the time and have outstanding academic performances.

First of all, I don't think that "academic guru" is a literal translation of xuébà 学霸:

xué 学 ("learn; study; imitate")

bà 霸 ("hegemon; tyrant; autocrat; feudal chief; oppressor; usurper; rule through force; lord it over; dominate; dictate; domineer; tyrannize over")

As a matter of fact, the term xuébà 学霸 came up in the comments to the "nerd" post cited in the first paragraph above.  As pointed out by Wentao and julie lee (two separate comments), more often than not xuébà 学霸 is deemed derogatory.

Xuébà 学霸 also lacks the affectionate, amusing quality of "nerd".  Quite the contrary, a xuébà 学霸 is rather formidable, if not downright terrifying.  Consequently, I remain puzzled that there are still no widely circulating Chinese transcriptions for "nerd", as there are for "geek", but I wouldn't be surprised if one arises before long.

[Thanks to Ben Zimmer]


  1. EmmJ said,

    March 1, 2014 @ 2:48 pm

    'Nerd' was never used in an affectionate/amusing way in high school.
    It was used towards those who studied 'too much' (as defined by the name-caller; in regional SE QLD/NSW, Australia).
    It's only in the last maybe 10 years that it has taken on a pop-culture/fun quality.
    In my recent experience, amongst older speakers, 'nerd' retains the sense that the target is too interested in study/academia/facts/etc.
    Perhaps the pejorative was reclaimed faster/more successfully in some regions/groups than in others.

  2. William Ockham said,

    March 1, 2014 @ 3:17 pm

    Scholar-hegemon sounds more like a term I first heard nearly 30 years when I was in grad school. Someone asserted that my future was bright because I would belong to the ruling class of "techno-lords" while the speaker would become a "techno-peasant". I'm not sure I would say I made it to techno-lord status, but the intervening years have seen the rise of powerful billionaires whose money and power are based on technology companies.

  3. Gregory Kusnick said,

    March 1, 2014 @ 3:47 pm

    I seem to recall that Robert Silverberg's 1969 SF novel Up the Line featured a nerdy historian with the title of Scholar Magistrate.

  4. Sili said,

    March 1, 2014 @ 4:21 pm

    Is it not possible to re-appropriate a word the way "nerd" has been? Like "gay", "queer", "dyke" and so on?

  5. Adrian Morgan said,

    March 1, 2014 @ 5:43 pm

    Given that in English, the terms "nerd" and "geek" do not have any connotations of academic performance (your typical geek pursues their own intellectual entertainment, not what's on the exam), the "academic guru" translation seems quite a long way off.

  6. Brenda said,

    March 1, 2014 @ 5:59 pm

    From the translations given, that term sounds like it would apply to the kind of people (usually men) who ask other people (usually women) obnoxiously detailed trivia questions about comics, video games, etc. in an attempt to assert their "real fan" authority.

  7. Brett said,

    March 1, 2014 @ 9:46 pm

    I can remember evidence of "nerd" being reclaimed going back at least twenty years. Obviously, the prominence of this would depend on the speech community involved. Tying this into another recent Language Log post, I remember MIT claiming a trademark on "Nerd Pride" in the early 1990s. (However, it felt like the trademark was more of a joke than an actual attempt to prevent anyone else from using the term.)

  8. Michael Watts said,

    March 1, 2014 @ 10:58 pm

    I too don't agree that "nerd" is primarily complimentary, positive, or even amusing. (I was born in 1986.)

    Listen to the theme to Revenge of the Nerds:

    Mom packs us our lunch, and we're off to school
    They call us nerds 'cause we're so uncool
    They laugh at our clothes, they laugh at our hair
    The girls walk by with their nose in the air

    Where's the affection?

  9. Victor Mair said,

    March 1, 2014 @ 11:41 pm

    @Michael Watts

    At a place like Penn or Swarthmore, many of the brainy students don't mind being thought of as nerds, some aspire to nerdiness, and some cultivate it. And I could provide you with endless instances of nerd affection like these:

    "Revenge of the Nerds" dates to two years before you were born. I still remember those days, and it is true that nerds were generally not then held in as favorable a light as they are now. I think that a large part of the reason for this change toward a much more positive image for nerds is that many of them are very good with computers, and in this day and age computers rule. Those who understand computers are held in high esteem, because without them things would fall apart quickly.

