The transcription of the name "China" in Chinese characters

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There's a joke going around in mainland China about the best way to transcribe the name of the country in Chinese characters.  Each line is redolent of some social issue:

the bachelor reads it as qīnǎ 妻哪 = where is my wife? (N.B.:  the Chinese term for "bachelor" here is guānggùn 光棍, which may also in some contexts be rendered as "ruffian" and more literally as "bare stick / club"; it refers to unmarried young men who have, already for centuries, been responsible for a disproportionate amount of violence in society, including especially in recent years the knifing of small children at schools; one of the reasons for the hostility demonstrated by guānggùn in Chinese society is the inordinate gender imbalance caused by female infanticide and now in utero sex determination which leads to higher rates of abortion for female fetuses — there simply aren't enough women to go around)

the playboy reads it as qiènǎ 妾哪 = where is my mistress?
the lover reads it as qīnnǎ 亲哪 = where is my darling?
the poor person reads it as qiánnǎ 钱哪 = where is my money?
the doctor reads it as qiènǎ 切哪 = where to cut?
the official reads it as quánnǎ 权哪 = where is my power?
the real estate developer reads it as quānnǎ 圈哪 = where can I encircle?
the dispossessed reads it as qiānnǎ 迁哪 = where should I move to?
the government reads it as chāinǎ 拆哪 = where should we demolish?

The government reading is said to be both the most apt in terms of meaning and most accurate in terms of sound.  When foreign visitors come to China, everywhere they turn they see the character 拆 painted on buildings, including the homes of many people who are still living in them.  Puzzled, they ask their translator what this ubiquitous sign means.  Whereupon the translator replies, "That's the name of our country.  From ancient times, the name of our country has been CHINA chāi[nǎ] 拆[哪] ("demolish; tear down") — demolition is absolutely essential."

The joke may be funny, but the reality behind it is not.  Briefly to address only the problem of chāi ("demolish; tear down"), forced demolition without compensation or with inadequate compensation has probably led to more violence in China during recent years than any other single cause.  Riots, suicides, bombings — all sorts of unpleasant results can occur when people see their houses being torn down around them, often in the middle of the night and with goon squads accompanying the bulldozers and backhoes.

A final note is that nǎ 哪 ("what; which"), which forms the second syllable of all these transcriptions, is an interrogative particle that carries no overt semantic content.  The little square (radical 30 [signifying "mouth"] in the traditional Kangxi system) at the left side of the character indicates that the sound it conveys is of more importance than any meaning it may be said to possess.  I mention this small grammatical point because it will come up again in my next post.

[A tip of the hat to Sanping Chen and thanks to Gianni Wan]


  1. Carl said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 4:34 am

    Does anyone have information about when the Japanese started using the transcription 支那 shina and when it came to be regarded as pejorative?

  2. Bob Violence said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 5:15 am

    There's a detailed article on Shina here, focusing mainly on the controversy but with some nods towards its origins (in Chinese Buddhist texts, apparently a transcription of an Indic word for "China").

  3. WT said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 5:22 am

  4. Tom said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 8:04 am

    I recently came across the transcription zhèndàn 震旦 for "China" in an essay on translation by the Buddhist monk Yán Cóng 彦琮 (557-610). I wonder what the oldest transliteration of "China" in Chinese is.

  5. Cecilia Segawa Seigle said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 10:21 am

    I will comment to Victor separately on his interesting and always thought-provoking essay. This is to Carl about the transcription of Shina, 支那. The information comes from 日本国語大辞典。Its use gradually spread after the mid-Edo period and was used as a general term for China through the WWII; the word Shina is, as you probably know, a foreigner's variation of 秦。I have no idea when it came to be regarded as pejorative because I never felt it was pejorative – at least, it never had the impression that the Americans convey by the use of "Chin" – like Chinglish. But the early use of the word 支那 never had any prejudice. The very first use that appears is in 性霊集 (date unknown), a collection of poetry and some writings by 空海(弘法大師)compiled by his disciple 真済 shortly after Kukai's death in 835. There are some other examples of early usage of the term 支那, all much earlier than the mid-Edo period. And needless to say, there was not a hint of any prejudice because China was a much advanced country culturally, politically, economically, for the most part of Japan's pre-modern existence.

