"Blue-eyed person"

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Cai Xia 蔡霞, a retired female professor from the Central Party School of the CCP has been denouncing Xi Jinping for his imperial aspirations and the CCP as a corrupt, zombie party.  Somehow, she managed to escape to the United States after her initial condemnations.

Fuming, the Party has cancelled her membership and vilified her perfidy:

After the Party School of the Central Committee of Communist Party of China (CPC) announced on Monday that it had rescinded the Party membership of retired professor Cai Xia and revoked her retirement benefits, Cai quickly became Western media's blue-eyed person.

Source:  "Cai Xia’s blatant betrayal is totally indefensible: Global Times editorial", Global Times* (8/19/20)

*An official CCP daily tabloid sponsored by the People's Daily.

"Blue-eyed person" is such a peculiar locution that at first I thought it might be an arcane, obscure allusion from Literary Sinitic.  Try as I may, however, I couldn't figure out what the original Chinese might have been.

This expression sounded so odd in Chinese that I decided to take a different tack in uncovering its meaning and origin.  Maybe the editors of the Global Times were thinking or writing in English when they came up with this bizarre usage.

My suspicion was confirmed by a colleague in China who wrote:

I have never heard of the word "blue-eyed", so I googled it and wondered if it comes from the phrase "blue-eyed boy", which means "a person highly regarded by someone and treated with special favor." The author might think it was improper to call Cai "boy", so he / she replaced "boy" with "person".
It's amusing to see how Global Times is holding its line in the battlefront with US imperialism while its chief editor, Hu Xijin, is jeered as an undercover agent of the enemy.

So "blue-eyed person" comes from the English expression "blue-eyed boy", but, since Cai Xia is not a boy, the Global Times editors had to settle on "blue-eyed person".

When I checked the parallel Chinese version of the article, the equivalent of "blue-eyed person" was the lame, tame "rèmén rénwù 热门人物" ("popular person").  Source

Instead of "rèmén rénwù 热门人物" ("popular person"), what sort of expression might the author of the Chinese text have used that would match the tone and tenor of the English "blue-eyed boy"?  Here are some suggestions from a Chinese correspondent:

I agree with you that "blue-eyed person" does mean "darling" here in this sentence, indicating that Cai Xia is "a favorite of Western media" precisely because of her so-called "blatant betrayal". I think that, in this editorial, Global Times follows a typical, long-standing CCP discourse regarding people condemned for disloyalty or treachery to the party or the country: binary opposition, namely, the contrast between "the people" (which she "betrayed") and "the enemy" (that she "turned to"), with thinly-veiled, heavy, highly verbal and rhetorical sarcasm. Cai Xia has been censured and punished for her, to quote from Global Times, "incredibly malicious attacks on China's system". As a result, she has thus been portrayed as a sordid betrayer who is welcomed by Western media because of her defection to "the other side" for her own interests ("She would not have done so if she had no intention to collude with external forces to hurt the interests of her motherland"; "People have every reason to doubt that Cai, who is living in the US, is doing so for selfish reasons as an extreme dissident, and that she is dedicated to reaping the benefits for herself in the US").

I think there is a perfect word to say it in Chinese in this given context: "xiāng bōbo 香饽饽" (literally means "delicious cake / bun / pastry"), which is used to compare to "shòu huānyíng de rén huò shìwù 受欢迎的人或事物" ("popular people / things; one's favorite"), "chīdékāi, shòu huānyíng de rén吃得开、受欢迎的人" ("being popular; getting along all right; being much sought after"). I gather Global Times intentionally chose a slang / informal word for "favorite" in order to indicate a touch of irony to make innuendoes against Cai. So "xiāng bōbo 香饽饽" ("delicious cake / bun / pastry") may be a good translation since it is dialectal and informal

It's curious that the incendiary, hypernationalistic, anti-American Global Times is taking its metaphorical cues from English.


Selected readings

"Fun bun pun" (4/9/17)

"T-shirt slogans" (11/7/16)

"Ethnogenesis of the Mongolian people and their language" (8/19/20) — light eye color


[Thanks to Mark Metcalf, Tong Wang, Yijie Zhang, and Xiuyuan Mi]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 4:46 am

    Before even reading Victor's explanation, I assumed that "blue-eyed person" was simply a gender-neutral version of "blue-eyed girl", and although "blue-eyed boy" has the additional benefit of partial alliteration, the phrase "blue-eyed girl" was more commonly encountered than "blue-eyed boy" until the early 1950s, after which the male version became more popular (all this according to Google Ngrams).

  2. ycx said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 5:59 am

    While I agree that the "blue-eyed-boy" explanation is the more likely one, my initial alternative interpretation was that being a "western race traitor", she was ascribed physical traits that one would normally associate with westerners (hence the blue eyes).

