Mandarin and Manchu semen

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[This is a guest post by Jichang Lulu.]

Recent discussion of that most Taiwanese expletive, 潲 siâu ‘semen’ (“Hokkien in Sino-Japanese script”), made me think of a favourite item. Although Mandarin 㞞 sóng has the same literal meaning, in my experience that’s less familiar to some speakers than nouns that contain it, e.g. 㞞包 sóngbāo (literally ‘bag of semen’), roughly ‘weakling’.

Like other obscene characters, 㞞 is often unknown to active users of words spelt with it (cf., e.g., “Niubi (‘awesome’) revisited”) and hard to type in some input methods. Other obscene morphemes may not even have a dedicated character, being instead spelt with homophones — a good example is , usually spelt 日 like its homophone ‘day’, inviting such (visual and aural) puns as


Rénmín bào rénmín, guójiā gànbù gàn guójiā.

People day-paper kfc*1 people, country cadre kfc*2 country

‘The People’s Daily [kfc*1s] the people; the nation’s cadres [kfc*2] the nation.’

(Quoted in Kevin Carrico, “The Unknown Virus: The Social Logic of Bioconspiracy Theories in Contemporary China”. More discussion of , e.g., here. The People’s Daily is the main press organ of the Chinese Communist Party. The pun in the second half involves a term frequently discussed on LL (cf., e.g., “It is cool to [kfc*] the empress”; “Comrades, ‘hike up your skirts for a hard shag’”).)

Again like some other obscenities, our sóng seems to lack homophones (typically, there are multiple morphemes for a legal Mandarin syllable). Regular sound change from Middle Chinese should have given at least one: 松 MC (Baxter) zjowng ‘pine’ (the voiced initial is regularly reflected as Mand. tone 2) is instead pronounced sōng, possibly in order to avoid the obscene homophony.

And again like many others, our obscene item occurs in the Ming vernacular novel The Plum in the Golden Vase. The relevant locus (via ctext; my emphasis):


Shūtóng bǎ tóufa dōu róu luàn le, shuō dào: “shuǎ biàn shuǎ, xiào biàn xiào, zānglàlà de sóngshuǐzi tǔ le rén rèn yī kǒu!” Dài’ān dào: “Zéicūn shúshú, nǐ jīnrì cái chī sóng? Nǐ cóngqián yǐhòu bǎ sóng bù zhī chī le duōshao!”

David Tod Roy’s translation (Princeton UP, 1993):

Shu-t’ung, whose hair had gotten all rumpled, complained: “A game’s a game; A joke’s a joke, but you’ve spit a mouthful of filthy jizz all over me.”

“Why you lousy hick of a ‘sweetie’!” said Tai-an. “As though this were the first time you’ve ever swallowed jizz. From first to last, who knows how much jizz you may have swallowed?”

Clement Egerton’s 1939 translation, which famously has some bits in Latin, here doesn’t:

“A game is a game,” he said, “but this is not a game. You have filled my mouth with your filthy spittle.”

“Ah, you slave,” said Tai An, “this is not the first time you have swallowed such a liquid. You are always doing it, and who can tell how often?”

The Latin in Egerton’s translation is not his own but Frederick Adam Wright’s, whom the publisher asked to translate into Latin the risqué bits in Egerton’s English (which tested the Classicist’s stamina: “I got very tired of Hsi-men’s penis before I finished” (Lintao Qi, “Agents of Latin…”)). Here Egerton had no fluids that merited Wright’s exertion.

The work’s first translation into a foreign language, the 1708 Manchu version, doesn’t avoid the term. (Gin Ping Mei bithe, online at Kyoto University, our passage here; on the translation, see Martin Gimm, “‘Bibliographic Survey’: Manchu Translations of Chinese Novels and Short Stories: An Attempt at an Inventory” and, in more detail, Kim Soo-kyung 김수경, “『金甁梅』의 만주어 번역과 그 의의”.)

Šu Tong ujui funiyehe be monjirame facabufi hendume, efici efei yobodoci yobodombi dere, hacuka manggi ushe be geli niyalmai angga de jilu cifelembio, Dai An hendume, albatu koimali gūlmahūn si enenggi teni ushe jembio, erei onggolo ushe be maka udu jeke be sarkū kai sehe.