  10. Jane said,

    March 1, 2014 @ 11:44 pm

    Think "神人" might be the closest definition for "Nerd" (e.g. "電腦神人", "英語神人")。

  11. Michael Watts said,

    March 2, 2014 @ 3:44 am

    I'm aware that 1984 happened before 1986, but there is nothing out of place in those lyrics today. Computer-minded people might be held in esteem from afar in a general they-have-money way, but they don't benefit from any such approbation in person; they are still generally disliked.

    The person outside your peer group calling you a nerd is usually indicating that they would not like to have your lifestyle, whereas in your gloss for 霸, and the note "a xuébà 学霸 is rather formidable, if not downright terrifying", I see a sort of envy of the xueba. So my instinct on reading the post was that xueba was complimentary in a way that nerd is not.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    March 2, 2014 @ 7:09 am

    @Michael Watts

    "The person outside your peer group calling you a nerd…."

    You've missed my point: the size of the peer group wiling to be called a nerd has definitely enlarged between 1984 and 2014. But since you weren't around in 1984, you wouldn't have been able to witness that transformation in nerdhood.

    And you're ignoring what I said about plenty of students at Penn and Swarthmore (the same is true of students at lots of other schools, colleges, and universities). In many such institutions, being a nerd is definitely cool.

    I recently attended a talk on hacking language by Mark Liberman at the venerable Philomathean Society at Penn; the room was full of nerds that evening — with some welcome exceptions, of course. I'm certainly not saying that everybody wants to be a nerd, just that there are more nerds around nowadays than there were in 1984.

    BTW, did you look at any of the websites whose URLs I provided? Do you want me to send more?

    Oh, yes. Many of my students and friends fondly call me a nerd, and it doesn't offend me in the slightest, despite the fact that I've been an athlete my whole life.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    March 2, 2014 @ 10:36 am

    From an experienced Chinese language teacher at Penn:

    I think there is a clear difference in the use of the term 学霸 between Mainland and Taiwan. In Taiwan, 学霸 is rarely used to refer to students. 学霸 is usually used to refer to successful scholars who are widely recognized as authorities in their fields. However, this term carries a negative meaning because it implies that they have an arrogant personality and do not take criticism easily. This is somehow contrary to the ideal image of a Chinese scholar, who tends to be graceful and elegant (温文儒雅). Therefore, sometimes people would differentiate 学霸 from 学者 as the former lacks some kind of 学者风范 (courtly manner). In other words, people may feel intimidated by 学霸 due to their profound knowledge and aggressive attitude but not necessarily respect them. Therefore, it is hard to imagine that parents in Taiwan would encourage their kids to be "学霸" as "得理饶人" is still a virtue that is highly valued. But as I said, there is a clear difference between Taiwan and Mainland in terms of this phrase. It seems that in Mainland, when a student is called 学霸, it simply emphasizes their academic success rather than their personality.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    March 2, 2014 @ 10:37 am

    From a mainland graduate student:

    It is a very positive term, in my opinion. So many people want to be xueba. They are genius and work hard. So no reason to ostracize them!

    VHM: This student adds:

    [So-and-so] was the number one 学霸 in my college. But I have never been a 学霸 since I so many other things!

    VHM: The implication here (I know who she's talking about) is that the 学霸 in question is a "grind" or, as we used to say way back when at Dartmouth, a "booker". A well-rounded person with diverse social contacts and cultural activities cannot be a 学霸.

    GRIND: "Informal A student who works or studies excessively."

  15. Victor Mair said,

    March 2, 2014 @ 11:07 am

    From another experienced Chinese language teacher at Penn (this one from the mainland, the previous one is from Taiwan):

    We need to distinguish three XUEBAs first. when referred to a professor or authority in acdemia, it's negative obviously. but when referred to a pupil or schooler, it's much positive. i saw several cases on my WECHAT that my friends encourage their kids be 'xueba.' when referred to a college student, it's neutral. the speaker might be a little jealous as well. as we all know, Tsinghua's XUEBA will definitely come to the US.

