Parts of the body — back and waist; slicing up reality

« previous post | next post »

The word for "back" in Mandarin is bèi , the word for "waist" is yāo .  But nearly all of my Chinese students and friends, including the most learned, get the English words mixed up.  They will say "My waist aches" when they mean "My back aches" and "Don't break your waist" when they mean "Don't break your back".

Aside from exchanges in daily conversation, I also noticed this confusion in historical contexts.  One of the most famous early medieval Chinese poets, Tao Qian (Yuanming) (365- 427), when asked to dress up in a fancy, formal way to show his subservience to a visiting inspector, famously declared, “Wú bùnéng wèi wǔdǒu mǐ zhéyāo, quánquán shì xiānglǐ xiǎo rén yé 吾不能為五斗米折腰,拳拳事鄉里小人邪!” ("I cannot bend my back to obsequiously serve a petty person in the village for five pecks of rice."  Many translators of this passage render "zhéyāo 折腰" as "bend [my] waist" rather than "bend [my] back".  The "five pecks of rice" refers to his salary as a local magistrate, which he'd rather give up than lose his dignity and self respect.  Because of his unbending attitude, Tao abandoned government service altogether by the age of forty and returned to his own hometown to live as a farmer.

[Reference for specialists:  from Tao Qian's brief biography in the "Biographies of recluses", scroll 64 of the Book / History of Jin (Jìnshū 晉書) (Zhonghua shuju ed., vol. 8, p. 2461)]

The problem arises because the spectrum of meaning of the two Chinese words is much broader than that of the two respective English words (giving only the nounal meanings relating to the body; both words also have other meanings):


small of the back


back of the body / hand

The back and the waist are real things, but people divide reality in different ways with the words they apply to it; we cannot always assume that what we see and experience is the same as what others see and experience.  Language colors their understanding of the world.


Selected readings


[Thanks to Yijie Zhang]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    December 26, 2021 @ 1:22 pm

    I no longer remember the nationalities involved, but suspect that they may have included Dutch, French, German and Polish. What they had in common was that some speakers of each would use "backside" where "back" was required, to the amusement (needless to say) of any native British English speakers present.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    December 26, 2021 @ 5:01 pm

    From Denis Mair:

    Your discussion of "waist" and "back" reminds me of #52.3 in the Yijing.
    It says "Gěn qí xiàn, liè qí yín 艮其限,列其夤…"
    "Keeping [everything below] the waist still, straining the flesh along the spine…" (This interpretation is based on commentators who say that xiàn 限 means "waist" in the sense of the dividing line between the upper and lower body).

    It's interesting that the word xiàn 限 here is "waist" in a specific sense. This contrasts with the muscles along the spine yín 夤, which extend above and below the waist. (Commentators define yín 夤 as lǚ 膂, which in context seems to mean the paraspinal muscles.)
    The word xiàn 限 in #52.3 is a more anatomically precise echo of the general term in the hexagram judgment: #52.0: "gěn qí bèi, bù huò qí shēn 艮其背,不獲其身…"
    "Keeping the back still and being unaware of his body…"

    When a specific part of the body is mentioned in the Yi, it is often placed in a context with other body parts.

  3. Chris Button said,

    December 28, 2021 @ 12:38 pm

    Also reflected in Japanese as 腰が痛いたい

    I recall it was touched on earlier here:

  4. Chris Button said,

    December 28, 2021 @ 12:40 pm

    Sorry, I meant:

    腰が痛い (koshi ga itai)

  5. Victor Mair said,

    December 29, 2021 @ 11:19 am

    @Chris Button:

    Thanks for reminding us about that "sour waist" post.

  6. liuyao said,

    December 29, 2021 @ 3:31 pm

    Also 伸懒腰 means to stretch one’s back. Should just reassign 腰 to back.

    Interesting that 折腰 reminds me of English sayings related to “spine” which have appeared a lot in American media/politics.

  7. Susan Chan Egan said,

    December 30, 2021 @ 9:36 pm


    Cantonese usually use 腳 for legs as well as feet, avoiding 腿,a word too indecorous for polite conversation as it is associated with the thigh (大腿). Table legs are 檯腳,and chair legs are 凳腳。The courtesy is not extended to animals. Thus, 雞腿,雞腳,etc. But chicken testicles, also a delicacy, is 雞腰。

    I believe in classical Chinese, 足 refers to everything from the knee down.

RSS feed for comments on this post