Girlie men in the PRC

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Hot topic in China these days:

"China bans men it sees as not masculine enough from TV", AP, By JOE McDONALD (September 2, 2021)

BEIJING (AP) — China’s government banned effeminate men on TV and told broadcasters Thursday to promote “revolutionary culture,” broadening a campaign to tighten control over business and society and enforce official morality.

The main term used to describe such persons is "niángpào 娘炮" (slang for "sissy; effeminate man").  The article quoted above says it means "girlie guns".  That is a literal translation of the two constituent characters, but I have my doubts that it reflects the true derivation of the word, since it is also written with the homophonous characters 娘泡, which mean "girlie bubbles / froth / lather".

Suspecting that "niángpào 娘泡 / 娘炮" ("sissy; effeminate man") has a topolectal origin, I first thought of Cantonese.  There are indeed many Cantonese terms for effeminate men (see the "Afterword" below), but none of them sound / look like "niángpào 娘泡 / 娘炮".  Perhaps it is from Wu (Shanghai or Hangzhou), Min (Taiwanese), Sichuanese, Northeastern Mandarin….  I myself have no idea where it might have come from, but perhaps one of our Language Log readers might know.

In any event, most of the native speaker informants I have consulted think that the term is likely to be a neologism that has existed mainly in the spoken realm and that until recently was seldom written down.

"Girlie men" was former California Governor (and renowned Terminator) Arnold Schwarzenegger's favorite term for characterizing political opponents, although the expression was originally popularized by "a series of Saturday Night Live sketches in which Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon played bodybuilders named Hans and Franz, large men with Austrian accents." (source)

One thing is certain:  Chairman Xi has launched a crusade against effeminate men.  He — and his generals — are particularly concerned that such trends in the military will sap the fighting spirit of the PLA.


Afterword on terms for effeminate men in Cantonese

by Robert S. Bauer

After reading the article on Yahoo news that the Chinese regulator National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) had decreed that effeminate men should be banned/boycotted in films, I also wondered about the origin of this term 娘炮 niang2 pao4 / noeng4 paau3 ‘ (literally) girlie guns’.

Googling “娘炮” produces 11,400,000 results in 0.42 seconds, and that huge number makes me think this term is not Cantonese.

Cantonese does have several expressions for referring to effeminate or sissy/cissy men. The following lexical items are lexical entries that occur in the ABC Cantonese-English Comprehensive Dictionary:

乸聲乸氣naa2 seng1 naa2 hei3 'speaking with an effeminate voice'

乸形naa2 jing4 'effeminate manner or appearance; sissy behavior, acting like a pansy; a sissy, pansy, effeminate man'

女人形neoi5 jan4/2 jing4 'a sissy, pansy, effeminate young man; (for a man) to be effeminate, sissified, acting like a girl in behavior or appearance'

姐手姐腳 ze2 sau2 ze2 goek3 '(for a man) sounding like a woman, speaking in an effeminate manner'

姐聲姐氣 ze2 seng1 ze2 hei3 '(for a man) speaking or sounding like a woman'

In two of the above lexical items we note the occurrence of the colloquial/nonstandard/indigenous Cantonese character 乸 naa2 ‘female animal; old lady, i.e. one’s wife or girlfriend; mother; bound form for female animal or female fruit-bearing tree’.

See also the addendum from Bob Bauer in the comments below.


Selected readings

For additional bibliography, see the fourth comment below.


[Thanks to Tom Ace, Chenfeng Wang, and Yixue Yang]


  1. Bathrobe said,

    September 5, 2021 @ 6:53 pm

    Another rather infamous word using the character 炮 is the vulgar expression 打炮 dǎpào meaning 'to screw'. I assume there's no connection but…

  2. Rico said,

    September 5, 2021 @ 7:34 pm

    So forgive me is I am culturally illiterate but what of masculine/boyish presenting girls & women? Are their any such “tomboy” scriptures?

  3. Richard Warmington said,

    September 5, 2021 @ 7:56 pm

    娘炮 was added to the CC-CEDICT dictionary in 2012. The editor commented at the time: "I think this is Taiwan slang exclusively. I learned this word in TW." and "It originates from Taiwan".

    Other people also say it comes from Taiwan and was popularized by a Taiwanese TV series that was broadcast in that year.