  3. jb said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 6:55 am

    Oddly enough, yesterday I saw the following sentence concerning the multi-ethnic governance of the Mongolian empire in China: "從元朝開始,白種人、黑人、外國人,還叫作色目人,眼睛發藍的,都在中國做官" and was wondering about these blue-eyed boys.

  4. Vilinthril said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 8:21 am

    Interesting! I hadn't heard this term before, and coming from German, where “blauäugig” means something entirely different, I was severely confused at first.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 8:32 am


    "…German, where 'blauäugig' means something entirely different…."

    Something other than "blue-eyed"?

  6. John Swindle said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 8:38 am

    There are a couple of other interesting locutions in the English-language article. She "has published some harsh anti-system opinions which stepped on China's bottom line from time to time." Is stepping on someone's bottom line even a thing?

    And, as you mentioned, "People have every reason to doubt that Cai, who is living in the US, is doing so for selfish reasons as an extreme dissident…." Would the Global Times be surprised to find that that means the opposite of what they intended?

  7. Bathrobe said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 9:03 am

    I understand that 'bottom line' (底线) is a thing in Chinese (Xi Jinping's) political vocabulary. I've never quite been able to figure out exactly what it is. Maybe someone can help me figure it out.

  8. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 9:58 am

    I'm not sure I've heard "blue-eyed boy" used in this sense before. "Fair-haired boy" is the phrase I'd expect in that context. Ngram viewer indicates that "fair-haired" dominated until about ten years ago when "blue-eyed" overtook it.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 10:05 am

    What would motivate the switch from "blue-eyed" to "fair-haired"?

  10. Victor Mair said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 10:09 am

    @John Swindle

    "People have every reason to doubt that Cai….".

    Good catch!

    This is one of the most common errors made by Chinese speakers of English, even those who are advanced.

    The Chinese word for both "doubt" and "suspect" is huáiyí 懷疑, which also means "wonder; distrust; mistrust; discredit; disbelieve; impeach; misdoubt…."

  11. Adam said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 10:47 am

    @Victor Mair re blauäugig
    in Swedish blåögd can mean naive / easily duped. I think the same usage exists in German?

  12. Victor Mair said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 11:14 am


    "bottom line"

    We say it in English too, but we mean something different by it:

    1. the last line of a financial statement, used for showing net profit or loss.
    2. net profit or loss.
    3. the deciding or crucial factor.
    4. the result or outcome.

    (Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary, © 2010)

    Also "baseline".

    For contemporary Chinese, especially in politics, dǐxiàn 底线 ("bottom line") is more often used in the sense of "limit" (i.e., "don't push me beyond my limit"), "where I draw the line".

  13. Bob Ladd said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 11:56 am

    Yes, blauäugig means naive in German. Confusingly for English speakers, however, ein blaues Auge is a black eye.

  14. Kenny Easwaran said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 12:52 pm

    A related expression I've heard is "golden boy", which I assume is related to "fair-haired boy". I've often heard it used to talk about the pattern in which a PhD advisor has one student that they see as clearly best, that gets all the attention at conferences (and it is often used with a racial and gendered aspect, partly because the implication is often that the person getting this attention hasn't really earned it, but is just quick on their feet and "looks the part").

  15. Gerd Duerner said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 1:15 pm

    @Victor Mair, in German we use the expression "blauäugig" (which would translate to blue-eyed) to mean a gullible person.

  16. KeithB said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 1:19 pm

    I usually think of the opposite to the "blue-eyed boy" – the red headed step child.

  17. Trogluddite said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 1:48 pm

    Wiktionary and the online Cambridge and Collins dictionaries all suggest that "blue-eyed boy" is typically British English and "fair-haired boy" is US English, and make no such distinction for "golden boy".

    This agrees with my half-century of experience as a BrE speaker – "fair-haired boy" is new to me upon reading this thread, whereas the other two are familiar. I found "blue-eyed person" easy enough to decode as a gender-neutral variant.

    "Teacher's pet" was a common gender-neutral equivalent when I was a schoolchild/student, though obviously less appropriate outside of a pedagogic context.

  18. Tom said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 2:17 pm

    The German word for golden boy = fair-haired boy = blue-eyed boy is “Sonnyboy”!

  19. Yong Ho said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 2:57 pm

    Might this be the literal translation from 青睐 in Chinese? 青 can be blue.

  20. Bathrobe said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 7:13 pm

    To be honest, I don't think 底线 quite means "bottom line" as we understand it, although it certainly seems to have evolved from that.

