Using animal images to cast aspersions

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We call people "swine", "pigs", "dogs", "curs", "rats", even "water buffalo" when we want to disparage them.

The latter epithet was uttered in the famous "water buffalo incident" that took place at the University of Pennsylvania in 1993, when an Israeli-born Jewish student, translating from Hebrew slang behema ("animal; beast" — used by Israelis to refer to loud, unruly people) shouted "Shut up, you water buffalo" out his window at a noisy group of students who were disturbing him and others in his building at midnight.  The controversy was exacerbated by alleged racial overtones of "water buffalo", though the student who yelled the phrase denied that he meant it to have racial implications.

In this post, I wish to describe another incident that took place at a major university in Europe about ten years ago.  Because of the volatility and sensitivity of the issues and individuals involved, I must keep this account anonymous.

The name calling took place on the list serve of a very large association of Chinese students and scholars, with thousands of members.

One of the members of the list, AAA, referred to another member, XXX, as follows:

Zhè zhǐ pòniǎo zěnme nàme fán: rén dàjiā xiǎoxīn, zhège jiào XXX de wūyā….

这只破鸟怎么那么烦: 人大家小心,这个叫XXX的乌鸦….

"How can this inferior / poor / lousy bird be so annoying?  Everybody should be wary of this crow called XXX…."

AAA made his accusations repeatedly and harshly, to the extent that many of the other members on the list came to the defense of XXX.  The whole experience was extremely bitter and unsettling for XXX.

What I want to focus on in this post is how avian imagery could be used with such devastating, derogatory effect in Chinese.  It's odd that, aside from this particular instance, I've never encountered people using bird terms to denigrate others in Chinese.  It may happen, but I've never heard it.

I asked a number of informants from China, and they also told me that they had seldom if ever heard anyone swear at another person by calling them a pòniǎo 破鸟 ("inferior / poor / lousy bird"), much less a wūyā 乌鸦 ("crow").  Several did mention, however, that the expression wūyā zuǐ 乌鸦嘴 ("crow mouth") is used fairly often to designate someone who foretells something bad happening or who, to the annoyance of others, talks too much about things nobody wants to hear about.

Here's an example of a wūyā zuǐ 乌鸦嘴 ("crow mouth") in action:

A: Míngtiān huì xiàyǔ ba, nà jiù bùnéng qù jiāoyóule 明天会下雨吧, 那就不能去郊游了. ("It's probably gonna rain tomorrow, so we won't be able to go on an outing".)

B:  Nǐ bùyào wūyā zuǐ le, míngtiān bù huì xiàyǔ de 你不要乌鸦嘴了, 明天不会下雨的 ("Don't be a crow mouth; it's not gonna rain tomorrow".)

I must make clear that the word niǎo 鸟 ("bird") itself may be used to stand in for diǎo 屌 ("prick; dick; penis").  Here's a scholarly note from Wikipedia on why that is so:

One should note that in Middle Chinese the words for and were homophones. The fǎnqiè of "" (丁了切) and the fǎnqiè of "simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: " (都了切) denoted the same pronunciation; both began with a voiceless unaspirated alveolar stop (/t/ in IPA and d in pinyin) and the same vowel and tone. Based on regular sound change rules, we would expect the word for bird in Mandarin to be pronounced diǎo, but Mandarin dialects' pronunciations of the word for bird evolved to an alveolar nasal initial, likely as a means of taboo avoidance, giving contemporary niǎo while most dialects in the south retain the Middle Chinese alveolar stop initial and the homophony or near homophony of these words.

So niǎo 鸟 ("bird") could be a foul curse against someone else if it were meant as a euphemism or substitute for diǎo 屌 ("dick; penis").  But I don't think that's necessarily what AAA meant here, at least not consciously, since he right away specifies that XXX is a crow, not just any old bird.  Of course, he may have been punning on niǎo 鸟 ("bird") and meant it both superficially as "bird" and on a second level as diǎo 屌 ("dick; penis").

