Shifting valences of "throwing the pot" in Chinese

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There's an odd expression that has become virally popular in the PRC in recent weeks, viz., shuǎi guō 甩锅 (lit., "throw / toss the pot / pan", i.e., "shift the blame; pass the buck").

Expressions related to guō 锅 ("pot / pan") are not new.  For example, bèi guō 背锅 ("bear the blame"), and guō cóng tiān jiàng 锅从天降 ("accusation / blame coming from nowhere", lit., "pot falling from the sky").  Together with shuǎi guō 甩锅 (lit., "throw / toss the pot / pan") itself, they were popular long before their current application in connection with accusations of responsibility and culpability for the COVID-19 pandemic.

So far as I know, the expression shuǎi guō 甩锅 (lit., "throw / toss the pot / pan") is not a recent coinage. It was originally an expression used by players of League of Legends (a multiplayer online battle arena video game released in 2009), and has been popular for many years.

The earliest application that has come to my attention is that it goes back to old days when soldiers on the march had to carry all their gear.  Since the cooking pan was the heaviest item that no one wanted to have to carry, they would toss it off on someone else if they could.

Using guō 锅 ("pot; pan") to mean "blame" apparently derives from the idiomatic expression "bēi hēiguō 背黑锅" ("bear a black pot / pan"). According to Xiàndài Hànyǔ dà cídiǎn 现代汉语大词典 (Unabridged Dictionary of Modern Sinitic) and Hàn-Yīng dà cídiǎn 汉英大词典 (Unabridged Sinitic-English Dictionary), "bēi hēiguō 背黑锅" ("bear a black pot / pan")" is used metaphorically to mean "take the blame for others"; "be made a scapegoat"; "be unjustly blamed". It's suggested that guō 锅 ("pot; pan") has been used to refer to "blame; responsibility" because its pronunciation in Cantonese, wo1, is similar to that of wo6 祸" ("misfortune; disaster; calamity").

Shuǎi guō 甩锅 (lit., "throw / toss the pot / pan", i.e., "shift the blame; pass the buck") has become a virally popular expression ever since the beginning of the pandemic in Wuhan. It was first applied to the officials of the local government and experts of health commissions who tried to pass the blame to other departments.

Subsequently, as is well known, its usage was extended to describe similar acts between nations. Thanks to the aggressive Chinese "wolf warrior diplomats" and CCTV, who have been endeavoring to adopt popular phrases of the grassroots since recent years, shuǎi guō 甩锅 (lit., "throw / toss the pot / pan", i.e., "shift the blame; pass the buck") has successfully established itself in the vocabulary of official speeches by replacing more formal expressions like tuīxiè zérèn 推卸责任 ("shirk responsility"). Contrary to shuǎi guō 甩锅 (lit., "throw / toss the pot / pan", i.e., "shift the blame; pass the buck") is bèi guō / bēi hēiguō 背锅/背黑锅 ("take / bear / shoulder blame for the faults of others"), which has a longer history than shuǎi guō 甩锅 (lit., "throw / toss the pot / pan", i.e., "shift the blame; pass the buck"). Here is a link for bēi hēiguō 背黑锅 (in Chinese).

Still more recently, the CCP — realizing how popular the expression had become with regard to netizen condemnation of the misdeeds of the various government agencies, especially in Wuhan where the pandemic began in late 2019 before it was publicly recognized as an epidemic disease in January — decided to adopt it for their own purposes to pass the buck to the United States and other nations.

Here are some other examples of the CCP coopting popular culture:

Once the CCP government and its supporters got into the spirit of blaming the United States and other Western countries for the spread of the novel coronavirus, variations of the theme of "passing the pot / pan" proliferated, e.g., "jiē guō 接锅" ("receive / take the blame"), "rén zài jiāzhōng zuò, guō cóng tiān shàng lái人在家中坐,锅从天上来" (lit., "someone is sitting at home when a pot comes down from heaven above", i.e., "somebody is blamed for no reason"), etc.

Bill Bikales, who is a seasoned China specialist and is currently in Beijing, confirms that this expression, shuǎi guō 甩锅 (lit., "throw / toss the pot / pan", i.e., "shift the blame; pass the buck"), is now ubiquitous in Chinese official / media discussions of America's criticisms of China's handling of COVID-19.

He further relates:

I had lunch today with an embassy officer from SE Asia, and he said that they are all also very curious about this phrase, which none of them recall seeing before, and which is now being used so frequently, including by Zhao Lijian 赵立坚, Foreign Ministry spokesperson, in his press meeting yesterday.  It seems to be used now as a transitive verb, e.g., "Měiguó zài shuǎi guō Zhōngguó 美国在甩锅中国" ("America is shifting the blame to China"), etc.

He said that they are also hunting to learn how this phrase came from out of nowhere to be so widely used by officials here now.  Are they all secretly gamers?

There are numerous WeChat stickers regarding "锅" ("pot; pan" > "blame").