    “娘炮”一词最早来源于2007 年台湾热播的电视剧《我要变成硬柿子》。台湾的一部偶像剧中,因为男主角的性格软弱、胆小,而被女主角吐槽为“娘炮”。随后,“娘炮”一词流传开来,渐指女性化的男人。


    Wikipedia article on the TV series:

    If 娘炮 originated in Taiwan, it had crossed the Strait by 2013, when the following opinion piece appeared in the People's Daily:

  4. David C. said,

    September 5, 2021 @ 8:12 pm

    姐手姐腳 ze2 sau2 ze2 goek3 does not mean "sounding like a woman", but rather, doing (manual) work like a girl – clumsy and unskillful.

    I have heard terms like 娘娘腔 and the like for at least a decade, with its origins supposedly from Taiwan. The soft-spoken male characters from Taiwanese TV "idol" dramas have been laughed about ever since they began to be shown in mainland China.

    Not authoritative, but several sources of the Internet suggest that 娘炮 started out as an insult used in a line in a Taiwanese drama and popularized in 2011 when it was widely used to describe a performing magician on the CCTV Spring Festival Gala television show.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    September 5, 2021 @ 8:48 pm

    Bathrobe's comment reminded me that I had already posted on "niáng pào 娘炮" ("m/sissy bang") in much greater depth, for which see here:

    "Gender bending in the Sinosphere" (11/4/18)

    Cf. "Gender bending" (10/6/15)

    As for extensive replies to Bathrobe's question about dǎpào 打炮, see "Apps for casual sex" (8/4/16) (includes historical evidence of relevant terms back to the Qing period [1644-1912]) and "Mandarin neologism: 'appointment to fire a cannon'" (1/10/18).

    More at "Weibo Users Denounce Plan to Stop 'Feminization' With More Gym Class", posted on China Digital Times by Joseph Brouwer | Jan 29, 2021.

  6. cliff arroyo said,

    September 6, 2021 @ 2:43 am

    No discussion of "xiǎo xiān ròu"* (little fresh meat)? Didn't the CCP also criticize/ban them from media as well?

  7. Victor Mair said,

    September 6, 2021 @ 7:25 am

    From Bob Bauer:


    From page 1,605 of the ABC Cantonese-English Comprehensive Dictionary:

    姐手姐腳 ze2 sau2 ze2 goek3 literally, older sister’s hands and feet; fig.; derog. (for a person) to be clumsy and unaccustomed to doing heavy work; for one’s strength, ability, skill to be weak, feeble and awkward like that of a woman; to work in a slovenly, feeble, and awkward manner

  8. Victor Mair said,

    September 6, 2021 @ 7:32 am

    From Tong Wang:

    "Girlie guns" is a word by word translation of 娘炮. "Guns" implies men and "girlie" the effeminate traits. It shows the insulting implication of the Chinese expression that "effeminate man" does not. I don't know much of the pop culture, and 娘炮 is a word I got to know recently when it became hot in social media.

  9. Dwight Williams said,

    September 6, 2021 @ 10:31 am

    Whenever a country turns to fascism – however they dress it up for local consumption – this kind of vilification tends to be part of the programme of symptoms. No matter what language is being spoken and written to promote it.

  10. Doctor Science said,

    September 6, 2021 @ 4:37 pm

    I have long had the impression that this kind of anxiety about masculinity was a Western import into China, which has historically been much more relaxed about e.g. homosexual relationships "on the side" than Christendom has been. It sounds from the comments here that that's no longer the case, and Chinese men are become anxious about their masculinity, too.

    How much do y'all think this crack-down is being driven by popular feeling? @Dwight, it certainly shows that anti-feminism is not a side issue for fascism, it's a core part of the appeal.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    September 6, 2021 @ 5:05 pm

    There will soon be a "Girlie men in the PRC, part 2", which will confirm what many of you have been saying in the comments.

  12. Phil H said,

    September 6, 2021 @ 9:02 pm

    This incident once again revealed to me the impressive power of the state media machine. Quite separately a member of my family (I live in China, married into a Chinese family) and a member of a social media group started talking to me about the threat to masculinity posed by these mild-acting fellows. They each seemed to think this was a concept that they had come up with on their own.
    Insidious random bias.
    @Rico the backlash against tomboyish girls happened about 15 years ago, when a female singer with short hair achieved fame on a talent show (I don't recall the president getting involved that time, but there was a significant change in TV regulation). No doubt it will come around to slap us in the face again.
    I never heard the term 娘炮 before, either. It sounds like it was made up for the purpose of giving officials something to write, because writing, "Ban all men on television who don't conform exactly to my aesthetic" is a little on the nose.

