Daigou: a Mandarin borrowing-in-progress in English

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Surprisingly few words have been borrowed from Mandarin into English in recent years.  Most of the Sinitic borrowings in English — and there are not many — are from other topolects (Cantonese, Shanghainese, Hokkien, etc.), and they occurred nearly a century or more ago.

"Chinese loans in English" (7/10/13)

Since the founding of the PRC, most of the terminology borrowed into English from Chinese has come via loan translations, e.g., "paper tiger" and "running dog".  There are a few transcribed terms, such as "guanxi" ("networking; relationships"), though I doubt that they are very well known outside of the relatively narrow field of China specialists.

There is, however, one word that might just break out into wider circulation.  Phil Mercer has an article on "Shopping in Australia, while in China" (BBC, 10/24/16).  In it, he describes what is called "daigou", and incorrectly defines it as "on behalf of".

dàigòu 代购 ("purchase on behalf of; act as a purchasing agent")

What this involves is buying up goods overseas on behalf of individuals in China and shipping them back home at a substantial markup.  I met a man who has been doing this full time for years.  He lives in Philadelphia, and every day he drives a van down to Delaware, where there is no state sales tax, and stuffs it to the gills with handbags, shoes, sunglasses, cosmetics, milk powder, baby food, and so forth purchased in various Delaware luxury boutiques, malls, and outlet stores.  Then he drives back to Philadelphia and arranges for the shipment of his goods to China.  Occasionally when he is buying something of high value that the stores limit the number of items an individual can buy, he will take some acquaintances with him to multiply the number that he purchases.  This man is doing daigou big league / bigly.

There are thousands, nay, tens of thousands, of Chinese who do this part time or virtually full time as a career.  They do it in America, Canada, Japan, Europe, Australia, New Zealand — anywhere quality products may be found.

I know lots of Chinese who do this sort of thing.  Among themselves, whether speaking English or Chinese, they refer to this activity as "daigou", but I don't think many non-Chinese people know the word yet.  The business so far seems to be almost exclusively among Chinese.  If people other than Chinese get involved in it more directly, however, the term may well be picked up among English speakers in general.  There already is a Wikipedia article for it.  With sales amounting to $15 billion annually and a yearly one billion dollar "tax hole", the Chinese government is trying, with little success, to put a halt to this illegal practice.

See here for many more articles and studies on "daigou".

[h.t. Geok Hoon (Janet) Williams]


  1. Hg said,

    October 27, 2016 @ 8:56 pm

    I've come across the word guanxi a few times. Oddly enough, both times it's been in the context of organised crime in tabletop roleplaying game settings. In Eclipse Phase, a hard(ish) science fiction game set in a post-scarcity economy, there are "reputation scores" which are used to measure the ability of characters to acquire stuff and have favours done. Guanxi appears in that game as "g-score", which measures reputation among criminal factions. The term is also discussed in Shadowrun (a fantasy/cyberpunk crossover game), particularly in the context of Chinese/Hong Kong organised crime groups.

  2. Steven Marzuola said,

    October 27, 2016 @ 9:12 pm

    It's not on the same scale, but some Latin Americans have done something similar for decades. When the local economy was strong and the currency overvalued, people would go travel to the US and buy lots of goods to bring back in their personal baggage. This led to long lines of boxes at check-in counters in the Miami airport.

    This scene hasn't been true in Venezuela for a couple of decades, but it spawned several long-running gags.

    A television comedy show called "Radio Rochela" had a recurring sketch, in which a host, modeled on Alistair Cooke, would sit in his library wearing a smoking jacket and holding an open book in his lap. He would talk about the history of the "Tribu Tabarato", a native American tribe. Then, documentary style, the show would follow a lower class Venezuelan family as they went shopping in stores in Miami. Someone would pick up an item, which could be a toy, a T-shirt, or a TV set, and ask the clerk, "[Cuanto es? [How much?]" Whatever the price, the family member would smile and reply, "'Ta barato, dame dos" ("That's cheap, give me two."). One to keep, and a second to take home and sell to a neighbor.

  3. Ross Presser said,

    October 27, 2016 @ 10:15 pm

    It would be greatly ironic if the goods purchased in Delaware had in fact been made in China.

  4. cameron said,

    October 27, 2016 @ 10:40 pm

    Why would English borrow a Sinitic word like dàigòu when the term "smuggling" has been doing fine for centuries?

  5. Peter Donald said,

    October 28, 2016 @ 12:00 am

    I've seen this practice going the other way – Western expats buying cheap (often counterfeit) goods on Taobao (either via Chinese Taobao agents or directly, if they have Chinese bank accounts and a sufficient command of the language) for resale in their countries of origin.

  6. Mark Mandel said,

    October 28, 2016 @ 12:54 am

    The word is also used in English for the agents who buy goods overseas for clients in China. From one site you list, some examples of both senses:

    • But a growing number of Chinese residents are turning to overseas retail agents, called daigou
    • But daigou also operate internationally…
    • A fashion buyer for an online boutique in Beijing… operated as a daigou
    • There are thought to be over 20,000 daigou operating between Hong Kong and China alone…

    • "… parallel channels known as 'DaiGou' …"
    Daigou agents often ferry goods…

    'agent' on other sites:
    On the floor with the daigou, China’s overseas shoppers
    But the network of Chinese personal shoppers known as daigou have been quietly working away behind the scenes Australia’s retail economy for years.
    Rika has worked part-time for the past two years as a daigou, a freelance retail consultant.

    Is it used in Chinese with the 'person' sense?