"甩锅" ("throw the pot/pass the buck")


"你背" ("let you carry the pot", i.e., "lay the blame on you")


"你的锅" ("it's your pot"/ "it's for you to get the blame")

And here's Jiabao Li's lively "Toss Pan Dance shuǎiguō wǔ 甩锅舞", together with a video of President Trump doing his own anime version of the Toss Pan Dance and a compilation of people's Toss Pan Dance from the internet.

Selected readings

[Thanks to June Teufel Dreyer, Ben Zimmer, Tong Wang, Yijie Zhang, Yixue Yang, Chenfeng Wang]



9 Comments

  1. John Swindle said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 8:35 pm

    That character 甩 shuǎi 'throw' is already kind of weird.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 8:58 pm

    Good observation! I've always felt that way about that character too. As it turns out:

    =====

    This is a late character, and the divergent readings in various topolects may or may not be cognate.

    The Mandarin reading came from 摔 (shuāi, "to fling, to throw, to fall down"), which can be traced to *srut in Old Chinese. It can be compared with Tibetan རུད (rud, "slip, that which has slipped down, falling mass, landslides"), རུད་རུད་པོ (rud rud po, "loosened, disintegrated, rough").

    The Cantonese reading is probably unrelated, though it may reflect a descendant of the archaic pronunciation *rut and hence be cognate with Mandarin. Either way, it is evidently from the same source as Min Nan 甪 (lut, "to come off, to slip loose"), Zhuang lot ("to come loose and drop off (due to loose tying)"), and Vietnamese lột ("to peel, to strip off"). May be compared with Tibetan ལོད་པོ (lod po, "relaxed, careless"), ལྷོད་པོ (lhod po, "relaxed, loose, lax"), and the Chinese word family of 兌 (*lot, > 脫 ("to come off"), 蛻 ("exuviae")). Unlikely to be related to 落 (luò, "to fall, to drop off").

    =====

    Source: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E7%94%A9

  3. Dave said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 1:06 am

    what's the etymology of the pot/pan? the videos seem to be of cooking pans, but the first thing I thought of reading the translation of 人在家中坐,锅从天上来 was of a chamberpot.

  4. Dave said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 1:26 am

    never mind, looks unrelated
    https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/尿壺

    I wonder if there are any related expressions in european languages? Seems to have been a common problem:

    https://books.google.ch/books?id=dVrdCQAAQBAJ&pg=PT30&lpg=PT30&dq=cooking+pot+napoleonic+army&source=bl&ots=gAGj9UsO1c&sig=ACfU3U2NRYv_ezrzhnua455W1Q3uHKnhuQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjM-tO8nbXpAhVhwqYKHZgrC4sQ6AEwGHoECAgQAQ#v=onepage&q=cooking%20pot%20napoleonic%20army&f=false

  5. david said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 3:54 am

    The pot calling the kettle black was cited by Cervantes.

    wiki /a>

  6. Victor Mair said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 6:41 am

    From Tsu-Lin Mei:

    There is a number of words meaning 'pot' in Chinese. 鼎 is still used in Min dialects /tiang/. 鬲 *grik, which was borrowed by Proto-Tai; you can find it in Li, Handbook of Comparative Tai, though Li does not know this fact. 釜 as in 曹植《七步诗》。 丁邦新 has a festschrift for his 80th birthday and in that volume I went back to the philological evidence for 鼎 in historical texts, e.g. 鐺 in 世说新语。

  7. BobW said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 4:42 pm

    Tosspot used to be used as an insulting term for a drunk. Have to add meaning #2 to the dictionaries now.

  8. Chris Button said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 10:17 pm

    Either way, it is evidently from the same source as Min Nan 甪

    I suppose that adds credence to the notion that 甩 is 用 "use" with a tail representing discarding something no longer of use. Having said that, it's interesting that the graphic form behind 甪 appears to be be a variant form of 角 "horn" whose lower component later merged with 用.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 18, 2020 @ 6:36 am

    From Bob Bauer:

    Corresponding lexical entries from the ABC Cantonese-English Comprehensive Dictionary (forthcoming from the University of Hawaii Press):

    孭鑊 me1 wok6 'literally, to carry a wok, i.e. a large round cooking pan, on one's back; figurative;
    also said as 孭黑鑊 me1 haak1/hak1 wok6 'to carry a black wok on one's back';
    'to be held responsible for a mistake, mishap, or something that has gone wrong, usually caused by someone else; to take the blame for something; to be scolded or reprimanded.'

    搵個替死鬼孭鑊wan2 go3 tai3 sei2 gwai2 me1 wok6 literally, to find a scapegoat to carry the cooking-pot on his back; figurative;
    'to find a scapegoat or fall-guy to take the blame for something that someone else has done.'

    By the way, as you probably know, Cantonese 鑊wok6 is the source of English "wok", i.e. the large, round cooking pan.

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