"Sadomasochism" in Chinese

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In "Has Sadomasochism Arrived? Confrontations of power at the level of sexuality in China", author Li Yinhe approves of the translation of the term "sadomasochism" as "nuedailian" in the following paragraph:

Also known as S&M, and sometimes abbreviated as SM or S/M, the terminology, "sadomasochism," was first developed by Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing. In Chinese, I use a term to signify "cruelty" and "love," first proposed by sociologist Pan Guangdan. I applaud the phrase, "nuedailian," both for its simplicity and recognition of conflicting dynamics, rather than a term that would only denote sadistic or intentionally harmful activities.

The term for "sadomasochism" proposed by Pan Guangdan and promoted by Li Yinhe is nüèdàiliàn 虐待恋 ("abuse love"). A Chinese colleague objects to this translation thus:

Pan Guangdan's terminology is inaccurate. Strictly speaking, sadomasochism involves not love (lian 恋) but lust (yin 淫) perverted by a pathological obsession with physical sexual abuse and self-abuse. So, a better translation would be 淫虐癖 (lustful abuse obsession).

This alternative translation is yínnüèpǐ 淫虐癖, which is rendered back into English as follows:

Google Translate: "kinky abuse addiction"

Bing Translator: "effects of child abuse and paedophilia"

It seems as though there is not yet a satisfactory, fixed term for sadomasochism in Chinese. Here are some possibilities:

Baidu Fanyi: bèinüèdàixìngbiàntài 被虐待性变态 ("sexual abnormality of being abused")

Bing Translator: shīnüèshòunüèkuáng 施虐受虐狂 (in colloquial usage also called "sado-maso") ("madness of giving and receiving abuse")

Google Translate: nüèliàn 虐恋 ("abuse love")

Google Translate extended definitions: shīnüèshòunüè 施虐受虐 ("giving and receiving abuse"); shīnüèshòunüèkuáng 施虐受虐狂 ("madness of giving and receiving abuse"); shòunüè 受虐 ("receive abuse"); xìngnüèdài 性虐待 ("sexual abuse")

During the course of my investigation of the Chinese terminology for sadomasochism, I came upon these three websites that discuss this phenomenon by referring to it as nüèdài 虐待 ("abuse"), nüèdàiliàn 虐待恋 ("abuse love"), xìngnüèdài 性虐待 ("sexual abuse"), or SM. What is remarkable, however, is that the texts on all three sites are written entirely in Pinyin (Romanization) without joining syllables into words and without capitalization. Could this be an attempt to evade the censors?

I don't think nüèdàiliàn 虐待恋 ("abuse love") will catch on in English, and I suspect that it won't become popular in Chinese either.

[Hat tip to John Rohsenow]


  1. Jason Cullen said,

    July 28, 2013 @ 8:45 pm

    I think there's nothing wrong 虐待恋 as a term for sado-masochism.

    First, 'love' (恋 liàn) is also used in 同性恋 (tóngxìngliàn homosexuality), which covers both romantic love as well as same-sex sex acts. So there's nothing wrong with 恋 also being used for 虐待恋 or sadomasochism. Second, in English people use 'gay' and 'sadomasochism' without thinking of their etymology. Yes, 'carefree and happy' has a more recent memory in the language, and some people at least claim to have read the Marquis de Sade, but who reads Leopold von Sacher-Masoch anymore? (Wait, rhetorical question, please don't …) A word can be expanded from its original meaning, just like 'gay' or 同志 (I still smile and wonder who the president of China is addressing when he says loudly "同志们!" "We're over HERE in the bar!") So I hope this catches on, and not the puritanical, inherently disapproving terms proposed!

  2. CP said,

    July 28, 2013 @ 9:06 pm

    Some people in Taiwan translate "sadomasochism" as 愉(yú)虐 or 悅(yuè)虐 to keep the sense of pleasure of sadomasochism. Both 愉(yú) and 悅(yuè) have the meaning of "joyful," "cheerful," or "delighted."

    This might be a better translation. While people who practice sadomasochism are definitely in a sort of relationship, it does not have to be with anything usually regarded as "romantic" involved.

  3. Dean Barrett said,

    July 28, 2013 @ 10:19 pm

    Anyway, China has plenty of time to sort this out because, unlike here in Bangkok with fetish clubs and houses of domination sprouting up faster than 7/11's, China seems to have only a few independent doms advertising, no clubs. A society has to be fairly advanced to move into the S&M world and alas although scholars on China will not say this openly they are very concerned that China is falling farther and farther behind the rest of the world when it comes to S&M. Not a missile gap, rather, a, um, leather gap. I think dominatrix, by the way, is nyu wang yang. female king but don't know why the third character "yang" is used.