  6. jayarava said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 1:20 pm

    @Cecilia. Yes but. China had threatened to invade Japan in 671, causing the Japanese capital to be moved away from the coast and up into the hills. And indeed in Kūkai's lifetime the Korean peninsular was controlled by a Tang backed Korean Regime (some things never change). This forced Kūkai to risk crossing the open ocean rather than coast hugging when he went to Changan. Also it's now well established that the missions to Tang were tribute paying missions, which is why they left Japan in the typhoon season (to get to the capital by the new year). All very civilised, but to say there was *no hint* of prejudice might be stretching it. And after all the Heian period was all about indigenous Japanese culture rising while Tang China imploded and went to the dogs. On the other hand Kūkai does seem to have been a Sinophile, so maybe he thought pure thoughts when he used 支那.

  7. Outis said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 4:56 pm

    Whatever the larger historical context, I agree with Cecilia that Kukai is unlikely to have used Shina pejoratively. I've never read that Tang threatened to invade Japan. The move to Heian-kyo was more the result of the Jinshin War and internal issues than international politics.

    As far as I can tell, Shina only became pejorative in the mid-20th century. Early 20th c. Chinese writers still used 支那 neutrally, some possibly even preferring it over 中國. I think Shina became pejorative because it became associated with stereotypical depiction of Japanese imperialists in the pop media. Although many Japanese undoubtedly looked down to China, even then I don't think they necessarily intended to express their disdain through the term Shina.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 6:46 pm

    For those who are interested in learning more about the guānggùn 光棍, there is this: Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer, Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population. And Matthew Sommer, who teaches at Stanford, has written about their activities and significance during the Qing (Manchu) period.

  9. Onymous said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 9:18 pm

    The term 支那 was not invented in Japan. It was merely an integral part of the great package of early cultural borrowings received from medieval China. As shown in Soothill's dictionary of Chinese Buddhist phrases, 支那 was used in medieval Buddhist literature in China as a transliteration of a Sanskrit word (for which the font is not at hand) that was evidently a transliteration of the name of the Qin state, used in India very likely before the imperial conquest. For about 75 years before 1945, Japan contested China's pre-eminence in East Asia, during the time when Chinese were elevating the word 中國 to the formal name of their redefined modern state and reconfigured ancient civilization, including the whole set of things called 國語, 國民, 國軍, 國劇, 國畫, 國粹, 國罵, etc. Effective objections to modern Japanese use of 支那 derive from China's claim to have been a victor in WW2.

  10. Choudoufu said,

    June 18, 2012 @ 12:09 am

    @Onymous: Very thought-provoking comment. I always wondered how 國語, 國民, 國軍, 國畫 etc. came by these names. I'd like to read more about this. Any suggestions where I might start?

  11. Brad Patterson said,

    June 18, 2012 @ 5:40 am

    Love these 中文 posts. Thanks Victor, and to all those who have added their comments above. Great reading.

  12. Tom said,

    June 18, 2012 @ 9:10 pm

    For those interested, here are all the transcriptions of "China" in the Buddhist canon that I know of, which presumably transliterate the Sanskrit Cīna:

    神丹 shéndān, 斯那 sīnà, 旃丹 zhāndān, 眞丹 zhēndān, 振丹 zhèndān, 振旦 zhèndàn, 震旦 zhèndàn, 眞那 zhēnnà, 支那 zhīnà, 脂那 zhīnà, 指那 zhǐnà, 至那 zhìnà, 脂難 zhīnán

    (source: Digital Dictionary of Buddhism)

  13. Zesheng Chen said,

    June 18, 2012 @ 9:30 pm

    To point out one mistake from a native speaker's view, 光棍 doesn't mean to any measure "ruffian". It's just the colloquialism for "bachelor", or roughly an equivalent of the English "forever alone". About the statement that 光棍s are "responsible for a disproportionate amount of violence in society, including especially in recent years the knifing of small children at schools", it's not true. In China there's no such implication. And the knifing of children is briefly pointed to some cowards hating the government but take that hatred out on people weaker than him, i.e. children.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    June 19, 2012 @ 12:04 am

    @ Zesheng Chen

    Whether you're a native speaker or not, you need to study the history of the guanggun in the Qing period and in more recent times before blithely proclaiming that it's a "mistake" for some people in certain contexts to translate the term as "ruffian". I gave some references, if you're interested in pursuing this question. Of course, I know as well as you do what the basic meaning of the term is, but terms sometimes have extended meanings too, and these often work their way into translations in particular contexts when called for.

