"Little Man" the eating machine

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There's a curious article by Kathy Chu and Menglin Huang in the Wall Street Journal (5/21/17):

"How a Toddler Who Loves Eating Transfixed China:  2½-year-old Xiaoman is an online sensation, bringing fame, a Pampers ad and questions about her weight"


If you have difficulty reading the whole article via the embedded link, try this TinyURL, which should lead you to a complete preview.

The article begins with a video of the little girl wolfing down seemingly limitless quantities of food, including the (in)famously smelly durian fruit in an Indonesian restaurant.  See the third paragraph here:

"Malaysian Multilingualism" (9/11/09)

If you'd like to watch other videos testifying to Xiaoman's enormous capacity for gluttony, see here and here.

From the Chinese internet, it's easy to find that the characters for "Xiaoman" are Xiǎomán 小蛮.  The authors translate her name as "little man", without further explanation.  That's terribly misleading, because readers will take that to mean "little male person", but that she is not.

Xiǎo 小 does mean "little", and that she certainly is, though she will fast become very big.  Xiǎo 小 ("little") is indeed often used affectionately for informal personal names, even for grownups.  Mán 蛮, however, is much, much harder to pin down.

I will state frankly that my first reaction was to interpret her name as meaning "Little Barbarian", since the original meaning of mán 蛮 is "(southern) barbarian", and it still has that connotation, but it also has many other related meanings:  "rough; reckless; fierce; rude; unreasoning; bullying".  The most common disyllabic word into which mán 蛮 enters is yěmán 野蛮 ("barbarous; brutal; cruel; uncivilized; rude"), where the first syllable yě 野 conveys the sense of "wild; rough; undomesticated; uncultivated; rude".

So my interpretation of Xiǎomán 小蛮 is that it means "Little Barbarian" for her impetuous, impulsive eating habits, but affectionately, something like "Little Rascal" or "Little Monster".

I asked several colleagues for their take on Xiǎomán 小蛮 and received these sensitive responses.

From Maiheng Dietrich:

Mán 蛮 usually refers to actions that are physical, forceful, instinctive. It is the opposite of thoughtful, skillful, or diplomatic. Its meaning also extends to uncivilized, uneducated, and unrefined (thus barbarian). However, it could be a term of endearment if used for people in an intimate relationship.

From Jing Wen:

I don't think it means little barbarian here. In some southern dialects, mán 蛮 means hěn 很 ("very"), mán hǎo 蛮好 = hěn hǎo 很好 ("very good"). Maybe her parents call her Xiǎomán 小蛮 simply because it sounds like a pretty name.

In partial support of Jing's interpretation, I can attest that when I was living in Taiwan back at the beginning of the 70s, I often heard expressions like mán hǎokàn 蠻好看 ("quite good looking") and mán piàoliang 蠻漂亮 ("quite beautiful").  Yet note that, so far as I can recall, mán 蠻 in this sense ("quite; rather") also came before an adjective, so it's hard for me to interpret the mán 蛮 of Xiǎomán 小蛮 in this sense ("Little Quite / Rather / Very").

Mark Metcalf looked up xiǎomán 小蛮 in the Hànyǔ dà cídiǎn 汉语大词典 (Unabridged Dictionary of Sinitic) and found that it was originally the name of the famous Tang poet Bo Juyi's 白居易 (772-846) concubine (maybe she came from the south) and eventually became a general word for concubines.

In any event, our present day baby gourmand, Xiǎomán 小蛮, is also often referred to as a "chīhuò 吃貨" ("chowhound; foodie"), a term we have encountered before, e.g.:

"Biscriptal juxtaposition in Chinese, part 2" (10/15/14)

"Coarse grains hotel" (6/1/14)

As for the nuances of chīhuò 吃貨" ("chowhound; foodie"), Jing Wen remarks:

I think chīhuò 吃货 is what a gastronome or a food aficionado calls him/herself.  Basically it means people who love eating and know how to eat well. It is not polite to say someone else is a chīhuò 吃货, if they are not close friends or family members. (It is still inappropriate to say "my dad is a chīhuò 吃货", but it is OK to say "my brother is a chīhuò 吃货").

Notice that Xiaoman eats with a spoon and fork, not chopsticks.  I've seen many college students, monks, and others who prefer to eat with fork and spoon rather than with chopsticks.  I met one Buddhist monk who told me that he never learned how to eat with chopsticks.  But Xiaoman is also good with her hands (she'd do well in India) and even directly with her mouth, down to the last noodle in the bowl.

[Thanks to Mark Metcalf, Maiheng Dietrich, and Jing Wen]


  1. Michael Watts said,

    May 23, 2017 @ 12:15 am

    "Very" is the only sense of 蛮 that I'm familiar with, from talking to people in Shanghai, although there's an obvious bias in that other people have no real reason to start telling me about barbarians.

    I've never been fully clear on how "southern" Shanghai is considered to be.

  2. Yerushalmi said,

    May 23, 2017 @ 6:39 am

    That's a garden-path headline, that is.

    I was expecting an object for "eating", as in the theoretical sentence "How a Toddler Who Loves Eating Ketchup Learned to Like Mustard". I was immediately confused by "transfixed", but had no time to start wondering what it would mean to transfix your fine china (and then eat it!) before I hit the end of the headline and realized I had misinterpreted the whole thing.

  3. charlotte said,

    May 23, 2017 @ 9:50 am

    My own name can be translated as "little man" which annoys me no end.

  4. Ellen Kozisek said,

    May 23, 2017 @ 11:12 am

    So does the "man" part of the "little man" translation come from mistakenly understanding Xiaoman as a a bilingual term combining two languages?

  5. Lai Ka Yau said,

    May 23, 2017 @ 1:18 pm

    @Yerushalmi: I had a similar experience, but is it really a garden path though? I'm not sure because it seems that 'How a Toddler Who Loves Eating Ketchup Learned to Like Mustard' has roughly the same syntactic structure as the actual headline – it seems that we were just expecting a different argument structure for 'eating'…

  6. liuyao said,

    May 24, 2017 @ 9:50 am

    I was hoping VHM would do a linguistic/philological analysis of 蛮 in the sense of "very". Given that it was originally a derogatory term for "barbarians" in the south (possibly Austroasiatics that have long been displaced or assimilated), how did it come about that the southern topolects (or when they speak their variants of Mandarin) have this character or word for "very"? Are there alternative characters for this morpheme?

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