  4. leoboiko said,

    July 28, 2013 @ 11:17 pm

    I really like the proposal that the acronym BDSM should be expanded pairwise by reusing initials, as Bondage & Discipline + Dominance & Submission + Sado-Masochism. Admittedly, "discipline" seems to me to be a subset of "dominance", and not really the complement of "bondage". More prosaically, the modern idea really refer to three related fetishes: 1) (physical) restraints; 2) (psychological) power play; and 3) erotic pain; therefore, "BDSM" isn't the clearest of acronyms. But it's the only of its kind that I know, so I esteem it. The only way to make it better would be to come up with some fetish with M&B initials, to turn it into a loop.

    I wonder if the same principle could be calqued to a Chinese expression. Using hànzì might make it too tricky…

    Japanese has the famous kinbaku 緊縛 for bondage, which could be graphically-loaned into Chinese as jǐnfù, but unfortunately most of the other terms are today just English loans, and I guess a common term for the broad fetish would be simply "SM" (in Roman characters). In fact the words emu ("M") and esu ("S") are used in this context for masochists and sadists, as in M豚 emu-buta "maso pig".

    The objection against 愛 above seems to be more moral than grammatical, as if they're trying to ensure, by the powers of vocabulary creation, that S&M enthusiasts are defined as "obsessed" and "pathological".

  5. John said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 2:17 am

    @Jason Cullen

    So there's nothing wrong with 恋 also being used for 虐待恋 or sadomasochism.

    Only if you think getting your wife to tie and beat you up is the same as secretly seeking out a dominatrix when your wife is away.

    @Victor Mair

    What is remarkable, however, is that the texts on all three sites are written entirely in Pinyin (Romanization) without joining syllables into words and without capitalization. Could this be an attempt to evade the censors?

    Did you not notice the links【原文】【汉音对照】at the end of the text???

    Not only do they have a traditional Chinese version as well, they also have a furigana'd version!


  6. Scott said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 2:25 am

    Somebody should point out to your "Chinese colleague" that BDSM is not considered pathological any more, though it took psychiatry longer to clear them out of the books than homosexuality (see https://ncsfreedom.org/press/blog/item/the-dsm-5-says-kink-is-ok.html). So everything to do with "madness" and "abuse" is simply wrong.

  7. Xmun said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 3:01 am

    @Jason Cullen: I know you said "Please don't", but allow me to mention that my daughter-in-law recommended one of Sacher-Masoch's books to me (Venus in Furs, if I remember correctly) and lent me her copy, but I didn't get further than about page 12.

  8. Lao-seng said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 3:22 am

    "Sadomasochism" etymologically came from the names of two persons, so it has a tone of mystery and avoids the directness. In China we should try to find two persons in the history as well who were like de Sado or Masoch, and combine their names to make the Chinese term for Sadomasochism.

    As I googled, it seemed most of sadomasochists in Chinese history are the emperors (well I guess first of all ordinary people has no record in Chinese history and secondly ordinary people had little chance to be sadomasochists in the past…). Suppose it's Hanwudi 汉武帝 and Xianfeng 咸丰, then we could have the word wuxianfeng or 无限疯 ;-)

  9. SlideSF said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 3:33 am

    @Dean Barrett: I'm not a linguist, but it seems whatever you are driving at doesn't have much to do with language. Or it does in the sense that I infer from your usage that the term "sado-masochism" refers exclusively to a commercial enterprise involving clubs, doms, and advertising. And that Chinese society is not sufficiently "advanced" for such things. I would contend that sado-masochistic relationships of a highly personal and individual nature not only exist, but have existed for a very long time, and were the archetype around which the fetish of "sado-masochism", and its commercial exploitation developed.

    Oh yeah, and also that Chinese culture is indeed sufficiently "advanced" to have enough familiarity with the subject to have a word for it. Again, I am no scholar of Chinese literature/culture, but I am pretty sure that sado-masochistic relationships develop wherever there are large differences in power dynamics between individuals. And China certainly has had that for millennia.

  10. J. Xiao said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 6:39 am

    In Cantonese, most people would borrow the phrase directly from English in the form of 'SM' ([ˈɛs 'ɛm] or [ˈɛ 'sɛm]), or further assimilated it according to Cantonese phonology as [e1 si4 em1]. Obviously, there is no corresponding character…yet!