    As for the knifings of children in schools, if you go back and read the news reports about them for the past five years or so, it's striking how many of them were carried out by individuals who are described as unmarried men. And sometimes the expression "guanggun" is used in social commentaries on these events.

  15. Zesheng Chen said,

    June 19, 2012 @ 10:23 pm

    @Victor Mair
    I agree with you on the meaning of guanggun, but that is what's discussed on Johnson's ( as "etymological fallacy". Back in Qing it might very well mean both, but for decades it has been the codeword for "single" and only for "single".
    And for the knifing. I grew up in China and I read the news. Nowhere has it highlighted anything about the killer being single or implied that being single caused those tragedies. The killers might be guangguns, but the public has never perceived guanggun as negative. It's just a neutral, colloquial term for someone without a wife or girlfriend, sometimes it may carry comic effect.

  16. Leslie said,

    June 19, 2012 @ 11:02 pm

    Zesheng Chen: this is for you.

    Here is the original meaning of guanggun from 互动百科.





    In certain Chinese languages, such as Cantonese, 光棍 still almost exclusively means 流氓, 骗子.

  17. Zesheng Chen said,

    June 20, 2012 @ 12:26 am

    As I said, I admit that guanggun did mean ruffian originally, but I can quite confidently say that no Chinese alive will take it that way unless he/she studies the etymology of that word. Say it to any common native Chinese speaker and the etymological "ruffian" will occur to no one. As for Cantonese, I am also a native speaker, and I can tell you that even if such a word existed in Cantonese, it's bound to be archaism and obsolete.

  18. Leslie said,

    June 20, 2012 @ 12:45 am

    Zesheng Chen: no you didn't. Stop twisting things around. This is what you said, "光棍 doesn't mean to ANY measure "ruffian". "Doesn't mean to any measure" = not possible.

    Are you sure you're a native Cantonese speaker?? I was born in the 80s and grew up in a 100% Cantonese speaking environment, 光棍 was still understood then as "someone who did bad things to others." That was in the 80s and 90s – I guess I'm really old or I'm actually not Chinese.

    Try talking to a Hakka-speaking person…

  19. Leslie said,

    June 20, 2012 @ 1:05 am

    Oh forgot…if you're really native Cantonese speaker, you would know this very popular Cantonse 歇後語, 光棍佬教仔, 便宜莫貪.

    But since you're a native Cantonese speaker, I don't have to explain to you what it means.

    If you go to any dominant Cantonese speaking areas now (yes, in 2012), such as Hong Kong or Guangzhou, 光棍佬 is still very much understood as a "swindler." "Bachelor" is the supplemental meaning.

  20. Zesheng Chen said,

    June 20, 2012 @ 1:53 am

    I was referring to what I said in reply to V Mair, "I agree with you on the meaning of guanggun". And yes you may be right, I might get it wrong because of my lack of exposure of the language. In my area, Shenzhen, there's no such word or such saying. But let's say that I am wrong on Cantonese and get back to the topic. It writes in this article that "guānggùn 光棍 may also in some contexts be rendered as ruffian" and that they have "been responsible for a disproportionate amount of violence in society, including especially in recent years the knifing of small children at schools" and that there is "hostility demonstrated by guānggùn in Chinese society". I admit that etymologically it can be ruffian. But can you provide any modern, daily context where that what he writes applies?

  21. Leslie said,

    June 20, 2012 @ 3:26 am

    Zesheng Chen: Okay, now you said "you lack exposure of the language." Stop lying, you are not native Cantonese speaker and you're not from Shenzhen. You know, 寶安區 IS part of Shenzhen – it is the area where many Hong Kong Hakka people originally came from. They (the "natives," not transplants) speak nothing but "standard" Cantonese and Hakka there. And I bet you 200% that they know and can explan to you what 光棍 is (and it doesn't mean "bachelor"). But of couse you don't know that because you're just making things up as you go.