  13. KWillets said,

    September 7, 2021 @ 4:02 pm

    I am reminded of Korea's Yushin period, when male long hair was banned, the government translated hundreds of foreign songs to look for subversive lyrics, and popular folk musicians were prosecuted for smoking marijuana. The K-Pop idols that emerged from this system are now considered a bad influence on China.

  14. Terry Hunt said,

    September 7, 2021 @ 9:14 pm

    @ Victor Mair – could the Chinese use of the term "guns" in this context derive from its use in Western culture to refer to the upper arms? Physically fit men are sometimes praised for their muscular "guns", so referring to someone as having "girly guns" would be understood to imply that they had weak-looking arms.

    Amusingly, a certain statuesque female singer I greatly admire, whose vocal abilities and stage movements benefit from her well-maintained physical fitness (she doesn't "work out", but lives on a ranch, performs manual labour and trains horses), sometimes receives approving mentions of her impressive "guns".

  15. Victor Mair said,

    September 8, 2021 @ 5:45 am

    See now also "Girlie men in the PRC, part 2" (9/8/21)

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    September 8, 2021 @ 2:18 pm

    [in Western culture] « Physically fit men are sometimes praised for their muscular "guns" ». I would be interested to know to what extent this is a universal truth. In the United Kingdom, for example, I do not believe that this metaphor is ever used.

  17. David Marjanović said,

    September 9, 2021 @ 1:31 pm

    I've never encountered it either, in any language, though admittedly I have no direct contact with that subculture.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    September 9, 2021 @ 6:30 pm

    Banning of "sissy" boy bands in China

  19. Andrew Usher said,

    September 9, 2021 @ 7:07 pm

    I also add that I haven't heard that usage of 'guns', and would likely find it confusing.

    (On the other hand use for the female breasts would be understood from context, just like the countless other terms for those parts are.)

  20. Terry Hunt said,

    September 9, 2021 @ 9:35 pm

    @ Philip, David & Andrew — I agree it's not a UK thing, but even though I am a Brit I listen to and watch material from other areas of Western culture, and have heard it used particularly by inhabitants of the USA.

    With regard to the singer (Floor Jansen), it's definitely an observation (made by several different people) about her upper arms, which her self-designed stage costumes usually leave bare.

  21. Andrew Usher said,

    September 9, 2021 @ 9:57 pm

    I am corrected, then – but I am American, and I don't remember having ever heard of this sense of 'guns', for either men or women. But now I know it exists.

    I had to assume the comment about the singer (whom I don't know anything about) referred to her breasts because I had no context excluding that, and your introducing the paragraph with the word 'amusingly' was suggestive.

    k_over_hbarc at

  22. Dzoldzaya said,

    September 10, 2021 @ 3:29 am

    I'm quite surprised that people are only hearing about 娘炮 recently, I don't know if it's dialect, but I've been reading it in Chinese media/ on Weibo for a few years now. It was banned from use in the China Women's Magazine in 2017 as a 'gender prejudiced' term, apparently.

    Calling someone 娘娘腔,娘丽娘气 or 娘们(儿) (also a noun) is more common, in my experience, so I'm not sure why 娘炮 has become dominant in party discourse.

    The origins of the ‘娘’ niang' word are quite interesting: 姑娘 (gu1niang) means girl, or occasionally daughter, but if you say 我娘 (wo3niang2) it means 'my mum', and I seem to recall that it's more 'authentically' Chinese than 妈妈 (ma1ma), and it's rare in some Northern villages to say 我爸妈 wo3ba4ma1, they say 我爹娘 wo3die1niang2 instead; I've only learned one minority language in China, but the (White) Hmong for mum is 'niam', which has the same origin. In Japanese the same character means daughter (musume).

  23. Terry Hunt said,

    September 10, 2021 @ 10:29 pm

    @ Andrew Usher — I had already given the definition of the slang "guns" as meaning upper arms and elaborated on this, in my first paragraph: I see nothing in my subsequent paragraph that suggest a switching of the meaning to breasts.

    In any case, comments about female performers' breasts are so commonplace as to render them (the comments, that is) too unremarkable to merit mention on Language Log :-).

  24. Chas Belov said,

    September 13, 2021 @ 11:28 pm

    When I was studying Cantonese in the early 90s, the instructor implied that referring to an adult male as a 靚仔 (leng jái) (pretty boy) meant they were effeminate or perhaps gay. She didn't go into details so I'm not sure which.

    The Cantonese Basic Course from the US's Foreign Service Institute, which we used for the class, occasionally would mark a usage as being effeminate when used by a man. I seem to recall ¿Verb mh-verb nē? as being one of those constructions.

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