  11. GAC said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 11:35 am


    Mair isn't advocating for any particular term here, he's just mentioning terms that are currently floating around in Chinese. You're free to propose terms you would prefer, but keep in mind that whatever the "correct" term is in Chinese will probably rise organically.

  12. julie lee said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 11:45 am

    Since "sadomasochism" (6 syllables) alludes to two names "Sade" and "Masoch", I suggest transliteration to maintain the allusiveness in Chinese. So in Pinyin, "sadomasochism" would be:

    薩德馬索克戀 sade-masuoke-lian (also 6 syllables; literally, "sadomasoch romance")
    and abbreviated,
    薩馬戀 sa-ma-lian (3 syllables, "sa-ma romance")

    "Homosexuality" in Mandarin is translated “同性戀” tong-xing-lian (same-sex-romance), so the "lian" (romance, love affair) can stand for English ending "-ism" or "ity", meaning "condition" (something pathological or not).

    Chinese tends to be an allusive and figurative language. Homosexuality was commonly referred to as 斷袖之交 duan-xiu-zhi-jiao (literally, "cutting- the-sleeve relationship"), alluding to a story of two homosexual lovers.

  13. Rodger C said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

    My German far exceeds my Chinese and isn't so hot itself, but wouldn't "Masoch" be better rendered by "Mazuohe"?

  14. Brendan said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 6:42 pm

    For what it's worth, I've mostly just seen either "虐恋" or "SM" in the wild. Li Yinhe's article was the first time I'd ever seen 虐待恋 — and the 成人玩具店 sex-toy shops around Beijing seem mostly just to advertise "SM 工具."

    Not, of course, that the concept is somehow foreign or new to China. In his fantastically entertaining and entirely unreliable memoir Decadence Mandchoue, Edmund Backhouse described a gay bordello in late 19th-century Beijing where clients could opt to beat or be beaten with wooden sticks, and wholly Chinese novels like 金瓶梅 and 肉蒲团 have got plenty of non-vanilla sex in them.

  15. Matt said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 8:01 pm

    So, in conclusion, does Chinese have no words for sadomasochism, or fifty? The deadline for this op-ed piece is coming up fast, I need to add the intro and send it off.

  16. julie lee said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 10:16 am

    Rodger C::

    The "z" in Pinyin represents a "ds" sound in English, as in "bids", not the English "z" sound.
    Pinyin "h" is probably closer to German final "ch" than Pinyin "k". I don't speak German, though I read it, which is much easier. I thought initial "s" in German corresponded to the "z" sound in English, but I'm not sure about medial German "s" in "Masoch".
    I don't know of a term for sadomasochism in classical Chinese literature, but did Greek have a word for it? Or English in the old days? My impression is that in the old days it was lumped with a lot of other things under the word "perversion" or "sins of the blood". In my schooldays I used to wonder what these expressions meant. You heard about them in catechism or Bible class but never knew what they meant.

  17. Rodger C said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

    @Julie Lee: Thanks. I did know that pinyin z is an affricate (In My Day it was spelled ts by Mr. Wade and Mr. Giles), but I'm unsure about borrowing adaptation rules. I'm pretty sure the s in Masoch is voiced. I suppose what we really need to do is find something translated from German to Chinese about Leopold v. Sacher-Masoch and see what the translator did.

  18. julie lee said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 1:58 pm

    @Rodger C:

    Thanks, you're right about Masoch. I find the following in Baidu:

    " 雖然sadism(施虐)和masochism(受虐)是分別來自於Marquis de Sade(薩德侯爵)和Leopold von Sacher-Masoch(梅佐克)這兩人的姓氏,他們兩人的生活方式是否真…."

    in which Sade is transliterated as 薩德 (sa-de) and Masoch as 梅佐克 (mei-zuo-ke).
    Sadism is here translated 施虐 shi-nue ("apply abuse"), and masochism translated 受虐 shou-nue ("receive abuse"). This translation of sadomach-, 施虐受虐, is also included in Professor Mair's LLog — 施虐受虐狂 "giving-and-receiving-abuse madness", I think it's the best translation of all the examples he gives, but I prefer a more allusive one, and not using the word 狂 kuang"madness, mania" but using the word 戀lian "romance, love affair" for English ending "ism". Of course one can also translate it as
    施虐受虐之交“giving-and-receiving-abuse relationship". I like the abbreviation 虐恋nue-lian "abuse romance/relationship" that @Brendan has mentioned.