    And you're seriously telling me that you never heard of those rumors 坊間傳聞 about 光棍 and murderers and molesters??!! Which part of Shenzhen do you live? Now I'm just concerned because the way you talk seem like you're completely isolated from the mainstream Chinese society. You might want to get out of the house (stop watching CCTV!) and actually go talk to local people.

    Your attitude is annoying. You're not the only person here who understands the Chinese language. You talk as if you know everything. "In my area, Shenzhen, there's no such word or such saying." – what nerve! Stop talking as if you know the language more than the native people who live there.

    Here is to real, native Cantonese speakers:

    Take this phrase (an apt description of yourself) and ask any "real" native Cantonese speaker what 光棍 in the sentence means.

    And have a good day, there's no point to continue on this conservation with someone who lies about stuff.

  22. Zesheng Chen said,

    June 20, 2012 @ 4:30 am

    OK, you win. Let's sum this up. I commented and said the meaning of guanggun was wrong, and pointed out that there's no implication of guanggun being negative. And Prof. Mair pointed out my mistake about which I admitted that I was wrong etymologically, but I insisted that guanggun is not perceived as socially negative figures. Then you gave me the etymology of guanggun, and I admitted that I was wrong, and because I didn't hear of guanggun spoken in Cantonese I just alleged that such a word didn't exist. For that I apologize. But I still insisted on guanggun not being perceived negative nowadays. Then you gave me examples in Cantonese; that's a wordplay. It's clearly seen from the article that it's talking about Mandarin. About the rumors, maybe I never stepped out of my house, and maybe I spoke non-standard language, but how do you explain that when I went on and and and, and searched 光棍+幼儿园, no negative content comes; and then 光棍+砍, one negative news comes up, in which the guanggun is the victim?
    My point after correction is that guanggun did have negative connotation from the beginning, but that meaning has already disappeared in modern Mandarin or in the modern Chinese society.
    And yes, you are right. We should stop this conversation before it is turned into endless ad hominem.
    And for your information, "my lack of exposure of the language" is just a euphemism for "I am sorry; I never heard of that before"

  23. Zesheng Chen said,

    June 20, 2012 @ 4:42 am

    光棍+小学生+砍 brings only one piece of negative news. All the rest are unharmful jokes, mostly with content such as "why are there so many couples in school while so many singles in society?" or "Primary school students celebrate Valentine's Day while Juniors and Seniors celebrate Singles' Day"
    And for anyone reading this, I beg you to ask any of the Chinese-speaking people you know to see if the word guanggun has negative connotation linguistically or socially.

  24. Bathrobe said,

    June 23, 2012 @ 1:28 am

    I tend to agree with Zesheng Chen. My feeling is that currently 光棍 doesn't necessarily have the negative connotations of 'ruffian' that it originally had.

    You may be interested to know that with Singles Day (11 Nov), unmarried young Chinese now hold parties to try and meet partners and lose their bachelorhood. One of the resulting expressions is 脱光, which means 'get out of guanggun-hood', but has the original meaning of 'strip naked'.

    About the word 支那, Chinese still use 印度支那 (abbreviated to 印支) for Indochina.

  25. Bathrobe said,

    June 23, 2012 @ 1:34 am

    Incidentally, I'm speaking about Mandarin as spoken in Beijing. I don't know any Cantonese.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    June 25, 2012 @ 2:00 am

    Chen Zesheng begged us to ask native Chinese speakers what the meaning of 光棍 is. I have done so by asking approximately fifteen of my graduate students and colleagues at Penn, in China, and elsewhere what they think of when they hear the term 光棍. The results are actually quite intriguing. They indicate that younger people and people who are not so highly conversant with Chinese literature and history usually tend to think of 光棍 as meaning only or chiefly “bachelor”. Chinese language teachers also tend to adopt this position for contemporary Mandarin. However, when we get into practically all topolects and any texts (historical and literary) earlier than the middle of last century, then it is clear that 光棍 had, and still has, negative connotations.

    It would seem that, perhaps out of sympathy to 光棍 who cannot find a woman to marry, party ideologues and the teachers who follow their directions have made a conscious effort to remove the negative connotations from the word 光棍, and it seems that they have been fairly successful – at the normative, prescriptive level. Descriptively, however, the situation is not nearly so tidy.