The more I think about it, though, AAA probably really did mean to call XXX a "crummy prick", in which case it would be one of the most vile imprecations imaginable.  But then why did he turn around and immediately refer to XXX as a "crow"?  What's so bad about a crow that it can be used as a follow-up to "crummy prick"

It is true that crows are often considered to be inauspicious in Chinese tradition*, as they are in Hinduism and in Persian poetry, but, so far as I know, calling someone a "crow" is not a common curse in Chinese.

[*The crow is associated with death and funerals, and it is especially the caw of a crow that is considered inauspicious, though the crow itself in some respects may be viewed in a more benign fashion, particularly in early times when the sun was thought to be carried by a golden crow that has three feet.  In Chinese folklore, it is said that crows will take care of their parents when they are growing old. In some cultures, crows are thought to hold "funerals" for their deceased.]

After racking my brain to find a precedent for using corvid terminology to belittle someone else in Chinese, I considered the possibility that this might be a usage that entered Chinese from some other language.

In Japanese, there is the expression "tabigarasu", lit., "travelling / wandering crow", which means "wanderer; stranger; vagrant; vagabond; stranger; outsider".    This would fit the case of XXX perfectly, because he was considered by many in the group (in particular AAA) to be an interloper.  Perhaps AAA picked up this expression from watching Japanese movies, reading stories translated from Japanese, or from conversations with Japanese.

I'll first spend some time discussing how to write "tabigarasu" in Japanese script, starting with the "crow" part.

Recently, all animal and plant names are written in katakana, but both カラス (katakana) and からす(hiragana) are commonly used.  旅烏 / 旅鴉 (the wholly kanji form of "tabigarasu" is not a commonly used word, and  the kanji for karasu 烏 ("crow") and tori 鳥 ("bird") are hard to distinguish from each other.  This may be another reason why "karasu" is often written in hiragana or katakana, with hiragana being perhaps the more common form.

たびがらす 13,400 ghits

旅烏 61,400 ghits

旅鴉 62,300 ghits

旅がらす 131,000 ghits

There are probably other ways to write this term, but I won't try to compile an exhaustive list.

Tabigarasu 旅がらす is not a word commonly heard in daily conversation.  It tends to appear in lyrics of enka えんか 演歌 ("sentimental ballad music"), and is a bit old fashioned.  Tabigarasu 旅がらす is a word used to describe a man (often a yakuza) who seldom stays settled in one place (with one woman = no point to fall in love with him!).

Opinion is divided on whether tabigarasu 旅がらす is pejorative or not.   Some say that it isn't a strongly insulting term, and that it even has a rather poetic flavor to it.   Others hold that it's not complimentary, but it's not terribly derogatory or disparaging either, in the sense that it just describes people who are wanderers.

Tabigarasu 旅がらす are held to be wanderers because they have no job and no definite goal at the end of their traveling.

In any event, it's not a term of endearment or respect, but the men who have been described as tabigarasu 旅がらす would not have felt insulted or angry on that account.  (Generally, only men are styled tabigarasu 旅がらす, since women who travel normally have some purpose or need for doing so; in other words, they would not be drifters just for the sake of drifting.)

Following are detailed remarks on tabigarasu 旅がらす by Nathan Hopson:

The phrase is not common today; one dictionary lists it as "formal," but the nuance is perhaps a bit closer to stodgy or obsolete (形式ばった表現 keishiki-batta hyōgen).

I've never seen it written with 鴉, but my IME does give that as a possibility.

Progressive's J-E dictionary gives:
1 〔渡り歩く人〕
He led a wanderer's [vagabond] life.
2 〔他郷から来た人〕
As 「a stranger [an outsider] in the town, he was treated coldly.

日本国語大辞典 gives:

1. a transient bird
2. a transient person

The note for #2 matches with Progressive's idea about an "outsider," and does add explicitly that it is disparaging (卑しめていう語 iyashimete iu go).

The oldest example given is from a verse composed in 1583. The most recent is Shimazaki Tōson's 1930s' novel Yoake mae (夜明け前).