  19. Matt said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 7:50 pm

    On the other hand, the English word "sadomasochism" (as opposed to the German word "Sadomasochismus") is usually pronounced with an unvoiced /s/ in the middle — it's been completely naturalized; the [ch] has also lost its German pronunciation. So 索 is fine for a transliteration of the English noun — that is, a true "loan word" — rather than an etymological recreation of the word using Chinese transliterations of the names involved — which I suppose counts as a calque!

  20. Brendan said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 11:01 pm

    Though 狂 also functions like English "crazy" in the sense of being "crazy for something" — you'll hear things like "购物狂" ("shopping maniac") all the time without any real derogatory connotation.
    癖 strikes me as more clearly derogatory, but also more "native"-sounding in that it shows up in terms like 龙阳癖 ("Lord Longyang's vice," a reference to a fondness for catamites), 断袖之癖 ("the cut-sleeve vice," from the same origin as the more romantic-sounding 断袖之交/断袖之恋 "the love that cut its sleeve off [rather than wake a sleeping lover]"), etc. Though of course it turns up in non-derogatory words like 诗癖 ("an addiction to poetry") as well.

    In any event, 虐恋 and "SM" (pronounced "ai-si-ai-mu") are much more commonly used in my (non-extensive, non-participatory, etc.) experience than anything else.

  21. julie lee said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 12:08 am


    SM pronounced "ai-si-ai-mu"–how delightful !! Yes, that's how a lot of Chinese Mandarin-speakers would say it, turning "SM" into Mandarin. I didn't like English "SM" popping up in Chinese, but the Mandarinized "ai-si-ai-mu" is a different matter. I love it.

  22. Rodger C said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 11:49 am

    Whoever rendered "Masoch" as "meizuoke" plainly didn't know German spelling conventions from English ones, at least not very well.

  23. julie lee said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 4:23 pm

    @Rodger C:
    I also wondered if the person who rendered "Masoch" as "meizuoke" knew German. Or whether he was just being cavalier about rendering the sound accurately.

    I also agree that it's fine to use 索suo for the -so- in "Masoch". My "馬索克ma-suo-ke"
    is a transliteration of the English word. But one can also choose to transliterate from the German.

    Looking up Baidu again, I find these different transliterations of "Masoch":

    There may be more. It just shows the problem of rendering foreign names into Chinese. One problem is: which language should you transliterate from? Should you give the German sound or the English sound of "Masoch", "masochism"? Another problem: do you render it into Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, or some other Chinese dialect or speech? If the medial -s- in Masoch is like English z, then we have the problem that Mandarin doesn't have the z sound, so we have to substitute it with the s as in Pinyin romanization "suo" or the affricate as in Pinyin "zuo".
    The words "masochism" and "sadomasochism" first appeared in German (Wikipedia), so one could choose to render the German sound, and then the final German -ch is better rendered as Pinyin "-he" in Mandarin.

  24. Matt said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 7:55 pm

    Julie: Yes, I think cases like this shed light on a lot of interesting issues, definitely including the one you raise. To take a similar example in English, there was a time when the proper name 趙州 was almost always rendered as "Jōshū", because he was known only from Japanese sources. In recent years it seems to me that there has been a shift towards transliterating the name using Pinyin as "Zhàozhōu", even in Japanese contexts ("Dōgen said…"), on the grounds that he was after all Chinese. I assume that this shift reflects cultural changes like: greater sensitivity to the difference between Chinese and Japanese, deeper understanding of the continental roots of Zen, and a sense that people should be called by the names they themselves use, or at least as close an approximation thereof as possible. (Although of course 趙州 died in the 9th century; his own pronunciation would probably have been different again.)

    This approach is not necessarily applied evenly, though, and so you sometime see turns of phrase like "Zhaozhou's 'Mu'"!

    Similarly, I would assume that people who transliterate "sadomasochism" directly from the English are less familiar with or interested in the literary/clinical history of the term than those who reconstruct it from the German pronunciation. I would not call either approach "wrong", of course, but the choice of one approach over another can be revealing.