    Before I present my data, I just want to say that Chen Zesheng’s Google search was feeble and inadequate. I distinctly remember half-a-dozen school knifings in China during the last four years or so that were described as being carried out by single (unmarried) males aged 50 or younger, most of them in their 20s and 30s. To deny that gender imbalance exists in Chinese society and that it has severe consequences is simply not to face reality.

    Now the data, in no particular order (actually, just as I received them). I give a very brief description of the background of each individual I queried, and classify them as rounghly “young” (35 or below), “middle” (35-50), and “older” (50 and above). It will be immediately evident that my respondents are all highly educated and from the main eastern, urban centers of China. So far as I know, all of my respondents come from Taiwan (3) and the eastern part of China, with perhaps one exception from Sichuan and one from Hunan, but even the latter two individuals received their higher education in eastern China (specifically Beijing). If I had time to go into the countryside all over the country, I’m certain (judging from the responses given) that the negative associations of 光棍 would be much more prevalent than they appear to be from the following data. Yet, even the evidence I present here – gathered from educated, eastern elite – shows that 光棍 does not mean simply “bachelor”, but that it has other nuances and connotations that should not be ignored.

    Chinese language teacher from Taiwan, M.A. / younger:

    光棍 usually refers to single males. However, it usually doesn't include divorcees or widowers. It usually refers to those who never get married and never have children. There is a phrase 打光棍, which means "to stay single." I can't think of other meanings of this term though.

    Ph.D. in Chinese literature / middle:

    An interesting question!
    When I saw this word, the following images/meanings came to mind:
    1) A man who reaches the age of marriage but can’t find a wife (到现在他还是光棍一条);
    2) A poor man without money and power (so he can’t find a girl to marry)(他是光棍一个,没房没地, 一人吃饱,全家不饿);
    3) A lazy man, who doesn’t work hard enough to make money to get married(到现在他光棍一个在村子里晃悠);
    4) A country man without much education(从小不学习,到现在没文化,娶不上媳妇,光棍一个);
    5) A negative image to be looked down by others (你再要这样下去,就会打一辈子光棍!)。

    Ph.D. candidate in Chinese literature, educated in Beijing; young:

    空洞 haha it is the counterpart for 光棍

    Ph.D. candidate in Chinese history, Tsinghua University, from Hunan / young:

    When I see the word 光棍, the first meaning to my mind is the unmarried male person. And usually when my friend from Beijing say the word, "er" will be added in the end, Guang guner. The verb Da 打 is often used to take Guanggun as an object. Da guanggun 打光棍, the same meaning as Da Danshen 打单身。

    However, Guanggun is not a neutral concept. When we (especially my elders) use this word to describe somebody, we are not only describe his marriage status, but also his bad act as a vagrant and varmint. But we more and more use the word as a common word, and its bad meanings gradually vanish to us.

    Chinese language teacher, M.A / middle:






    Ph.D. in statistics but with very strong background in Chinese history / older:

    Ah, I left China more than 30 years ago, and cannot vouch for numerous new words and new meanings of old words.

    But 光 棍 is a premodern word, with the primary negative meaning of a ruffian (地痞), as in expressions like 青皮光棍. I am tempted to ascribe its origin to meaning someone who cannot be restrained or controlled by normal family relations, i.e. a person without any social/familial constraints. Hence perhaps the derived meaning of a wifeless man.

    Ph.D. in art history, now a Chinese language teacher / young:

    The only meaning that would come to mind is "single man".

    Ph.D. candidate in Chinese literature and history / young:

    The first thing that comes to my mind is a single male (a bachelor). It may also mean a 流氓, ruffian, bad guy. But this seems to be old usage, which often occurs in the Ming and Qing novels. The literal meaning of the two characters, however, is a bare stick.
    A very interesting phenomenon is that in recent years, some young Chinese started to celebrate the 光棍节 (festival for the singles, both male and female), on the day of November, 11th (11月11日, with 4 bare sticks). 2011年11月11日 is considered the millennial festival for the singles (世纪光棍节).

    Ph.D. in Chinese language pedagogy / middle:

    1, bachelor
    2, single person. example: The government official has his family immigrated to the US, now he is a 'guanggun' in china. [na4ge zheng4fu3 guan1yuan2 ba3 jia1ren2 dou1 yi2min2 dao4le Mei3guo2, xian4zai4 zai4 Zhong1guo2 ta1 shi4 guang1gun4 yi4 tiao2.]

