Subtleties of slapping

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Lately I've been encountering this expression quite a bit on the Chinese internet:

dǎ liǎn 打脸

It seems transparently to mean "slap face", but my Chinese students and friends all characterize it as jargon and netizen slang, and they say that it has only been gaining currency within the last two-three years.

Here I rank "dǎ liǎn 打脸" numerically against other terms for "slap" that I've been acquainted with since I started learning Chinese more than half a century ago.

dǎ liǎn 打脸 ("slap face") 48,700,000 ghits — that was yesterday's tally; this morning it is 59,500,000

dǎ ěrguāng 打耳光 ("box [someone's] ear") 3,420,000 ghits

dǎ yī bāzhang 打一巴掌 ("strike with the palm") 2,300,000 ghits

dǎ zuǐbā 打嘴巴 ("smack on the mouth") 975,000


Comments from correspondents


I feel the more common usage of this internet slang is to say someone "bèi dǎ liǎn 被打脸" ("was slapped on the face").  For example, if someone is very confident about something or she / he swears that something will definitely happen, but in fact things in the end develop in a totally different direction; in this situation, we will say that this person “bèi dǎ liǎn le 被打脸了" ("was slapped on the face").  This is to some extent similar to the English expression "eat your own words," I think.


"Dǎ liǎn 打脸" has indeed become a common slang word frequently used by Chinese netizens. It is usually used to describe this following awkward situation: someone who previously affirmed, alleged, asserted, predicated, or predicted the reason for, the result of, or anything related to some specific event, is embarrassed by the fact that things turn out to be contrary / different to his / her assertion / predication / reasoning / prediction. 

For example, "Tāmen duànyán xīnguān yìqíng huì zài qùnián dōngtiān jiéshù, guǒrán bèi dǎ liǎn le他们断言新冠疫情会在去年冬天结束,果然被打脸了。" (They said the coronavirus pandemic would come to an end last winter. It turned out they were slapped in their face", i.e., the pandemic has been continuing.)

Or, "Tā jiānxìn zhège míngxīng bù huì yǒu chǒuwén, dàn jīntiān zhōngyú bèi dǎ liǎn le 她坚信这个明星不会有丑闻,但今天终于被打脸了。" ("She believed that this celebrity would never be embroiled in any scandal. She is now finally slapped in her face" .the celebrity is now embroiled in a scandal.)


"Dǎ liǎn 打脸", as a netizen’s lexical expression — “a slap-in-the-face moment” — usually means "zhēnxiàng fǎn zhuǎn 真相反转" ("contrarily, the true state of affairs is revealed") . Roughly, if someone has made a very strong and stubborn assertion about something, but the truth turns out to be against what he asserted, then we could say he got “slapped in the face”. 

It’s hard to describe the nuances of the reversal, but let me give a few examples: 
1) If I fall in love with a guy / girl and my parents are strongly against this relationship, but a few years later we ended up being extremely happy and loving together — then I can say that my partner and I got my parents “slapped in the face”. However, if I fall in love with someone against my parents’ will but in the end my parents were proved right — that this lover is indeed an a**hole — then, it’s my parents who “slapped” me “in the face”. 
More precisely:
2) If X thinks highly of Y and Y fails X's expectation, then one can say: Y slaps X’s face. 

3) If X thinks lowly of Y but Y performs so well that X’s depreciation is countered, we can also say that Y slaps X’s face.


Jane admired Prof. Jones when she first came to this university. However, Prof. Jones gave her no help throughout her years here. Now she feels that Prof. Jones slapped her in the face. 
Beatrice is so petty that she always puts Jim down and gives him a hard time. But Jim will finish his PhD with great accomplishment, get a good job in the future, and become a great and influential scholar.  At that time, Jim will slap Beatrice's face by showing how excellent he really is, in contrast to her belittling of him.
By assuming that "dǎ liǎn 打脸" simply means "slap the face", without any further implications or insinuations, "wǒ bèi dǎ liǎn le 我被打脸了" ("I got slapped on the face").

Selected readings


[Thanks to Chenfeng Wang, Diana Shuheng Zhang, and Yijie Zhang]


  1. Bloix said,

    April 10, 2022 @ 9:21 am

    It used to be common knowledge among English-speakers ( i.e. it might or might not have been true) that in Chinese the word "face" expressed the concept of respect and social standing in the community. In English, the usage was usually part of the idioms to lose face – to be shamed – and to save face – to avoid being shamed. Are these modern "slap in the face" idioms a more vigorous extension of an earlier expression?

  2. methor said,

    April 10, 2022 @ 10:37 am

    This meaning of "face slapping" is commonly used in english web fiction. To the point that a chapter named "slapping faces" subverted expectations when it contained actual face slapping.

  3. Mark Metcalf said,

    April 10, 2022 @ 10:41 am

    1. Here's the term as used in a recent NYT article:

    …Jeremy Wu, a 26-year-old Shanghai native, now wonders if he should have moved back to China from Australia, where he was in graduate school.

    Mr. Wu returned to Shanghai in the fall of 2020, believing that the city would be one of the few places in China where officials would keep cases low while avoiding excessive restrictions. When his friends in the northwestern city of Xi’an were locked down earlier this year, he felt relief at being in Shanghai.

    “While sympathizing with my friends, in my mind I was thinking, ‘Thank god this would never happen to Shanghai,” Mr. Wu said.

    “What a ‘da lian’ moment that is for me,” he added, using Chinese slang to suggest hitting oneself in the face when proven wrong…

    [NYT, 7APR22, "Shanghai Seethes in Covid Lockdown, Posing Test to China's Leadership",

    2. The intersection (aargh! I hate that word) of literally slapping and figuratively slapping is interesting. Taiwan's Cross-Straits dictionary (LAC on PlecoDict) defines 打脸 as: 使人难堪、丢脸 ("Causing someone to be embarrassed or humiliated [lit: loss of face]")

    3. Discussions of the term on some PRC websites make it sound like they're talking about someone who has been "pwned."

  4. Victor Mair said,

    April 10, 2022 @ 1:19 pm

    Nice video that discusses the subject of dǎ liǎn 打脸 ("slap face") in depth and gives plenty of examples of its usage:

  5. Victor Mair said,

    April 10, 2022 @ 1:38 pm

    Amazing collection of dǎ liǎn 打脸 ("slap face") memes. Highly recommended for your scrutiny.

  6. Nathan Barrick said,

    April 11, 2022 @ 11:30 am

    Wouldn’t this be more directly related to the face-palm emoji?
    A Simpsonsesque “Doh”?
    Though the linguistic explanations are certainly interesting. Parallel meanings — but if netizen is user isn’t this the term for the emoji? Or does it have a different name?

  7. Phil H said,

    April 11, 2022 @ 11:37 am

    I think this is overcomplicating it a bit. It just means "to be embarrassed". Pretty much the same as the English idiom.

  8. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 11, 2022 @ 3:33 pm

    "Be embarrassed"? … hardly… "forced to eat one's own words," as commenter #1 said, is about right… low-level but palpable language violence, as is de rigueur for PRC (and US?) social/politcal commentary these days…

  9. Michael Watts said,

    April 13, 2022 @ 1:13 pm

    “While sympathizing with my friends, in my mind I was thinking, ‘Thank god this would never happen to Shanghai,” Mr. Wu said.

    “What a ‘da lian’ moment that is for me,” he added, using Chinese slang to suggest hitting oneself in the face when proven wrong…

    This would suggest to me that the English equivalent is "facepalm".

  10. DDeden said,

    April 14, 2022 @ 10:11 pm

    My thought was facepalm, but turned inside out.

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