  7. Mark Mandel said,

    October 28, 2016 @ 1:01 am

    @cameron: Because they aren't synonymous. "Smuggling" includes all forms of bringing stuff from one jurisdiction to another while evading legal barriers, duties and fees, inspection, and so on; while within the practice of smuggling, "daigou" seems to refer to the specific practice of buying something for an individual, on request, and shipping it to them. Nicht wahr, @Victor?

  8. Rubrick said,

    October 28, 2016 @ 1:32 am

    I suspect the limited rate of borrowing has a lot to do with the great difference in writing systems. Even when they're rendered in Pinyin, it's often not at all obvious to a non-Chinese speaker (such as myself) how to pronounce Mandarin words. While borrowings may usually begin orally, I imagine appearing in print provides a big boost to their becoming widespread.

  9. Johan P said,

    October 28, 2016 @ 3:44 am

    I wonder if China's increasing cultural influence in the English-speaking world will increase the number of such borrowings?

    I mean, there's plenty more Japanese post-war borrowings, from umami to pecha kucha, and Japan has been a significant cultural influence in the West for more than three decades now.

  10. ajay said,

    October 28, 2016 @ 6:53 am

    With sales amounting to $15 billion annually and a yearly one billion dollar "tax hole", the Chinese government is trying, with little success, to put a halt to this illegal practice.

    The irony is that the hole only exists due to the Chinese government's own malpractice. Think about it: in what possible economic universe does it make sense for me, a person in China, to ask Mr Wu in Philadelphia to

    drive down to Delaware
    buy a pair of, say, Gucci sunglasses at retail price
    post them by parcel post from Philadelphia to China
    and take his own commission off the top?

    Why don't I just go into a shop in China and buy the sunglasses myself? Won't they be cheaper, because Gucci will have shipped them directly to China in a big container, and there are fewer middlemen to pay?

    Answer: because, of course, trademark protection in China is a joke, as a result of government policy, and I'd probably be getting a fake. The same is true, even more so, of things like baby milk. If there's huge demand for baby milk in China, shouldn't Parmalat be shipping it there by the containerload and selling it wholesale to Chinese supermarkets?
    No, because if you see a packet marked "Parmalat Baby Milk" in a Chinese supermarket, there's a high chance that it's a locally produced fake, and possibly poisonous. You're paying Mr Wu his commission, and all the other costs, in exchange for a guaranteed chain of custody all the way from the manufacturer to you – and no chain of custody that passes through any Chinese retailer can be regarded as reliable.

  11. Jin Defang said,

    October 28, 2016 @ 7:43 am

    to Steven Marzuola, you can still see Venezuelans with large numbers of packages at MIA, but they're no longer toys but necessities. A frequent site: fifty rolls of toilet paper, shrink wrap around its original cellophane covering to prevent theft, being checked in. Baggage is full of aspirin, toothpaste, and the like.

  12. John said,

    October 28, 2016 @ 4:46 pm

    In Hong Kong the term "parallel trading" is used.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 28, 2016 @ 6:23 pm

    As a native Delawarean, though living elsewhere for many decades now, my hometown pride in Delaware's assistance to Prof. Mair's acquaintance and his customers in avoiding PRC taxation is second only to my pride in Delaware's assistance in the evasion of the taxing authorities of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

    On the language point, the daigou business model just sounds like a particular instance of what is commonly called in English https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grey_market importing or exporting, and I don't see why we should need a Mandarin loanword to describe the particular variety. (Note that wikipedia for some reason uses the hanyu pinyin romanization "grey market" whereas I personally prefer the rival Yale romanization of "gray market.")

  14. languagehat said,

    October 29, 2016 @ 8:57 am

    I wonder if China's increasing cultural influence in the English-speaking world will increase the number of such borrowings?

    What increasing cultural influence? I see a lot of talk about China's economy and its attempts to throw its weight around in the Pacific region; I have noticed no particular "cultural influence" — certainly nothing to compare with the influence of Japanese manga, anime, computer games, etc. And I agree with J.W. Brewer that this particular term seems unnecessary and is unlikely to spread beyond the circle that already uses it.

    In general, Chinese experts have to beware of tunnel vision. I have known Russia experts who are under the delusion that, e.g., the use of "echelon" for "special train" is common English rather than translationese known only to readers of badly translated Russian works.

  15. liuyao said,

    October 31, 2016 @ 1:45 pm

    Seeing the title of this post, I was thinking of 代沟, or generational gap, which probably was a translated English term.

    I happened to see an ostensibly Chinese word, gung-ho, in a recent op-ed. At a total loss, I looked it up (and it doesn't really count as a Chinese word). By the way, I think the wikipedia list wrongly attributed this one to Cantonese.

    This may partially explain the paucity of Chinese loanwords in English. A pinyin word without context may throw Chinese into a guessing game, hence the tendency to translate it rather than transcribe it. Just look at restaurant menus: almost all other ethnic restaurants use lots of phonetic transcriptions with English descriptions, only the (non-Cantonese) Chinese would try to translate the names of the dishes (source of many translation fails), even though the context is pretty clear. You are more likely to see stir fry, noodles, dumplings (or raviolis), even Chinese burgers, though jiaozi and baozi, and now jianbing, are catching on.

  16. GALESL said,

    November 1, 2016 @ 1:44 pm

    So dàigòus buy "milk powder": well there's a nice new borrowing from Chinese right there. (The actual English being "powdered milk".) But even "milk powder" is infinitely preferable to the contending (synonymous?) calque "baby milk". Ewwww. Just… ewwwwww. Nobody should be extracting milk from babies.

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