    It has a little bit negative connotation, that is 'poor'. It a man is single but rich, we would say he is 'zuan4shi2 Wang2 Lao3wu3' (Diamond Wang the Fifth) which is more common in Cantonese.

    Ph.D. in Chinese language pedagogy / young:

    Guangun, to me, means only one thing: a single person (usually male) who is not yet married. There is a compound "nv guanggun 女光棍“ to mean "a bachelorette."

    If any connotations, then perhaps the person is "poor." It has a different connotation from words such as 单身汉, or the more recently coined 剩男.

    Ch. language teacher from Taiwan, M.A. / middle:

    My family seldom use 光棍. I think is more "Mainland Usage" . Some words that Taiwanese may feel "俗“,such as " 搞“ or "光棍“。I heard that there is " 光棍節“,Nov 11, it is quite creative.

    Ph.D. candidate Chinese lit. / young:

    I checked the item form the website of the dictionary of Taiwan MOE.
    There are a few idioms about guanggun. The following is the list.

    1. 不光棍

    2. 飛天光棍
    3. 打光棍
    4. 泥腿光棍
    5. 女光棍
    6. 老光棍
    7. 光棍
    8. 光棍
    9. 光棍不吃眼前虧
    10. 闖光棍
    11. 充光棍
    12. 油頭光棍
    13. 游嘴光棍

    From the above, there are a few negative meanings about 光棍. However, the second 光棍 (勇敢又有膽識的聰明人) is a positive meaning and it attracts my attention the most. In addition, 女光棍 seems that 光棍 needs to be added with a 女, in order to indicate a bachelorette. Therefore, 光棍 originally might just indicate the males without wives or partners and it emphasizes their male identity.

    Peking U. grad, Ph.D. cand. in Egyptology, native of Beijing / young:

    I would read this word 光棍儿. It refers to single man who has reached marriageable age but cannot (or very difficult to) get a wife. Now people have a new word 剩男 for them.

    {{VHM: The new word this respondent introduces, one that I had never heard of before, in both interesting and revealing: shèng nán剩男 (“surplus / left-over male”)}}

    I think the meaning of the word 光棍 is negative enough. Chinese people usually think that all people should get married. A man who cannot get a wife is considered to be a loser. Have you ever heard "相亲"? If people reach 25 and do not get a boy/girl friend, or their parents are not satisfied with their boy/girl friends, their parents will arrange 相亲 for them. People are usually under great pressure from both the society and their families if they are still single at their late twenties. My cousin, who is 29, had 相亲 with more than thirty girls during the past two years. At first he does not want to get married but now he thinks he has to. But he cannot be called 光棍 because he will sooner or later get married since he is nice, handsome and has a decent job. 光棍 refers to a man to whom no women want to marry. People do not call a rich single man 光棍 because there must be many women who want to marry him and he can get married at any time.

    Ph.D., Chinese language teacher / young:

    For me, it means bachelor, an unmarried guy.

    Ph.D. candidate in Chinese literature, Peking University, from Shandong / young:

    The word "Guanggun" reminds me of two meanings:
    1. a man who isn't married
    2. villain (在我的家乡话里,光棍很多时候指凶恶的坏人,但是读音有一点点不同。同时,我也联想到家乡的一种菜,名字叫做“光棍鸡”,挺好吃的,沂蒙山特色菜。)

  27. Victor Mair said,

    June 25, 2012 @ 6:42 pm

    Late entry from a Ph.D. candidate in Chinese literature who is from Yunnan but was educated in Tianjin; young

    You are absolutely right about the meaning of 光棍.

    光棍 emphasizes with demoralizing and derogative tone a group of men who couldn't get married after having passed their age of marriage as expected by the social norm. 光棍节 is a jocular term used by young bachelors (despite their social and cultural backgrounds) who mock their single status to express their anxieties about not being able to get up to the "normal" speed of a "normal" person's life track as expected by the society.

