"Little competent donkey"

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Announced only yesterday, Alibaba has a new robot delivery vehicle for the last mile:

Source of photograph:

"Alibaba launches logistics robot for last-mile deliveries to lower costs and as pandemic pushes automation:  The robot can deliver as many as 500 packages a day to one designated community or campus", by  Minghe Hu, SCMP (9/17/20).

They call it 小蛮驴.  The standard Hanyu Pinyin transcription of those three characters would be Xiǎománlǘ, but SCMP gives the Romanization "Xiaomanlv", without tones, and where the "v" is a common workaround in the PRC for "ü".

For the moment, I'm not giving an English translation of the whole name, because the second character is difficult to handle.  The first and last characters are easy:  xiǎo 小 means "little; small" and lǘ 驴 means ("donkey; ass; jackass; burro; moke; cuddy; neddy").  Hence, xiǎolǘ 小驴 means "little donkey".

But what to do about mán 蛮?  That's the rub if we want to understand what Alibaba intends by calling their delivery robot Xiǎománlǘ 小蛮驴 — "Little ?? Donkey".

Note that mán 蛮 / 蠻 has a "bug; insect" radical / classifier / semantophore. Thus, from its inception as a designation for an ethnic group, it was pejorative.


Possibly related to Burmese မြန်မာ (mranma, “Myanmar; Burma; Burmese”), Tibetan བྲན (bran, “servant, slave”).




mán 蛮 /


  • quite
  • very
  • pretty
  • roughly
  • valiantly
  • uncouthly
  • vulgarly


  • barbarian
  • barbarous
  • savage
  • uncivilized
  • fierce
  • unreasoning
  • unreasonable
  • rough
  • rude
  • rash
  • hot-headed


  • (Southern) barbarian
  • bully

Are any of these renderings suitable for the cute little delivery robot?

The article states that the name of this delivery robot can be rendered into English roughly as "little competent donkey".  I think that is a poor translation for the name — just doesn't capture the flavor or meaning of mán 蛮.

Tong Wang ruminated on the name Xiǎománlǘ 小蛮驴:

I think “xiǎo 小” may indicate its cuteness, and lǘ "驴“ shows that it's a machine that has good qualities of donkeys, which were traditionally used to transport heavy loads. But "mán 蛮" means rudeness as used in words such as mánhèng 蛮横 ("arrogant"),yěmán 野蛮 ("brutal"),etc. It also refers to southern barbarians in ancient China. Does it indicate the robot is only a crude model? Or compared to refined humans, it is only a barbarous machine? Or, as barbarians are often regarded as physically strong, does "mán 蛮" emphasizes the strength of the machine?

I tried to replace "mán 蛮" with other words, e.g., xiǎo máolǘ 小毛驴 ("little furry donkey"),xiǎo guāi lǘ 小乖驴 ("little well-behaved donkey"),xiǎoyě lǘ 小野驴 ("little wild donkey"),and it seems "mán 蛮" is not a bad choice with its sense of playfulness.

And here are Yijie Zhang's thoughts on the matter:

[VHM:  the usual Language Log Romanizations are omitted here because they would take up too much space, but translations are provided.]

I think the image expected to be preconceived according to the name “小蛮驴” should be: something small and cute (“小”), sturdy and indomitable; powerful and straightforward (“蛮”); sort of stubborn yet considerably trustworthy; specialized for traveling and carrying (“驴” / “蛮驴”). I gather it intends to convey that this newly-launched robot delivery vehicle is strong, dependable, and highly efficient.

Yet I have to say “蛮” is a bit tricky in this context. Understandably, this character is supposed to show the willingness to bear the burden and the capability to take heavy responsibility. However, it could also refer to recklessness, boorishness, and other negative connotations, indicating a sense of unintelligence and disobedience (and “驴” could be interpreted in a pejorative sense, too).