  25. julie lee said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 1:48 am

    Yes , many issues. It's interesting.
    You mention the Japanese rendering of Chinese 趙州 as Jōshū, and that this man died in the 9th century. I wonder what (9th century?) Chinese dialect "Jōshū" came from and whether 趙州 himself in his 9th century Chinese dialect called himself "Jōshū". I say this because, as you know, the Sino-Japanese characters for "Tokyo" – 東京 ("Eastern Capital") is read "Dongjing" in Mandarin. At first I didn't know how the Chinese characters 東京 "Dongjing" could give us "Tokyo" in Japanese, until I heard my Shandong in-law pronounce Chinese 東京 as "Do(ng) Gyo(ng)" in her Shandong Tengxian County dialect, with the final -ng almost completely disappeared or nasalized. Final -ing in Mandarin is -yo(ng) in her Shandong dialect. I noticed this when she called my son, named Jing (in Mandarin), Gyong.
    Likewise, I found that although the Sino-Korean characters for Pyongyang– 平壤 ("Peaceful Land")(city in Korea)– are read "Ping-rang" in Mandarin, they are pronounced
    "Pyo(ng)-yo(ng)" in this Shandong dialect. Shandong and China's northern coastal areas had relations with Korea and Japan very early on (Pyongyang dates to the Han dynasty, 2nd century B.C.–Wikipedia). I wonder what Chinese dialect or regional speech the pronunciation "Jōshū" originally came from.

  26. julie lee said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 2:02 am


    A typo:
    平壤 in this Shandong dialect is "Pyo(ng)-ya(ng)" not "Pyo(ng)-yo(ng)".

  27. Victor Mair said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 5:26 pm

    The Chinese WP article is titled 虐恋 (with a S&M redirect)


  28. Matt said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 8:46 pm

    Julie: Well, "jō" for 趙 is said to be a 呉音 pronunciation, meaning that it dates from before the 7th century and probably came from the south of China (most likely the Wu region, possibly via Korea), although I understand there is no direct historical evidence of the importation process.

    Meanwhile, "shū" for 州 is 漢音, meaning that it was imported from the Tang dynasty during the Nara period (7th-9th century). The 呉音 pronunciation of 州 is "su". There's a nice table comparing 呉音 and 漢音 at the Wikipedia entry for "go-on".

    What this means, I believe, is that the pronunciation "Jōshū" doesn't correspond to any single Chinese language or dialect, but was created from existing components in Japan. Like a Chinese word for "Sadomasochism" that transliterated the English pronunciation of "Sad(e)" and German pronunciation of "Masoch", I suppose.

  29. julie lee said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 9:57 pm

    Thanks for explaining the possible twists and turns in the name "Jōshū" and the link to the Wiki. article on "go-on".

    @Victor Mair
    Thanks for the link to the article 虐恋 (S&M) in Chinese. It certainly gives a lot of information.

  30. Wentao said,

    August 2, 2013 @ 2:43 am

    You have made the assumption that Shandong dialect has remained static since the borrowings of Chinese vocabulary into Japanese occurred, which is not the case. Spoken Chinese a thousand years ago did not resemble any existing dialect now. So the similarity between Tengxianhua and the go-on readings in Japanese is probably a coincidence.

  31. julie lee said,

    August 2, 2013 @ 12:42 pm

    Actually, I didn't assume that the Shandong Tengxian County dialect has remained static for a thousand or two thousand years, but I didn't go into that.
    There are some very conservative living languages or dialects in the world that have retained sounds for a very long time. One is Lithuanian: "Among Indo-European languages, Lithuanian is extraordinarily conservative, retaining many archaic features otherwise found only in ancient languages such as Sanskrit or Ancient Greek. For this reason, it is one of the most important sources in the reconstruction of the Proto-Indo-European language …. The phonology and especially the nominal morphology of Lithuanian is almost certainly the most conservative of any living Indo-European language,[2][3]…." (Wikipedia, "Lithuanian language".)

    The similarities I pointed out between the Shandong Tengxian pronunciations of the characters for Tokyo and for Pyongyang in Japanese and Korean respectively may well be coincidence. I rather think they are due to the Tengxian dialect being very conservative. Of course we need to record all the dialects and speeches of China (and readings of Chinese characters in neighboring countries) to get a better knowledge of the history of the Chinese language, and I don't think that comprehensive recording has been done.

  32. julie lee said,

    August 2, 2013 @ 12:46 pm

    "The similarities between the Shandong pronunciations and the Japanese and Korean ones…"

  33. Alon Lischinsky said,

    August 12, 2013 @ 3:53 am


    Admittedly, "discipline" seems to me to be a subset of "dominance", and not really the complement of "bondage".

    AFAIK, discipline in this context has the meaning that the OED lists as 7.a: ‘Correction; chastisement; punishment inflicted by way of correction and training […] a beating or other infliction assumed to be salutary to the recipient’. That is to say, it stands for what is now usually known as impact play.

    This gives the acronym a nice balance: bondage and discipline for the physical aspects of the practice, dominance and submission for the mental ones, sadism/masochism for the traditional medical labels.

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