    VHM: Coming to the US is a chief desideratum of virtually all students (and their parents) in China.

  16. hkg said,

    March 2, 2014 @ 11:24 am

    Are 學霸 and 學閥 the same when referring to scholars or professors?

  17. Victor Mair said,

    March 2, 2014 @ 5:50 pm

    From a graduate student who has a B.A. and an M.A. from Tsinghua, where most of the student body are themselves xuébà 学霸, otherwise they would not have been able to get in, since Tsinghua is China's number one university:


    I think 学霸 is mostly used in the context of admiring. Therefore, many people want to be like them, and to be associated with them. Like tuhao 土豪, xueba is a word becoming popular, and used in a positive context recently. Generally, people will think xueba are very good at study, no matter how much time they spent on studying.

  18. Ned Danison said,

    March 2, 2014 @ 7:30 pm

    It seems to me a Chinese equivalent to "nerd" or "geek" won't appear until there is a social trend in the Chinese world equivalent to the one that produced those American English words. The anti-intellectual, anti-docility, pro-cool sentiment in American culture doesn't seem to have a counterpart in the Chinese world.

    In the US it's gotten to the point where, in self presentation, people have to apologize for caring too much about learning or caring too little about being trendy or cool. They apologize by saying they're nerdy or geeky.

    Here's an illustration of what I'm saying:
    1:04 "And today, let's geek out…" Interesting facts are being presented, so why is it called geeking out? Because there is an imagined audience that is prone to roll their eyes and say, "Boooring" when the kind of knowledge presented and the manner of presentation doesn't pass the cool test.

    In Chinese society, do people feel obligated to apologize for being uncool? I'd say not at all, and that's an important clue to why there is as yet no good equivalent (and who knows but that Chinese culture will never resemble American culture in this way).

    Anyway, I've always thought that in the context of Chinese middle and high school, 乖乖牌 and 书虫 were good counterparts for nerd and geek, respectively.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    March 2, 2014 @ 9:49 pm

    From Joel Martinsen:

    I caught a 学霸-themed episode of the Hunan TV talk show 天天向上 that featured guests whose back-stories were of the "straight-A, big-name undergrad, overseas post-grad" type. The program falls smack in the middle of mainstream trendy young mass-media culture, I think. (Program overview here: )

  20. Victor Mair said,

    March 2, 2014 @ 9:50 pm

    From Brendan O'Kane:

    I've heard Chinese classmates at Penn use it to describe one another, and I hear it as being basically "Oh my god, you are such a nerd," said good-naturedly. Sort of the equivalent of an American student accusing a classmate of "wrecking the curve."

  21. Victor Mair said,

    March 2, 2014 @ 9:51 pm

    From David Moser, who has been living in China for at least a couple of decades:

    I don't think I ever hear the term. I remember someone at Beida being called that when I was there in 1987-8, but I don't think I've even seen the word in the last two decades. But I'm not necessarily in an environment where I would hear it.

  22. Movenon said,

    March 3, 2014 @ 2:56 am

    I think a close colloquial jargon equivalent to this '學霸‘ in US English would be "gunner," which can be used to refer to the cut-throat competitive students in a class who will go to any length to come out on top. For example, it would apply to really cut-throat competitive fields like medicine, since there is incentive in coming out with a top-of-class ranking so you can have a better chance of getting into a more competitive (read: financially lucrative) training residency.

    Typical "gunner" attitudes and behavior would include not sharing notes or helping anyone else in the class, perhaps even sharing useless notes that won't help with the exam in an effort to sabotage others' grades, rating other students poorly in the event of classmate evaulations, etc.

    Not sure on how many people outside those in med school/other competitive academic fields would understand the term 'gunner.' It doesn't appear in with this meaning.