    In 2016 Xi Jinping set out his four, er, 'bottom lines' for party cadres. (习近平为党员干部做人做事划出的四条底线). These included legal, disciplinary, policy, and ethical 'bottom lines' (法律底线, 纪律底线, 政策底线, 道德底线). You could generously interpret these as the 'bottom line', or 'minimum requirements', or whatever, but the sense seems to be closer to 'basic principles' or 'bedrock principles'. As I said, I've always found 底线 a slippery concept to understand (I'm sure you could figure it out if you were willing to spend a day or two wading through turgid prose), but it's pretty clear that trampling on Mr Xi's 'basic principles' is not something to be done lightly.

    Since my understanding is that one of the pillars of Xi Jinping 'thought' is that Xi Jinping IS the Party, Cai Xia's criticism that he has reduced the Party to a meaningless zombie is a pretty open violation of the 'bottom line'. I don't blame her for absconding before they could lay their hands on her.

  21. Bathrobe said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 8:00 pm

    Reading the Global Times article itself was almost a hallucinatory experience. I assume the Chinese original would have sounded coherent and made some kind of sense to a Chinese speaker — indeed, it might have read as a damning indictment of Ms Cai that any patriotic, red-blooded Chinese would wholeheartedly endorse — but transferred bodily into English it sounds like little more than angry, laughable sputtering. With all the talk of betrayal, personal benefit, and duty to support the Party line come what may, the editorial fails to mention the obvious: she couldn't in conscience support Xi Jinping's 'bottom line'. That doesn't appear to be a possibility they could even consider. I guess the bottom line is that she should have made her remarks inside the tent rather than collaborating with 'the enemy' (a telling mentality) and exposing them to the rest of the world.

    Global Times still has a long way to go before it has the ability to put a reasonable-sounding point of view to the rest of the world.

  22. DaveK said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 8:04 pm

    The only place I’ve ever heard “blue-eyed boy” used this way in English is the E.E. Cummings poem “Buffalo Bill’s defunct” which ends “how do you like your blue-eyed boy / mister death”

    I haven’t heard fair-haired boy in a while, probably due to the racism it implies

  23. Bathrobe said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 8:09 pm

    Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
    And where have you been, my darling young one?

    Bob Dylan, A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall

    Intriguing lyrics, given the anti-racist cast of the song. Did Dylan get his 'blue-eyed son' from 'blue-eyed boy'?

  24. Bathrobe said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 9:05 pm

    The article criticising Hu Xijin is full of interesting undercurrents.

    Its main point is that (1) the Soviet Union fell because it concentrated on military prowess rather than the prosperity of the people, and that (2) American power is based more on its democracy and inventions that benefited the common people than on its military strength.

    Warmongers like Hu Xijin are following in the footsteps of the Soviet Union, which can only have a bad outcome. China's way ahead is not to rely on military might to solve issues but to use diplomacy. China will win by achieving prosperity for its people. That is why the article makes the accusation that jingoists like Hu Xijin might be an uncover agent for the enemy.

    I have no idea whether this matches the thinking of the current Chinese government. Given its current course of State mercantilism I guess it does, but there also seems to be a strand of militarism in the current government's thinking…. (I'm not an expert on Chinese politics so I am happy to be corrected.)

  25. David C. said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 9:43 pm

    The most apt translation I can think of for 底线 is a mix of "[not] crossing a red line" and not to "sink so low".

    A recent buzzword in Chinese state media is 坚持底线思维 ("maintaining a 'bottom-line' mentality) – an edict to plan for the worst and to have no tolerance for "foundational" mistakes. Be bold, but be careful at the same time.

    I'd compare this to the barely understood "lodging solemn representations" (提出严正交涉)by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs that is still being repeated to this day in the English translation of Chinese articles.

    It's a mystery who actually reads publications like these, other than for the purpose of boasting to domestic audiences that the article has been published in X languages.

  26. Bathrobe said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 10:03 pm

    @David C.

    Thanks for that. Yes, a little over a year ago there was an opinion piece in the 人民日报 to the effect that: 坚持底线思维要求我们凡事从坏处准备,努力争取最好的结果, or (in my awkward literal translation) 'maintaining a bottom-line mentality requires us in all things to prepare from a difficult situation and strive to secure the best result'.

    It is a remarkably modest attitude that could be mistaken for pessimism. It doesn't seem to have done China much good with the genesis of the coronavirus. Perhaps the cadres in Wuhan failed to read their papers properly.

  27. AntC said,

    August 22, 2020 @ 12:47 am

    In my mind's ear (which is becoming increasingly unreliable) I hear

    Oh, come to my arms, my blue-eyed boy.