Corresponding to sóng we straightforwardly have ushe ‘semen’ (Sibe osko has the same meaning; cf. Ma. use ‘seed’, with cognates in other Tungusic languages (В.И. Цинциус et al., Сравнительный словарь тунгусо-маньчжурских языков s.v. уси)). The Manchu translation, seemingly quite popular, was banned in 1786.

Selected readings


  1. David Marjanović said,

    March 11, 2022 @ 1:18 pm

    The things I learn.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    March 11, 2022 @ 2:32 pm

    Yep! Only on Language Log.

  3. Zachary Hershey said,

    March 11, 2022 @ 6:15 pm

    I'm curious about 㞞包 vs. 慫包. Dictionaries that I have looked at seem to have the second entry, and I have also found people arguing about 慫 vs. 倯 online and quoting the 《方言》:庸謂之倯,轉語也。

  4. Terpomo said,

    March 12, 2022 @ 1:45 am

    Interesting that they'd use Latin… I wonder if any prudish translators in other parts of the world similarly used their civilizational 'sphere's' classical language in a similar fashion.

  5. Steve Plant said,

    March 12, 2022 @ 3:47 am

    @ Terpomo Yes, my mother in Stoke-on-Trent.
    If, as a little boy, I vomited I was told not to say I had 'been sick' but that I had 'been bilious', a much more respectable activity.

  6. Terpomo said,

    March 12, 2022 @ 5:15 am

    That sounds like Latin in the west, not another cultural sphere's classical language in that cultural sphere.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    March 12, 2022 @ 5:48 am

    When I'm speaking to someone whom I know is familiar with another language, I will often use that other language by way of euphemism, nuance, softening, particular emphasis, or to prevent bystanders whom I am reasonably certain do not know that other language from hearing some of the details of what is being said. This is also done in writing for stylistic or rhetorical effect. But, whether in writing or in speech, people seldom resort to such a device so systematically and at such length as those responsible for the Latinization of the highly erotic / pornographic portions of The Plum in the Golden Vase.

  8. John Swindle said,

    March 12, 2022 @ 6:10 am

    I know the word "kfc*" is supposed to represent, but how does it come to be represented that way? Google wants to tell me about Kentucky Fried Chicken.

  9. Jonathan Smith said,

    March 12, 2022 @ 8:42 am

    Curious… the previous line says "把他按在炕上,儘力往他口裡吐了一口唾沫" ("He held him down on the kang and forcefully spit a mouthful of spit into his mouth"), so the liquid in question in Shutong's complaint is spittle, as Egerton has it… but then the same word is apparently used to mean semen in Dai'an's mocking reposte… I guess a translator could coin "spizzle" or "jizzle" or sth :D
    The translations also disagree at "filled my mouth" vs. "spit a mouthful", but I suppose it doesn't matter since it's both mouths :D also where did Roy get "all over me"… WTH

  10. BillR said,

    March 12, 2022 @ 1:17 pm

    As a child, because my mother knew the librarian, I could check out any book I wanted and quickly learned that the ones with a red check mark on the fly leaf would be entertaining. A translation of the Decameron was my introduction to Latin. Trying to decipher all the apparent naughty bits was great fun.

  11. David Marjanović said,

    March 13, 2022 @ 5:35 am

    but then the same word is apparently used to mean semen in Dai'an's mocking reposte… I guess a translator could coin "spizzle" or "jizzle" or sth :D


  12. liuyao said,

    March 16, 2022 @ 2:20 pm

    I never knew the song2 in song2bao1 meant that! To me, song2 is not obscene at all, for it seems to mean (possibly by association with song2bao1) being cowardly, not acting out when provoked, and the character that people use is 怂. It would be an insult word, but it’s also used as a fun translation of "following one’s heart”.

    The classic example of an obscene word turning acceptable, in some context at least, is of course 屌 (diao3, dick -> awesome, cool) by itself or in 屌丝 (loser). The singer-songwriter Jay Chou did have an influence on this.

