Is it a rat's head or a duck's neck?

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Main dish served as part of a college cafeteria lunch in Nanchang, China:

On the left side it says: 

zhè búshì máo ma?


"Isn't this hair?"

On the right side it reads:

āyí shuō shì yāròu


"Auntie [i.e., the cafeteria serving lady] says that it's duck meat."

The photographs and the captions are from Andrew Methven's "What the Duck?!  Another food safety scandal rears its ugly head (in a really weird way)", Slow Chinese (6/10/23), which is also the basis for the following paragraphs and illustrations.

A student in the southern city of Nánchāng 南昌 found what looked like a rat head in his lunch while eating in the canteen at his college.  

He complained to the catering staff, who insisted that it was actually a duck neck (鸭脖 yābó), which was on the menu, and not a rat head (鼠头 shǔtóu):

That piece of meat clearly had hair and teeth, but the lady working in the cafeteria repeatedly said: “This is duck meat. It’s duck meat.”


The student posted a short video of the mysterious meal on social media, asking: Is it a duck neck or a rat head? 

The resounding response: It’s a rat head, with teeth and hair.

A day later, the school waded in: 

The school issued a notice, reconfirming that the "foreign object" was a duck neck, which is normal food.


On the same day, the student made a video apology, confirming it was a duck’s neck after all: 

I published a video on the internet, but later realised that it was not a rat’s head but a duck’s neck. So I am here to clarify that.


Why the change? 

Cynical netizens suggested a reason:

For a student who has not yet graduated, is finding out whether that thing is a rat’s head really as important as his diploma?


Creative internet users went on, invented a new pun drawing from an old idiom:

The idiom story of "to call a deer a horse” is well-known among educated Chinese people. Pointing at a deer and calling it a horse is a metaphor for intentionally distorting the truth and confusing right and wrong. 2230 years later, a new idiom has emerged: "to call a rat a duck”.

指鹿为马的故事,但凡读点书的中国人,应该是都知道的。指着鹿,说是马,比喻故意颠倒黑白,混淆是非。 “指鹿为马”2230年后,又有了一个新成语:指鼠为鸭。

This new idiom is likely to become widely used meaning something like: "The government is distorting the facts even though the opposite is clearly true.”

More new puns were invented with the character for “rat” changed for “duck” in a number of well-known four-character idioms:

    • 抱头鼠窜 bào tóu shǔ cuàn » 抱头鸭窜 bào tóu yā cuàn

cover one's face and creep away

» the government is afraid of the truth

    • 贼眉鼠眼 zéi méi shǔ yǎn » 贼眉鸭眼 zéi méi yā yǎn

shifty-rat-eyed thieves

» shifty-duck-eyed liars

    • 胆小如鼠 dǎn xiǎo rú shǔ » 胆小如鸭 dǎn xiǎo rú yā

timid like a rat

» cowardly like a duck

But our favourite innovation is the adaptation of a well-known poem by Song dynasty poet, Sū Shì 苏轼:

Beyond the bamboo grove peach trees are in bloom,

The rat first knows the warm of waters in spring.

When duck necks with sharp teeth cover the ground,

This is when the regulators do their anti-rumour rounds.



So that’s what we explore this week: The relationship between truth, power, and censorship.

After which the author introduces his 28 min. podcast of the episode and provides other instructional material based on the theme, vocabulary, and phraseology of the post.

Artwork: Derek Zheng, The China Project; background characters are Rashomon / Rashōmon 罗生门 (trad. 羅生門), the title of the classic Akira Kurosawa film (1950) about the perception of truth.

Image: 新洞察

Selected readings

[thanks to Mark Metcalf]


  1. Paul Frank said,

    June 13, 2023 @ 9:03 am

    According to Singapore's Lianhe Zaobao (联合早报), students at the Jiangxi Institute of Technology made similar claims about rats in their food on social media platforms in 2008. And in the last few days, social media users have coined at least two other four-character phrases after seeing photos posted by students: "指虫为草" and "指虫为椒" ("calling a worm grass" and "calling a worm pepper"). See

  2. Mark Metcalf said,

    June 13, 2023 @ 11:23 am

    Rebel Pepper's timely contribution to the discussion:

  3. Victor Mair said,

    June 13, 2023 @ 3:00 pm

    By sheer coincidence, I was just now checking the dissertation draft of one of my students. In it, he was reviewing the lessons of Y. R. Chao's famous textbook, Mandarin Primer. The tenth lesson is WUWOEI SHUU 无尾鼠 ("THE TAILLESS RAT"). If you google on "tailless rat", I think you'll be amazed to discover how important it is whether a rat has a tail or not, how tailless rats come to be, and so forth.

    That led me to think of Miyamoto Musashi's Five Rings of Strategy where he presents the riddle of "Rat's Head, Ox's Neck", which means that, "when we are fighting with the enemy and both he and we have become occupied with small points in an entangled spirit, we must always think of the Way of strategy as being both a rat's head and an ox's neck."

    Maybe the cooks / students at the Jiangxi Institute of Technology were somehow perversely inspired by that riddle in Miyamoto Musashi's Five Rings of Strategy to concoct their improbable, disgusting rat's head duck's body dish.

  4. JOHN S ROHSENOW said,

    June 14, 2023 @ 12:57 am

    In 1981 at a conference in Shenzhen we were presented with "yangrou tang" (sheep/mutton soup) for lunch and I found a jaw bone about 2 inches long with
    sharp incisors and a pointed canine; I pointed it out to my wife, but decided not
    to upset my fellow diners, espec. my fellow "foreigners". ;-)

  5. M. Paul Shore said,

    June 14, 2023 @ 2:51 am

    I’m reminded of a passage describing Song restaurant culture in, I’m pretty sure, Jacques Gernet’s La vie quotidienne en Chine à la veille de l’invasion mongole (1250-1276), in which it’s mentioned that some restaurants would serve rat meat dishes quite openly except for using the euphemism “domestic deer”. So while calling a rat a duck can be like calling a deer a horse, calling a rat a deer was, given the absence of intended deception, not the same sort of statement.

  6. Lasius said,

    June 14, 2023 @ 3:58 am

    @M. Paul Shore

    That does remind me of German Dachhase ("roof hare") as a euphemism for cat meat.


    What animal was that?

  7. Chas Belov said,

    June 17, 2023 @ 4:29 pm

    I understand that dog meat goes by the euphemism "fragrant meat" in China.

  8. M. Paul Shore said,

    June 27, 2023 @ 6:20 pm

    A correction to my June 14th posting above: Gernet mentions the "domestic deer" euphemism as belonging to southern-Chinese food culture in general, not to restaurants in particular. (At the time of posting I forwent checking the Gernet because I was afraid the commenting window might expire before I had a good opportunity to do so; I discovered shortly afterwards that doing the checking would actually be easy.)

    One worrisome thing Gernet does say about thirteenth-century restaurants is that, according to at least one disapproving contemporary source, refugees from northern China had opened restaurants in Hangzhou offering human meat ("two-legged mutton"), even going so far as to distinguish among the differing meats of different ages and sexes.

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