When intonation overrides tone, part 6

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Subtitle:  Virtuous / disgusting behavior / character

There's a common Mandarin put down that is much favored by Peking shopgirls:

Qiáo nǐ nà dé xìng ("Just look at that virtuous / disgusting behavior of yours!")

Readers will notice that I did not provide characters, since in truth there is a real problem knowing which character to choose for the last syllable.  There's no question whatsoever that it is pronounced in an emphatic fourth tone, which would make one think that it should be written as 性 ("nature; character").  The problem is that underlying the unmistakable fourth tone is an actual second tone, which should in fact be written as 行 ("conduct; behavior").

What's going on here?

People are not confused about how to say / pronounce this infamous utterance, but they are really confused about how to write it in characters:

Qiáo nǐ nà dé xìng 瞧你那德性     72,600 ghits

Qiáo nǐ nà dé xíng 瞧你那德行    173,000 ghits

Superficially, the first version means "Just look at that virtuous / disgusting character of yours!"

It is masking (a sensitive word in our day and age!) the true sentiment of the speaker, which is "Just look at that virtuous / disgusting behavior of yours!"

In either case, the final syllable is delivered with air of utter dismissiveness, with a slowly rising buildup second tone on the preceding syllable, then a slight, poignant pause to draw greater attention to the devastating conclusion:  ↘sheeng!!

Before proceeding further, I should clear up the connotation of dé 德, which ostensibly denotes "virtue".  Here, however, it is being used in a supremely ironic (fǎnhuà 反話) fashion to imply exactly the opposite of its surface signification.

I've been trying to make sense of all the subtleties and nuances of "Qiáo nǐ nà dé xìng" ("Just look at that virtuous / disgusting behavior of yours!") for more than forty years.  I first wrote about this perplexing aspersion on Language Log in 2007 and then revisited it in 2013.  Below I quote portions of those posts, which show that I didn't really grasp the full dimensions of the confounding conundrum until now, decades later, when I feel somewhat more confident that I comprehend what this expostulation truly signifies.

Note that, when I wrote the first post in 2007, I didn't yet know how to type characters nor was I able to add tonal diacritics to Mandarin syllables.  Thank goodness I've long since surmounted those obstacles.


"Forbidden Language and "Virtuous" (i.e., Disgusting) Conduct" (9/27/07)

"Just look at how disgusting / revolting you are!" QIAO2 NI3 NA4 DE2XING4. Literally, "look you that virtuous-behavior / nature." The use of DE2XING4 ("virtuous-behavior / nature") to mean virtually its opposite is a good example of the penchant for extreme FAN3HUA4 ("irony; facetiousness") that is pervasive among various social groups in China.

As a matter of fact, the first few times I heard this put-down back in the 80s, it was reduced just to the last two syllables — DE2XING4 — and I couldn't for the life of me understand what was so bad about saying "virtuous behavior / nature" to someone. But I could tell unmistakably from the withering tone of voice and the dismissive half-turning away that left the customers wilting like delicate flowers under a scorching sun that something awful had been uttered. Furthermore, to achieve the full effect, DE2XING4 has to be enunciated with exactly the right rhythm and emphasis. The DE2 is a long, drawn-out, rising tone, and the XING4 is a rapidly falling tone — sometimes accompanied by a snort and a sneer.

According to my jealous yet awed friends from other parts of China, only a Beijing woman can articulate DE2XING4 with just the right nuance to reduce the object of her contempt to smithereens: DUUUUHHH-SHEENG! (I should mention, however, that I have heard Nanjing women and Ningbo women unleash totally different types of indirect invective that are every bit as impressive and devastating in their own way as the DE2XING4 of a Beijing shopgirl.)


"Pekingese put-downs" (11/7/13)

I first heard the expression déxìng 德性 ("morality; virtuous / moral character" –> "disgusting; shameful") in the early 80s in a Beijing department store on Wángfǔ jǐng 王府井.  A customer was trying to get a salesgirl to show her something (a purse, I think it was, maybe a pair of shoes) that was behind the counter, and the salesgirl couldn't be bothered.  An argument ensued, which was brought to a screeching halt when the Pekingese salesgirl said to the customer, with the most condescending sneer I've ever seen in my life:  xìng 德性 ("morality; virtuous / moral character" –> "disgusting; shameful"), and with a very strong, drawn-out emphasis on the first syllable, a slight pause in the middle, and then a light dismissive, downward sliding second syllable:  ´ `!  The customer was apoplectically speechless.

In the 2013 post, I continue on at greater length to discuss the meaning and implications of déxìng 德性 ("morality; virtuous / moral character" –> "disgusting; shameful") being the same as déxíng /déxing 德行 ("moral caliber; moral integrity" –> "disgusting; shameful"), especially its relationship to sùzhì 素质 ("[inner / innate] quality; character; propensity; disposition; making; stuff; diathesis; procatarxis" –> "vulgar; uncouth; coarse; scurrilous"), which is one of the most disdainful ways to skewer someone you despise.

Bottom line lesson, one that I've reiterated countless times on Language Log and in classes:  the characters / Sinographs are far less important than the words of the many Sinitic languages and topolects.  Words are made up of sounds which, arranged in various combinations and patterns, convey certain meanings.  The characters are a poor, inadequate, often highly misleading means for recording the sounds and meanings of Sinitic words.

Selected readings

"When intonation overrides tone, part 5" (9/25/20) — with a long, cumulative list of relevant posts
"Recognizing half of a character and half of a word" (5/2/21)

[Thanks to Zihan Guo]


  1. Bathrobe said,

    May 9, 2021 @ 5:45 pm

    That story is definitely from the 1980s, when "socialism" and "service" were pretty much antonyms. I don't think you would hear that from any shopgirl nowadays as they are now more eager to sell the product.

    Incidentally, I don't think it's only shopgirls. I've heard it used by ordinary Beijing girls, although not directly to the person concerned, with the same contemptuous tone.

  2. Chris Button said,

    May 9, 2021 @ 7:47 pm

    It would be nice if we had a controlled comparison with an actual lexical fourth tone word pronounced with the same intonational tone to see whether the intonational tone properly maps onto a lexical fourth tone. My hunch is that there would be a difference in realizations. Alternatively, maybe in this particular case the intonational tone has been fully lexicalized.

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