Playing a small abacus

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A learned colleague observed:

A few days ago, a Chinese military spokesperson was criticizing U.S. Department of Defense budget priorities.  The spokesperson said, "We have noticed that the U.S. defense department always likes to play 'small abacus' when seeking military budgets, in an attempt to gain more benefits for itself by rendering the threat of other countries [sic]."

From and Xinhua.

The colleague went on to ask:

That must have sounded better in Chinese.  What did he mean by that?  Does it refer to lowballing budgets?  Is it like "penny-wise-pound-foolish?"

"Small abacus" is the literal translation of "xiaǒ suànpán 小算盤" (fig., "selfish calculations; bean-counting") — see here and here.  This is a kind of slang that Chinese frequently use in spoken language, not in formal writing.  It means "guǐ zhǔyi] 鬼主意" ("wicked idea / scheme; evil plan / plot") , "xiǎo cōngmíng 小聰明" ("devious / petty cleverness"), "xiǎo jìliǎng 小伎倆" ("little trick"). It also appears in the Idiomatic phrase "dǎ xiaǒ suànpán 打小算盤", which literally means "being calculating; making petty calculations; count / calculate on a small abacus"), but figuratively conveys the ideas of "petty and selfish scheming; being concerned with petty interests; being selfish and uncaring of the interests of others; being a bean counter; showing petty shrewdness") — see here and here.

In sum, as it were, "dǎ xiaǒ suànpán 打小算盤" ("playing a small abacus") implies to calculate in a way that may be detrimental to others. The reason why Xinhua News Agency describes US military officers as "playing a small abacus" is that — in the mind of the Chinese officials — US military officers make use of the China threat to gouge larger budgets from the US government. As I pointed out above, the phrase is decidedly more a slang expression than formal usage. By employing such a colloquial expression, the US military officers are portrayed by the Chinese spokesmen as unprofessional, selfish, and particularly, stupid, as their vulgar tricks are easily recognized.

Perhaps "niggling" is a possible translation for "dǎ xiaǒ suànpán 打小算盤" ("playing a small abacus"). The US military officers niggle over the China threat to gouge military budgets. In any event, to use such an expression with reference to one's counterparts in another country is definitely deprecatory.

[h.t. dako-xiaweiyi; thanks to Zeyao Wu, Qing Liao, and Xiuyuan Mi]


  1. Joyce Melton said,

    March 26, 2019 @ 12:42 am

    Kind of like "po' mouth" in Southern speech, though not quite.

  2. Robot Therapist said,

    March 26, 2019 @ 8:26 am

    An béal bocht?

  3. loonquawl said,

    March 27, 2019 @ 7:41 am

    How is the use of a small abacus connected to unsavory accounting? Is using a small abacus (small in the sense of less beads) synonymous with loss of precision, or is it about a physically small abacus that will lead to error owing to fumbling by relatively thick fingers, or is the correct use of a big abacus easier to check by onlookers or is it something else entirely?

  4. John Shutt said,

    March 27, 2019 @ 8:59 pm

    Perhaps the /small/ aspect is spiritually akin to English-language idiom "nickle and dime"?

  5. Marc said,

    March 28, 2019 @ 4:23 am

    Or perhaps, similar in use to ‘alligator arms’ (also a spoken slang, never written):

  6. James Wimberley said,

    April 2, 2019 @ 2:03 pm

    According to Wikipedia, the standard Chinese abacus has a 2:5 structure (two beads above the beam and five below), while the standard Japanese abacus is smaller, with 1:4. Could the Chinese usage be based on a xenophobic slur? During the Japanese invasion of the 1930s, traders dealing with the occupying forces would have had an incentive to adopt the form familiar to Japanese troops. Perhaps a "small abacus" hints at collaboration. The timing works too; Japan adopted the!:4 abacus only in the 1920s, so the form would have been unfamiliar to Chinese civilians.

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