It's definitely pejorative: "outsiders" are popular nowhere, and Japan is no exception.  If anything, the sedentary, agrarian (and / or other primary industries), village-centric normative model of social life makes the wandering outsider particularly unsettling for many Japanese.

On the other hand (and this is purely a speculative side note), I am reminded of ethnologist Origuchi (Orikuchi) Shinobu's fascination with 稀人 (マレビト, marebito). In lowland Japanese folk belief, marebito were / are sacred beings thought to make visitations on the village world to dispense tangible this-worldly benefits to the people. Harry Harootunian wrote: “In Orikuchi’s formulations, civilization was brought by the ‛gods who come rarely’ (marebito) from beyond the sea to provide the village community with timely good fortune and bounty. These marebito were men-gods, guests, even ‛strangers,’ whose visitation coincided with the yearly cycle of village production and whose prayers and recitations invoked abundant harvests and good fortune." (Harootunian, Harry D. “Japan’s Long Postwar: The Trick of Memory and the Ruse of History.” South Atlantic Quarterly 99, no. 4 (2001): 729.) But the marebito's power came from externality and alterity, which also made them troubling, disturbing figures. The Japanese welcome back the spirits of their ancestral dead every summer at the Obon Festival, reaffirming their mutual ties and obligations — the living take care of the dead, and expect the same in return — but they also make absolutely certain that those same dead do not hang around. The same is true for marebito, if I understand correctly, and for outsiders in general, if history is any indication.

Whether or not AAA was thinking of something like tabigarasu 旅がらす ("wandering crow") when he called XXX a wūyā 乌鸦, he was clearly rejecting XXX as an outsider.  That, coupled with the devastating reference to XXX as a pòniǎo 破鸟 ("crummy bird / prick"), was surely intended to reject XXX as an outsider to the large list serve that he wished to join.

Oh, I just remembered that one of my informants noted that "niǎorén 鸟人" ("birdman", i.e., "prick/dickman") is a "contemptuous term" in Chinese, and that it has nothing to do with the American rapper or the American film of that name.  She also noted that it would not be unusual to hear sentences such as this:  "(Mǒu rén) bùshì shénme hǎo niǎo (某人)不是什么好鸟" ("[So-and-so] is not any sort of good bird / prick").

All things considered, for AAA to call XXX both a pòniǎo 破鸟 ("lousy bird" / "crummy prick") and a wūyā 乌鸦 ("crow") in quick succession was a most serious and calculated insult — even though they are apparently not often used for that purpose, at least not among the Chinese people I know.

[Thanks to Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Hiroko Kimura, Yixue Yang, Jing Wen, and Fangyi Cheng]


  1. Bathrobe said,

    November 20, 2016 @ 10:42 am

    Chinese does have the expression 天下乌鸦一般黑, that is, all crows under heaven are black. The meaning is that, just as all crows can't be anything but black, bad people are bad people everywhere, no matter nicely they present themselves.

    Is it possible that this is what the person meant?

  2. hanmeng said,

    November 20, 2016 @ 11:09 am

    野雞=妓女. Does this explanation have any basis?
    And there's 野雞車. And 野雞大學.

  3. liuyao said,

    November 20, 2016 @ 11:44 am

    鳥人 (and 鳥+anything) was extensively used in Water Margin, particularly associated with the character Li Kui. When the TV series (in Mandarin) aired in 1998, 鳥人 was simply pronounced niaoren. It seems that the expression was not in common use in modern times to arouse censorship.

  4. AntC said,

    November 20, 2016 @ 3:33 pm

    @VHM I've never encountered people using bird terms to denigrate others in Chinese.

    So what is the Chinese for calling someone 'chicken'/cowardly?

    English also has pigeon-toed, stool-pigeon.

    Crows have a generally ominous presence: there's the passage towards the end of Zola's La Terre where the relatives descend on Jean's house, likened to crows. And IIRC there are crows at Cawdor as the witches' familiars.

  5. Jacob said,

    November 20, 2016 @ 5:31 pm

    @AntC 胆小鬼 dan xiao gui (gall bladder/courage little ghost) which at first glance seems odd, but one of the four humors, chole, was from the gall bladder; hence the phrase "to have the gall". I'll leave it to the experts to say whether 胆/bile traveled west or east.