    I think I'm mixing up the Dylan line (quoted above) with Jabberwocky:

    …, my beamish boy.

    @Bathrobe [quoting an article] China's way ahead is not to rely on military might to solve issues but to use diplomacy.

    Huh? Then please explain the numbers of jet fighters China is regularly sending into Taiwan airspace; or the naval/airforce bases on atolls in the North Borneo Sea; or the mainland Military Police sent into Hong Kong.

    Why bother with diplomacy when the rest of the world is distracted with Trump/elections/Brexit and of course COVID? Force majeure/faits accomplis are far more effective, quicker and cheaper.

  28. rosie said,

    August 22, 2020 @ 12:58 am

    Don't know where Bob Dylan got "blue-eyed" from, but the rest of that couplet sounds as if it's from the same source as the ballad Lord Randall:

    Where have you been all the day, Randall, my son?
    Where have you been all the day, my pretty one?

  29. maidhc said,

    August 22, 2020 @ 2:00 am

    The Dinkum Dictionary of Australian slang (1988) gives:
    1. innocent, free of guilt or blame:
    "What are you looking so blue-eyed about?"

    2. favourite, darling, pet:
    "He's his mother's blue-eyed boy."

    It doesn't give "fair-haired" for the second meaning (or any other).

    rosie: A lot of early Dylan songs show influence from the British Isles ballad tradition, Not just him. My local radio station played an hour of Joan Baez this morning, and she was doing some too. Probably John Jacob Niles was the first to make it popular with that crowd.

  30. AntC said,

    August 22, 2020 @ 2:24 am

    Don't know where Bob Dylan got "blue-eyed" from, but the rest of that couplet sounds as if it's from the same source as the ballad Lord Randall:

    wikipedia says Dylan indeed got it from Lord Randall.

  31. Philip Anderson said,

    August 22, 2020 @ 4:47 am

    Is it less ironic if the anti-American Global Times is taking its metaphorical cues from BRITISH English? After all, English wasn’t actually an American invention.

  32. Nat said,

    August 22, 2020 @ 11:46 am

    Ah! maidhc’s citation of the Australian meaning makes for a plausible intermediary between the English and German (a connection otherwise opaque to me):
    “favored child” “innocent” “gullible”

  33. Nat said,

    August 22, 2020 @ 11:57 am

    And if I may be forgiven some rampant speculation, I wonder if all the meanings, both for “blue-eyed” and “fair-haired”, derive from the idea of being very young. The relevant phenomenon may be blue-eyed infants whose eye color darkens as they age, and similarly blonde infants whose hair becomes brown after a few years. (I was blonde until the age of three or four, then anything but )

  34. Bathrobe said,

    August 22, 2020 @ 7:10 pm

    please explain the numbers of jet fighters China is regularly sending into Taiwan airspace; or the naval/airforce bases on atolls in the North Borneo Sea; or the mainland Military Police sent into Hong Kong.

    The author of the article would, I suspect, have excluded these. Whether you like it or not, the Chinese position is that all three of these are Chinese territory. The other flashpoint is India, where there are competing territorial claims. I'm sure that China believes it has every right to exercise military force in territories it claims as its own.

    The criticism of Hu Xijin in the article relates to his advocacy of a buildup of nuclear missiles to counter the US. At no point does the author actually tread on Xi Jinping's 'bottom line', although he (and it certainly sounds like a he) seems to represent a fairly dovish attitude within the spectrum of allowable policy debate — especially compared with Hu Xijin.

  35. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 22, 2020 @ 8:20 pm

    The use of "blue-eyed" in a pejorative context (possibly with racial overtones) evokes for me the epithet "blue-eyed devil" (= "white person") popularized by the late Hon. Elijah Muhammad and his followers in the NOI. Although whether a CCP propagandist's English-language source materials for invective and insult would be likely to include NOI texts is not clear to me.

  36. bks said,

    August 23, 2020 @ 8:45 am

    In college (last century) I met a fellow student from Venezuela who told me her friends advised her to find a "blue-eyed dictionary" (she was translating from Spanish, but I don't know what the Spanish phrase was). Unfortunately my eyes are green.

  37. Philip Anderson said,

    August 24, 2020 @ 5:30 pm

    The idea of ‘golden boy’ goes back at least as far as Shakespeare, with no connotation of hair colour or race:
    “Golden lads and girls all must,
    As chimney-sweepers, come to dust”

  38. Monscampus said,

    August 29, 2020 @ 6:45 pm


    I was sure the Spanish version of *blue-eyed* must have another meaning apart from gullible. I found it in an online dictionary (Spanish to English). The second meaning is 'reliable' which makes a lot of sense concerning dictionaries. What a relief!

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