    屌(diao) 丝 is a newly emerged word that designates a group of men who are characterized as "poor, ugly, and short" (qiongchou'ai 穷丑矮) as opposed the other group of males "tall, rich, and handsome" (gaofushuai 高富帅). While 屌(diao) 丝 is also used by a type of young men who mock their low social status with a certain tone of irony and frivolity (even though they might not be the case such as the celebrated writer 韩寒), a real 光棍 in both late imperial China and contemporary China may very likely be the type of people who are from the very low stratum of the society.

  28. Victor Mair said,

    June 25, 2012 @ 6:49 pm

    Professor of Chinese history, from Taiwan, but with American Ph.D.; middle:

    I still think of Lu Xun's Ah Q as the quintessential guanggun. but it is interesting to learn how this term became more mixed in modern times.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    June 25, 2012 @ 7:46 pm

    Supplemental note from respondent no. 6:

    Forgot to add a postscript that -gun 棍 is a general “ruffian” suffix. Examples are 恶棍 “villain, thug,” 赌棍 “a compulsive gambler,” 讼棍 “an ambulance chaser,” and in our modern age, 党棍 “those who work in the CCP’s propaganda department?” and 学棍 “an academic bully.” This suffix would seem to support my postulated etymology for 光棍.

  30. Victor Mair said,

    June 26, 2012 @ 6:58 pm

    From Jim Dew, whom I consider to be the doyen of Chinese language teachers (in terms of his experience, expertise, and credentials):

    I did indeed enjoy browsing through that languagelog entry. Even more interesting than the cute list of transliterations for "China" was the discussion, under Comments, of the meaning(s) of guanggùn, and the existence or nonexistnce of the term in Cantonese. I couldn't help thinking of the strong inclination that many people have to assume that their own speech habits exactly represent the habits of their entire speech community, and I quickly recalled a little example of this phenomenon that I experienced a dozen years ago in Beijing.

    In a group discussion I used the term sìzhouwéi ('all around'). One of the teachers in the program that I was connected with waited until she found me alone (so as not to embarrass me) to "correct" me: "Du Laoshi, women bushuo 'sizhouwei'. 'Sizhou' keyi shuo, 'zhouwei' ye keyi, keshi meiyou ren shuo 'sizhouwei'." I was surprised because I had thought sizhouwei was a normal term. But this person, about thirty years old and a language teacher, was quite sure of herself; so I began to doubt myself. When I went home I looked in my new Xiandai Hanyu Cidian, and sizhouwei was not there!

    As it happened, just a few days later, an invited speaker, a woman around 70 years of age, describing a difficult trek that she had endured in the late 1930s, said something like "… sizhouwei dou meiyou cunzhuang, meiyou ren jia." I looked around and was disappointed to see that the teacher who had "corrected" me was not present.

    I went back to my bookshelf and found a well-worn earlier edition of the Xian-Han, and there was 'sizhouwei'! – confirming that this obsolescing term had been dropped to make room for one of the many new terms that had to be included in that handy dictionary.

    This is clearly an example of language change and obsolescence of vocabulary from one generation to another. But it also illustrates the common misapprehension shared by many people that their speech habits represent the entire speech community, and of course it is a caution for language learners to keep in mind when they seek answers to questions of usage from "native speakers."

  31. Victor Mair said,

    July 11, 2012 @ 8:02 am

    New scholarly article on the subject of guānggùn 光棍:

    JIANG Quanbao and Jesús J. Sánchez-Barricarte, "Bare Branches and Social Stability: A Historical Perspective from China," Frontiers of History in China, 6.4 (December, 2011), 538-561.

    Available at:

  32. Victor Mair said,

    July 11, 2012 @ 12:19 pm

    from Haitao Tang:

    This is not funny at all. How many people are suffering from the ruthless act
    of demolishing buildings, including buildings with cultural significance?
    The government hasn't done enough (or maybe is not doing anything) to uphold
    law and protect people. What a pity!

    Now, about the term "guanggun": when it means a bachelor, it usually carries a retroflex ending er, as guanggunr. In its non-pejorative sense, the gun part is pronounced in qingsheng [VHM: neutral tone], and it could mean someone being tough, or worldly experienced. The gun normally carries a pejorative sense, as used in compounds like dugun (a cheating gambler), yingun (a licentious person), tugun (a local bully), jiugun ( a heavy drinker) etc. In such cases the gun part is always stressed.

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