  6. FM said,

    November 20, 2016 @ 5:48 pm

    Russian has a similar expression to wūyā zuǐ 乌鸦嘴: накаркать "to caw up". Just as you can сглазить "jinx" a good fortune by talking about it, you can накаркать "caw up" a misfortune by talking about it.

  7. maidhc said,

    November 20, 2016 @ 6:21 pm

    Robert Greene called Shakespeare "an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers".

  8. cameron said,

    November 21, 2016 @ 11:50 am

    I wonder if any Japanese band has translated a certain well-known example of "sentimental ballad music" by the band Lynyrd Skynyrd using the term tabigarasu in the title?

  9. Victor Mair said,

    November 21, 2016 @ 12:36 pm

    From a Singaporean friend, under the subject line "Your Post on Foul (Fowl) Language":

    In relation to your note that “the word niǎo 鸟 ("bird") itself may be used to stand in for diǎo 屌 ("prick; dick; penis"),” please see this post on the ang moh dan website.


    Bird / Bird-bird / birdie / cuckoo bird. It’s a direct Singlish translation of the Malay and Chinese dialect slang words for penis.

    Chinese: Ku Ku Jiao. Male genitalia (crude). Also “ku ku bird”.

    Malay: Burung – literally ‘bird’; euphemism for ‘penis’


    In Hokkien too, there is “lan jiao,” which is calling someone a prick. It can also be used somewhat like the more vulgar equivalent of the Cantonese “Choy!”

    Please see this definition in Urban Dictionary.

    And then there is, of course, “talking cock” in Singlish.

    Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on Hokkien … or foul language!!!

  10. bobbie said,

    November 21, 2016 @ 3:19 pm

    Your disclaimer: I’m not an expert on Hokkien … or foul language!!! Could be a great pun if you said "fowl language"

  11. Eidolon said,

    November 21, 2016 @ 8:56 pm

    "So what is the Chinese for calling someone 'chicken'/cowardly?"

    胆小. Literally, "small gallbladder," based on folk medicinal beliefs about human anatomy and the source of fear and courage. But in keeping with the animal imagery theme, 胆小 is at times combined with 如鼠 "like a mouse" to form the phrase 胆小如鼠 "as cowardly as a mouse." Thus, the animal associated with cowardliness in one popular version of traditional Chinese culture is the mouse and not the chicken, though I'm sure there are examples of other animals being used.

  12. Eidolon said,

    November 21, 2016 @ 9:20 pm


    "I'll leave it to the experts to say whether 胆/bile traveled west or east."

    A very curious question indeed. The 1830 edition of the "The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register" has a record that explains:

    "The popular idea and phraseology in China supposes a relation between animal courage and the quantity of gall. … To say a man has no gall, denotes he has no courage: and a blustering man will excuse himself for something cowardly by demanding if you imagine he has a gall-bladder as big as a firkin. The inference drawn from these opinions is, that a man can increase the quantity of gall in his own system by eating the gall of a fellow-creature."

    Since the British found this an Oriental oddity, I would assume that the equation of gall and courage was not yet common by this time, so the idea may well have passed into English from the East, and perhaps specifically China, as the above text indicates.

    But the harder question is who passed the idea to the Chinese, or did the Chinese come up with it themselves. That deserves its own study, provided one does not exist already.

  13. Joyce Melton said,

    November 24, 2016 @ 12:37 am

    The Chinese "crow mouth" expression for one who predicts or foretells misfortune has a parallel in English: stormcrow, meaning a harbinger of evil fortune from the habit of RAVENS of finding sheltered perches when they sense a storm coming. (Crows don't care as much, they have waterproof pinion feathers, ravens don't.)

    Also "cowardly as a mouse" is paralleled by "timid as a mouse".

    And, jinx as an expression of bad luck is ultimately from a name for the wryneck, a woodpecker-like bird that can extend and twist its neck into horrendous looking contortions which it uses to frighten enemies.

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