  23. arthur waldron said,

    March 3, 2014 @ 1:47 pm

    學閥 if indeed it is used would have come from Japan around 1919 when 軍閥 did. But in the second case, the meaning went from a collective noun in Japanese to singular in Chinese.

  24. julie lee said,

    March 3, 2014 @ 1:54 pm

    @ William Ockham:

    If it were up to me, I'd choose to translate xueba學霸 as "techno-lord", as William Ockham suggests. As Prof. Mair has pointed out, Ba霸 means tyrant, but it also means lord, though a lord whose power is based on might, not a gentleman-prince or philosopher-ruler (whose power would be based on right , i.e., virtue). Thus one could say the U.S. is a ba道“lord” or superpower of the world.

    Recently here in the San Francisco area, the headlines were very busy with the "techie" invasion– the influx of computer people into the city, renting apartments and buying homes, driving up prices and driving away middle-income people like school-teachers, nurses, policemen, etc., who now have to live far away from their jobs in the city. The techies are moving here because housing prices in nearby Siliicon Valley (Palo Alto, Cupertino, San Jose) have skyrocketed. These tech people would be the so-called "nerds", and because of their high incomes and effect on the city, would qualify as "techno-lords" (though they haven't been called such here). Thanks, William Ockam, for the nice term.

  25. julie lee said,

    March 3, 2014 @ 2:10 pm

    @Victor Mair:

    I see the word "nerd" applies not only to techies and science-and-math-based people but also humanities people, as Victor Mair has been called a "nerd" affectionately by his students.

    A much older Chinese term for "nerd" would have been shu dai zi (shudaizi) 書呆子 (literally, "book blockhead").

  26. Victor Mair said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 6:13 pm

    From Cao Lin:

    The word 学霸 isn't a negative phrase to me. It usually refers to students who work really hard and get really good grades. My friends and I sometimes make fun of each other using this word. For example, my roomate in philly always studied in library till midnight when she prepared her CFA exam, so when she came back, I usually said, 'ah, 学霸回家了呀.' She would reply, 'I'm only a 伪学霸.' [VHM: fake 学霸]
    To my friends and me, the usage of 学霸 is usually connected with joke. And of course, we do admire the true 学霸.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 1:04 pm

    From Jing Wen:

    I think 学霸 is a very interesting word. It refers to people who are smart and dedicate themselves in their study. They are always studying, spending their time in the library (or lab). The most important feature of 学霸 is that they are usually very competitive and get the highest grade.

    学霸 is very different from 书呆子 (nerd) though they share a lot of similarities. The latter usually give people an impression that they are temperate or even slow. At least in Chinese, 书呆子 is negative, referring to a person who is not very smart but indulges himself in knowledge (usually not useful and practical knowledge).

    In the past, Chinese people often have a self-contradictory concept about the education. On the one hand, they want their children get high grade in school; on the other hand, people do not believe that the students who get the highest grade are smart and competitive but consider them as 书呆子.

    Now, this tendency is going to change with the appearance of the word 学霸. People have to admit that hard-working and intelligent people with perfect school performance are not the useless 书呆子 but the future elite of the society. I think it is a good phenomenon.

    However, I do not think people call themselves 学霸 just as people do not say "I am a genius." Moreover, 学霸 is not a positive word in every aspects. It shows some sense of alienation. In the Chinese culture, people do not want others think that they are extraordinary.

    I am not sure if I fully understand the meaning of 学霸. A lot of new words have come out these years, such as 傲娇, 吐槽, etc.

  28. Bob said,

    March 8, 2014 @ 12:43 am

    in current Chinese, 学覇 replaces the older term 状元。 it is given to the top scorer(s) in the entry exam. Chinese people are result centered; geek/nerd, 书呆孒, etc., are behavior terms; and are not concern about results of exams.

  29. Aldousk said,

    March 21, 2014 @ 4:00 am

    The main ability required before one attains the rank of nerd is a complete mastery of reqular expressions. That, together with the knowledge (That's not really the right word – suggestions are invited) to provide satisfactory answers to one in five randomly selected user queries on the mysteries of MS software is sufficient to claim the rank of a one-star geek.

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