"Either… or…"

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The following photographs come from an article on citizen protests in Lanzhou and Beijing openly demanding governmental transparency on public officials' personal assets (I am no longer able to access the article online).


gōngkāi cáichǎn 公开财产 ("make assets public")

yàome gǔndàn 要么滚蛋 ("otherwise get the hell out")


yàome gōngkāi cáichǎn 要么公开财產 ("either make assets public")

yàome chèdǐ xiàtái 要么彻底下台 ("or completely step down")

yàome 要么 ("otherwise; either" — lit., "if / want" + suffix [me 么 can also serve as dependent clause final auxiliary particle indicating suggestiveness or implicitness]) is usually linked in a pair: yàome 要么… yàome 要么… ("either… or…"), although the second yàome 要么 could be replaced by bùrán 不然… ("otherwise" — lit., "not so"); yàome 要么 is equivalent to yàobùrán 要不然 (lit., "if not so") or fǒuzé 否则 ("otherwise"); they probably did not use yàobùrán 要不然 because it has three characters and avoided fǒuzé 否则 because it is too literary; yàome 要么 is used widely in many Mandarin topolects in the north, northwest, and southwest

gǔndàn 滚蛋 ("scram; get out; go to hell" — lit., "roll out [like] an egg")

I discussed the semantics of eggs — good, bad, and indifferent — in these posts:

"Bad Egg " (4/5/11)

"Roll out of here, Mubarak " (4/3/11)

"Fennel fry stupid eggs " (4/9/13)

Additional thoughts on the semantics and syntactics of dàn 蛋 ("egg") in Sinitic by a native speaker of Pekingese:

As for gǔndàn 滚蛋, I find it very interesting! I do not think this 'egg" refers to any specific type of egg. It is merely an egg in general because dàn 蛋 in Chinese sometimes is just the suffix of a negative word, such as huàidàn 坏蛋 ("bad-dàn; scoundrel") and shǎdàn 傻蛋 ("stupid-dàn; dolt"). So gǔndàn 滚蛋 ("roll-dàn; scram; get out") simply means gǔn 滚 ("roll").  The suffix dàn 蛋 makes it a disyllabic word in order to sound better as an imperative. Additionally, dàn 蛋 can be used in nicknames of children, such as tiědàn 铁蛋 ("iron-dàn") and yādàn 丫蛋 ("maid-dàn").  For tiědàn 铁蛋 ("iron-dàn"), I do NOT think it refers to an iron egg. Instead, it simply means tiě 铁 ("iron").  This nickname is usually given to boys because the parents want their children to be strong as iron.  On the other hand, yādàn 丫蛋 ("maid-dàn") is the most common nickname for girls in the Northeast. Similarly, it does not mean "the egg of a girl" or "girl-egg", but simply "girl", because yā丫 with other suffixes is used to refer to a girl in many other regions. Therefore, it is more logical to consider dàn 蛋 as a suffix in some dialects rather than explicitly as an egg per se.  As for its syntactic function, perhaps dàn 蛋 may be thought of as a nominalizing suffix for adjectives or for converting a verb to the imperative mood.

Therefore, wángbādàn 王八蛋 ("son of a bitch") may not mean the egg of a wángbā 王八 ("bastard").  Here dàn 蛋 may simply be a suffix.  Thus mǒu mǒu mǒu shì wángbādàn 某某某是王八蛋 ("so and so is a son of a bitch") simply means that he behaves like a wángbā 王八 ("bastard"). The word wángbā 王八 ("bastard") has two common connotations:  the first one is "pimp" (pítiáokè 皮条客); the second one is “wàngbā 忘八”, those who forget the eight moral virtues (bādé 八德):  xiào 孝 ("filial piety"), tì 悌 ("sibling piety"), zhōng 忠 ("loyalty; fidelity"), xìn 信 ("trust; believe"), lǐ 禮 ("ritual; rites; courtesy"), yì 義 ("righteousness; right conduct"), lián 廉 ("upright; honorable; integrity"), and chǐ 恥 ("humility; shame").

All of my informants, who come from across the length and breadth of China, downplay the function of dàn 蛋 in these expressions as meaning "egg".  One of them even averred that dàn 蛋 may not have been much used to mean "egg" during the twentieth century, citing the diary of the archeologist Xia Nai (1910-1985), Xià Nài rìjì 夏鼐日记, which was written in the 1940s where he used the term jīluǎn 鸡卵 for "egg".  I myself have heard jīzǐ 鸡子, which can also mean "chicken" and "chick", used to refer to eggs in some areas.