Then I found an official explanation in a news article: “阿里解释称,驴曾经是中国人最常用的劳动、代步、赶集、载货工具" ("Alibaba explains that ‘donkey’ was the most commonly-used means for laboring, riding, going to fairs, and carrying freight"); "同时,它(“小蛮驴”)像驴一样暖萌、可靠、通人性,还有一股使命必达的'蛮劲',无惧高温雨雪、雷暴闪电、极寒酷暑 ("Meanwhile, the robot is as mild, reliable and perceptive about human feelings as donkeys, with its brute force to ensure the mission to be accomplished. It shows no fear of hot weather, rain, or snow; thunderstorm or lightning; severe coldness or suffocating heat"); "在江浙沪方言中,'蛮'常被用作程度副词,我们这头诞生于浙江的小蛮驴,是蛮聪明、蛮能干、也蛮安全的 ("In Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Shanghai topolects, ‘蛮’ is frequently used as an adverb of degree (meaning quite/rather). This Zhejiang-born ‘小蛮驴’ is QUITE smart, QUITE competent, and QUITE safe.”)

I think the name of this new logistics robot is indicative of its usage, humorous, and very playful, although it could be a bit misleading and awkward because of its polysemy and ambiguity.

Mán 蛮 / 蠻 has been troublesomely polysemous for more than a millennium.  For example, in the term "púsàmán 菩薩蠻", the name of a popular lyric tune title, we know that the first part is the transcription of Sanskrit "bodhisattva", but what does the mán 蠻 mean — "barbarian(s)"?  Some scholars hold that it here stands for "garland(s)".

And púsàmán 菩薩蠻 can also serve as a transcription for a totally different word, viz., Persian مسلمان‎ (mosalmân, i.e., a Muslim).

Suggested readings

[Thanks to Mark Metcalf]


  1. Chris Button said,

    September 18, 2020 @ 9:53 pm

    Any association of 蠻 with "Myanmar" is highly unlikely. The "n" is a result of orthographic changes between Inscriptional and Written Burmese. The earlier "Mramma" form better shows shows the connection with the form "Burma".

  2. Bloix said,

    September 19, 2020 @ 6:46 am

    what about "tough"? The word order in English would be different, but "tough little donkey" might be a good translation.

  3. TonyK said,

    September 19, 2020 @ 1:07 pm

    The Little Donkey That Could?

  4. tsts said,

    September 19, 2020 @ 11:38 pm

    Just pointing out that 小毛驢 (xiǎo máolǘ) is the title of a very popular Chinese childrens' song. Tong Wang already mentioned the phrase but did not point out the connection. Could it be that the name was chosen on purpose to be very close to the song?

  5. reader_not_academe said,

    September 21, 2020 @ 2:18 am

    I've spent the last year closely listening to podcasts and similar spontaneous speech as a means of improving my Chinese. I came across 蛮 in three different texts; I'm listing the occurrences below. What strikes me is that without exception, these occurrences all seem to be in the intensifier sense, similar in function to 很.

    故事FM podcast, Ep 388, 7:31
    Audio snippet: https://jealousmarkup.xyz/files/other/E388-man.mp3

    无业游民 Podcast, Ep 53, 8:96
    Audio snippet: https://jealousmarkup.xyz/files/other/WY53-man.mp3

    博恩夜夜秀 with Audrey Tang, 10:13 and 20:36
    Audio snippet: https://jealousmarkup.xyz/files/other/NNS-man1.mp3
    瞭解 剛剛講到蠻多個重點 (The host speaking)
    Audio snippet: https://jealousmarkup.xyz/files/other/NNS-man2.mp3
    但是稍微昏一下之後 牠醒來之後其實是蠻理智的 (Audrey Tang speaking)

  6. tsts said,

    September 21, 2020 @ 9:53 pm

    Maybe rather than figuring out the deeper meaning of 蛮, it makes more sense to look for the meaning of 小蛮 in colloquial speech? A common phrase containing it appears to be 小蛮腰, referring to a slim waist, typically of a young woman (and also as a nick name to the Canton Tower in Guangzhou). Any chance we are just talking about a slim donkey?

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