A Philadelphian who doesn't like cheesesteaks and hoagies

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[*cheesesteak; hoagie]

Recently, a new phrase has swept through the internet in China:  dìyù tuōyóupíng 地域拖油瓶.

People who introduced me to this expression told me that it refers to somebody who is not good at or who is unfamiliar with things associated with the place where he / she is from.  Of course, I had no problem with dìyù 地域, which means "region(al)", but I couldn't quite grasp the nuances of 拖油瓶 in this phrase.

Originally a Wu topolecticism, syllable by syllable it literally means "drag (along) oil bottle", but as a whole it signifies "children from the previous marriage of a woman who is about to remarry" (Wiktionary); "(derog.) (of a woman) to bring one's children into a second marriage / children by a previous marriage" (MDBG).

MSM  tuōyóupíng / Cant. to1 jau4 peng4-2 / / Wu thu hhieu bin  拖油瓶

So how do you get from the surface signification of these three characters to the idea that it refers to children from a first marriage brought into a second marriage?  And, from that, how do we get to the latest popular phrase, dìyù tuōyóupíng 地域拖油瓶 ("somebody who is not good at or who is unfamiliar with things associated with the place where he / she is from")?

Here are some sources in Chinese that attempt to explain the meaning and usage of this newly popular phrase:  here, here, and here.  Since the applications of dìyù tuōyóupíng 地域拖油瓶 ("somebody who is not good at or who is unfamiliar with things associated with the place where he / she is from") are still fast evolving — it's a very convenient phrase for stereotyping and making fun of people from different parts of China — I'll just quote a few comments from PRC graduate students to help explain the fundamental meaning of tuōyóupíng 拖油瓶 and dìyù tuōyóupíng 地域拖油瓶.

Regarding the former:

It means these children are not born in the family but are brought there. As non-biological children, they do not follow the tradition of the new family.

This fits with the generally disparaging tone in which tuōyóupíng 拖油瓶 is applied to children of a former marriage. It also comports with the clumsy and not very transparent English translation for tuōyóupíng 拖油瓶 which is widely circulating on the Chinese web: "drag".

This negative attitude about a remarried woman with children is reinforced by the following explanation of tuōyóupíng 拖油瓶 by another informant:

Typically, a tuōyóupíng 拖油瓶 woman is defined that way because people think she is not good enough for her new husband, and yet she brings her children from a previous marriage along with her, making things even worse for her new husband. Thus she is the tuōyóupíng 拖油瓶 for her new husband. But if a woman is very, very wealthy or has high status, when she marries a new husband and brings her children, I don't think people would consider her as a tuōyóupíng 拖油瓶.

For the expanded, and currently very popular, phrase, dìyù tuōyóupíng 地域拖油瓶 (often translated as "regional drag", which doesn't really make any sense in English, certainly not for this context):

I guess dìyù tuōyóupíng 地域拖油瓶 here also makes sense since the person (the one who is not adept at doing something that's associated with the place he/she comes from) in a sense is not good enough to represent his hometown region, therefore he is a tuōyóupíng 拖油瓶 ("trailing / dragging oil bottle") for that place.  Tuōyóupíng 拖油瓶 in this phrase could also be understood as a tuōhòutuǐ 拖后腿 (lit., "trail / drag back leg", i.e., "impede"; someone who is not familiar with something, or not good at something such that he / she drags the leg of the other people or drags the leg of the rest of the group). I also hear people say "Wǒ gěi jiāxiāng tuōhòutuǐ le 我给家乡拖后腿了" ("Im hindering / holding back my hometown"). I think both phrases — dìyù tuōyóupíng 地域拖油瓶 and wǒ gěi jiāxiāng tuōhòutuǐ le 我给家乡拖后腿了 —  refer to the same scenario.

To gain a better grasp the meaning of dìyù tuōyóupíng 地域拖油瓶 (so-called "regional drag"), here are some examples of the way it's being applied:

1. A Beijinger who's never been to the Great Wall and the Palace Museum, and who's never seen a flag-raising.

2. A person from Xinjiang who can't sing and dance.

3. A person from Inner Mongolia who can't ride a horse and shoot a bow.

4. A person from Sichuan who doesn't like hot, spicy food.

5. A Tianjiner who can't perform xiàngsheng 相声 ("cross-talk [comic dialog]).

Most interesting of all to me is this one:

6. Somebody from Huanggang who's not good at math.

If you don't know the lore of the modern Chinese examination system, you won't have a clue what this means. Here's some background:

Huanggang is the home of Huanggang Middle School, one of the most prestigious secondary schools in China. The school is especially well known for its smart and diligent students. It has consistently excellent records in China's National Higher Education Entrance Examination and International Science Olympiad. Students from Huanggang Middle School have won 25 medals in The International Mathematical Olympiad, International Physics Olympiad and International Chemistry Olympiad. Textbooks and course materials edited by faculty from this school are widely recognized and popular across the country, making Huanggang High School a national brand. Huanggang Normal University is a full-time institution of higher education located in the city of Huanggang.

I have met students who graduated from Huanggang Middle School.  From the way they describe the regimen there, it is like years of boot camp, but instead of physical challenges and military training, it is studying from early in the morning till late at night.  At Dartmouth back in the early 60s, we called it "booking", but most of my classmates didn't do much of it because there were too many other interesting things going on, like skiing.  Few of them could be accused of being a dìyù tuōyóupíng 地域拖油瓶 ("regional drag") when it came to skiing.

[h.t. Tong Wang; thanks to Jing Wang and Jinyi Cai]


  1. Chandra said,

    June 7, 2018 @ 2:23 pm

    There is of course our idiom of someone being "a drag", as in a fun-ruiner, as a vague approximation, though it doesn't quite fit either sense.

  2. Ethan said,

    June 7, 2018 @ 3:27 pm

    There's also the English, originally hip-hop, slang "to drag" meaning "to insult harshly": "Drag him bro!"

  3. Joyce Melton said,

    June 8, 2018 @ 12:42 am

    For someone who is not good at things they are expected to be good at, I have heard the word "stick" used. As in, "Don't be a stick, show us your moves," for someone who is not a good dancer.

    Perhaps extended and reduced from "stick in the mud"? There's also, "old stick" for someone who doesn't have fun anymore.

  4. Alyssa said,

    June 8, 2018 @ 10:34 am

    It's a bit surprising to me that there isn't already any expression for this in English. For tuōyóupíng 拖油瓶, what comes to mind is "black sheep", but there's nothing for regional misfits.

  5. Vanya said,

    June 9, 2018 @ 5:37 am

    Great word. We have no obvious word in English for, say, Austrians who don‘t ski or Texans who hate football. Personally I would use it for Bostonians who root for the Yankees.

  6. mg said,

    June 10, 2018 @ 7:13 pm

    @Vanya – the term for Bostonians who root for the Yankees is "transplanted New Yorkers." :)

  7. Keith said,

    June 12, 2018 @ 3:27 am

    On 拖油瓶, the people I asked (n=4) all emphasized the sense of "worst-performing member of the team/burden to everyone else." When asked, they agreed that it could also refer to the children brought by a women into her second marriage.

    Interestingly, a coworker says originally it was 托有病 (bing4 = sickness). He was not sure how or when it transitioned to 拖油瓶.

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