  13. Jonathan Smith said,

    March 16, 2022 @ 4:55 pm

    @David Marjanović Yes 'slime' or sth better for sure 'splooge' :D IDK At any rate it seems Egerton's translation is actually better here…
    @liuyao Personally I don't the etymology 'semen' > 'cowardly' is at all clear… instead both could some from 'ooze' or sth., or some other solution. Re: diao3 interesting esp. as diao3 is first 'bird', which >> niao3 due to taboo avoidance… now maybe 'bird' can be diao3 again :D

  14. Jichang Lulu said,

    March 23, 2022 @ 2:57 pm

    Thanks everyone for these comments.
    As @Jonathan Smith notes, the semantic evolution of sóng seems unclear, at least based on the materials discussed here. The fact that a dedicated character spells the meaning ‘sperm’ in a tradition anchored in the Jin Ping Mei doesn’t mean that meaning is older than others. Conversely, that 慫 has sóng as a variant pronunciation doesn’t itself imply that it’s derivative from the more common sǒng, although a connection is plausible. So is Smith’s ‘ooze’ as primary, but this is hard to evaluate without textual evidence.
    The characters that have been used to spell sóng and which ones may be seen as anchored in tradition (‘本字’) is a different, if related, matter.
    @Zachary Hershey
    From memory, sóng is spelt 㞞 (or even the rarer simplified version with 从) in dictionaries such as the green 当代汉语词典. The auctoritas for that lexicographical tradition is likely the Jin Ping Mei, but that doesn’t mean that spelling is the oldest, or reflective of the etymology.
    Conceivably, ‘semen’ evolved as one of the meanings of a certain monosyllable; then, in order to avoid homophony, it was differentiated from those meanings in writing, pronunciation or both. The relationship to 慫 is hard to assess absent a dated textual source. Since the other meanings of 慫 are not pronounced sóng but sǒng, this could be a character with a slightly similar meaning and sound borrowed to spell sóng.
    The 方言 reference is interesting, but I’m sceptical of its relevance to the modern Mandarin item. 倯 is a poor candidate for an older spelling of our item, because (to believe the 广韵 fanqie given in the Kangxi dictionary) it had an s- initial in MC (thus distinct from that of the ancestor of sóng), meaning that the pronunciation sōng as in 倯 is regular.
    In the post I gave 松 as one item that should have regularly become sóng but became something else instead, perhaps to avoid homophony. It’s not the only one. Less straightforwardly, 訟 has two recorded pronunciations in the rhyme book tradition (of works like the Guangyun 廣韻): the one that gave the usual Mandarin pronunciation, and another one (glossed with the same meaning) that would have given sóng as well in modern Mandarin.
    Without more textual evidence of uses of our item meaning ‘semen’ it’s hard to decide whether sóng even had any attested predecessors in MC or earlier forms.
    That’s a good question. As BillR notes, euphemistic Latin used to be quite common.
    The paper by Lintao Qi cited in the post has several examples of Latin passages in the 1939 edition of Egerton’s translation. But, as Professor Mair notes, there are many such passages. Ironically perhaps, these are sometimes more explicit in terms of sexual vocabulary than the Chinese original. (Wright worked from Egerton’s English, which might have undone some metaphors. A healthy amount of semen flows through the original text, but the word sóng doesn’t seem to be used much.) One ‘seminal’ example, in chapter 77:


    Língguī chàng měi, yī xiè rú zhù

    spirit-turtle gush beautifully one release like pouring

    Egerton / Wright 1939:

    [Hsi-mên] subito effluxit semen et summa voluptate fruitus est

    1972 edition of Egerton’s translation, with all the Latin undone:

    suddenly the sperm flowed forth and gave him an exquisite orgasm

    The Latin was arguably better: effluo is used transitively (‘Ximen (in the original, his ‘turtle’; the metaphor is transparent in Chinese, cf. 龟头 guītóu ‘glans penis’) gushed / caused to flow’). Indeed, Robert Hegel’s introduction to the 2011 edition of the Egerton noted Wright’s Latin had been “translated […] into an English that is often more anatomically correct than the original”.
    @John Swindle
    By permutation.
    @Jonathan Smith
    A lazy weakling myself, to keep the cited passages short I extracted only the bits that had our item. That can give the wrong impression that Egerton misidentified the fluid in question. The fluid is certainly spittle. Dai’an calls it sóngshuǐzi meaning pretty much ‘filthy (‘semen-like’) liquid’, Shutong ripostes ‘well it wouldn’t be the first time’. Egerton’s translation seems to insinuate this but in a way that doesn’t warrant the Latinist’s intervention. The earlier Manchu translation’s in-your-face literality perhaps helped motivate the censor’s. In a sense, it contained the seed of its own banning.

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