As one of my correspondents states:

…dàn 蛋 is just used as a pejorative to humiliate people。 There are many words of this kind, such as wándàn 完蛋 ("finished; kaput"), huàidàn 坏蛋 ("scoundrel"),  hútúdàn 糊涂蛋 ("dopey; muddled"), bèndàn 笨蛋 ("fool; simpleton"), húndàn 混蛋 ("asshole; jerk; prick").  I don't know why people use dàn 蛋 to humiliate others, maybe just because it sounds powerful.

Whether or not people who call others such-and-such a dàn 蛋 are consciously aware that it means "egg", all of these expressions are premised upon a bleached version of this morpheme.

[Thanks to Jing Wen, Fangyi Cheng, and an anonymous contributor]


  1. January First-of-May said,

    April 9, 2016 @ 4:54 pm

    I'm reminded of the Russian phrase "Катись колбаской по Малой Спасской" (literally "Roll like a sausage over Malaya Spasskaya", used as an elaborate version of "go to hell").

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 9, 2016 @ 5:04 pm

    I used to know a guy named Dan whose girlfriend was from China and introduced him and his friends to something that sounded a lot like "wangba dan". However, I thought turtles were involved. Was I confused?

  3. Jean-Michel said,

    April 9, 2016 @ 11:56 pm

    王八 wángbā means "turtle," but I think it's pretty much exclusively used as an insult now. The English subtitles for the great Jiang Wen film Devils on the Doorstep (鬼子来了)—which is loaded with earthy Mandarin dialogue—translate 王八蛋 wángbādàn as "turtle fucker," which is a bit free but a lot more entertaining than a generic profanity like "bastard," "son of a bitch," etc.

  4. Bob Ladd said,

    April 10, 2016 @ 9:10 am

    The use of dàn to signal "this is an epithet" reminds me a bit of espèce de preceding a wide range of nouns in French. It literally just means "type of", but in this context it means something more like "the following noun is intended as an epithet". Obviously, in combinations like espèce de con or espèce d'imbécile it's pretty obvious that the noun is not intended as a compliment, but the overall effect is much more satisfying when combined with espèce de.

    I seem to recall that Captain Haddock's imprecations in the French versions of Tintin use this device to great effect.

  5. John Swindle said,

    April 10, 2016 @ 6:23 pm

    Written top to bottom – and left to right.

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 10, 2016 @ 10:20 pm

    Jean-Michel: Thanks. I wouldn't have guessed that the same characters with the same pronunciation mean both 'bastard' and 'turtle'.

  7. John Swindle said,

    April 11, 2016 @ 6:03 am

    @Jerry Friedman: One folk explanation says the turtle gets associated with shameless behavior because wángbā ('turtle') sounds like wàngbā ('forget eight'), shame being #8 in some list of virtues. Another version points to forgetting all eight of the listed virtues. I can't remember them myself.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    April 11, 2016 @ 7:23 am

    There's also the "forget father" explanation, which I wrote about in the earlier posts referenced in the o.p.

  9. John Swindle said,

    April 12, 2016 @ 1:26 am

    Professor Mair: And I forgot that one too, and I forgot to read the links before I posted. Sorry.

  10. Alfred Tsang said,

    April 13, 2016 @ 6:19 am

    >I myself have heard jīzǐ 鸡子, which can also mean "chicken" and "chick", used to refer to eggs in some areas.

    雞子 is used in Hong Kong, referring to chicken's testis. It serves as a kind of hotpot food. I personally never have it.

  11. Brendan said,

    April 13, 2016 @ 9:12 am

    雞子兒 jīzǐr is also an old-fashioned colloquial term for 'egg' — you can see it, e.g., in Y.R. Chao's translation of Lewis Carroll. I can't recall having ever heard it in the wild, but maybe it's still current somewhere.

    dàn can also mean "balls," as you note in the "Bad Eggs" post linked above — not unlike "huevos" in Spanish. Besides the colloquial 蛋疼 dànténg ("ow, my balls"), I've heard the musician Cui Jian discussing the title of his album 紅旗下的蛋 Hóngqí xià de dàn as meaning both "Balls Under the Red Flag" and "Eggs Laid by the Red Flag." The coexistence of the phrases 滾蛋 gǔndàn and 滾球 gǔnqiú ("GTFO") makes me suspect that in that context, at least, it's the colloquial meaning that's intended, rather than any reference to eggs.

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