Something for nothing

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The following is a Facebook advertisement for how people from Hong Kong can readily gain permanent residency in Canada.  Check out the unusual Sinoglyph inside the red bubble.

The disyllabic expression is báihāo 白薅, where bái 白 is a very common character meaning "white; blank; plain; gratuitous", while many people, even those who are moderately literate, are unfamiliar with the second character.  I probably only encountered it less than five times during the first thirty years of my Sinological career (1968-98), and then only in agricultural settings.

Hāo 薅 ("to weed, pull up / out") is #6010 in a list of the ten thousand most frequent Chinese characters.  That puts it in the bottom .02 percentile in a corpus of 193,504,018 characters.

Metaphorically speaking, hāo 薅 ("to weed, pull up / out") means that you try very hard to get the best deal. Usually it's for little gain.

There's only one reason why hāo 薅 gained frequency traction in the 21st century, to the degree that it can be used in an ad for a cheap way to acquire Canadian residency, and it is quite peculiar.  Here 'tis:

Pulling the wool of socialism's sheep (Chinese: 薅社会主义羊毛), spelled 'hao shehuizhuyi yangmao' in Hanyu Pinyin, is a phrase originating from the sketch comedy Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow performed by Zhao Benshan, Song Dandan and Cui Yongyuan. The phrase is uttered by Aunt Baiyun played by Song, and it means to take advantage of a collective small gain to satisfy one's own selfish desire.

Baiyun recalled the difficult times and used the opportunity of herding sheep for the production team to knit a sweater for uncle Heitu. Her act was ridiculed as "pulling the wool of socialism's sheep and digging the corner of socialism.This sketch comedy made "pulling the wool of socialism's sheep" a buzzword in 1999, and 20 years later, it has become an Internet-exclusive term.


In accord with the above source, hāo 薅 can also mean taking advantage of others for one's own benefit. E.g.,, Chinese say hāo yángmáo 薅羊毛 (lit., "pull out sheep wool"), i.e., one secretly pulls out the wool of another's sheep to weave one's own clothes.  Báihāo 白薅 here means that you get profit for free. It's colloquial.

It's like pulling the wool over someone's eyes.

Selected readings

[h.t. Sun Dang; thanks to Zihan Guo]]


  1. magni said,

    August 5, 2023 @ 1:47 am

    A note on its origin, expanding upon the Wikipedia entry:

    薅羊毛 had not been around as an established catchphrase. It would invite literal interpretation from anybody who heard it before the airing of the sketch comedy. 薅 was as obscure a rural term used in the northern part of China as any one of that ilk could be.

    薅社会主义羊毛 was included in the lines of the comedy only because it both aligned with the context and, more importantly, rhymed perfectly with a party jargon 挖社会主义墙角/墙脚 (wā shèhuìzhǔyì qiángjiǎo; cutting the ground from under Socialism, appropriating a Socialist asset) often heard during Mao era, the stem of which, 挖墙脚, was one of the words used, popularized and perhaps even coined by Mao Zedong. Presumably, "appropriating a Socialist asset" sounds awful if that's what they charge you with, and particularly so if you lived in Mao era.

    It was through the rhyming, contrastive juxtaposition with familiar, damning party-speak that 薅(社会主义)羊毛 gained its magical comic effect and went on to win the favor of Mandarin speakers to this day. 薅 would have remained relatively unknown just like other characters ranked similarly low in the frequency list.

    From a mainland Chinese perspective, this just goes to show how Chinese comedy actors were allowed (and encouraged) to draw on authentically local linguistic resources and politics-related quick wit to genuinely entertain an audience speaking a variety of Sinitic languages. Mandarin, backed by the state, would take hold briefly after the turn of the century in the PRC; politics, well, you know the drill, in China.

    Sorry if this gets too long.

  2. AntC said,

    August 5, 2023 @ 3:44 am

    Thank you @magni; no not at all too long — fascinating!

    I fear that although the Canadian authorities want to make it 'So easy!', Hong Kongers have first to get themselves to Canada; and then worry how hard the CCP authorities will be on their loved ones left behind.

    I was living/working in HK (at a UK conglomerate with international branches) after the deal was struck for handing back, but before 1998. Everybody was desperately trying to get postings overseas to earn residency; Canada was particularly popular (but at that time not very welcoming). But even with overseas residency, loyalty to family came first.

  3. AntC said,

    August 5, 2023 @ 6:27 am

    Negotiating dual citizenship or even freedom of travel to visit China and return to your new home is becoming increasingly fraught, with PRC officials seemingly changing the rules continually. (I'm entirely perplexed by what that article is saying; it seems to be self-contradictory.)

    I'm aware of families with NZ residency and one child born in NZ returning to China for birth of a second child, so as to keep a foot in both countries as it were. They're very nervous about having to choose one country only — and are postponing applying for NZ permanent citizenship.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    August 5, 2023 @ 7:10 am


    Mille grazie!!

    What you just wrote above is one of the most powerful demonstrations of how contorted and convoluted sociopolitical discourse in the PRC is. One must exercise infinite irony, subtlety, and wit to navigate it successfully.

  5. DS said,

    August 5, 2023 @ 1:17 pm

    Indeed, the word “hāo”, meaning to pluck, or pull, is a very Dongbeinese 东北话 lexicon.

    I was born in Harbin, raised in Jilin in early childhood, and moved to Dalian since pre-school at age 5. So I am a 100% complete Northeasterner. :) I grew up with the word hāo 薅 used throughout my entire family. When it was cold weather and Grandma saw my blanket hanging around my chest, she would tell me 把被子薅上去, meaning “pull your blanket up (to cover your neck)”. Hairbands should be 薅下来 (“pulled down”) from the hair every night before sleep. When kids don’t like to remove their dirty shirts and pants after sports, the mother, about to do the laundry, would command the father or older sibling to 给他衣服薅下来 (“take those clothes of (for them)”). For all scenarios — a loose thread on the scarf, a flower in the garden, or even a caretaker's finger while holding hands and walking down crowded streets — kids would be told: “别薅” (don’t pull / pluck / grab too hard (because it hurts))!

    What @Magni said beautifully explains why and how a topolectal word enters a pan-Chinese arena as socio-political language — that even becomes effective in Cantonese context that sounds so far from the Northeast in every aspect. Knowledge well-gained!

  6. Dan Milton said,

    August 5, 2023 @ 4:53 pm

    Sorry to break in here, but I can't figure how to update the thread from last year on the Chinese man taking outrageous videos of children in Malawi.
    A couple of weeks ago he was sentenced to one year (which he has already served in police custody) and has been expelled from the country.

  7. Jonathan Smith said,

    August 5, 2023 @ 4:58 pm

    Not "people from Hong Kong" — people from the Mainland, who are informed that getting permanent resident status in Canada will be a breeze *once they obtain HK documents via e.g. the Youcai 'Top Talent' initiative.* Thus the Mandarin slangyslangs.

    Re: "薅", it's as usual tricky to get real information about word histories esp. wrt regional languages given the ontologically confused mode of presentation found in traditional sources and now inherited by Wiktionary and the rest… maybe Northeastern hao1 'pick, weed, etc.' really reflects the item so written in the rime books. In e.g. Taiwanese there is khau 'to weed, etc.' also normatively written "薅". Maybe this is somehow historically the same item as Tw. khau 'pare, scrape off, etc.', and/or as NE hao1… or not.

    Last bit of the post seems to be another mishmash of language from Chinese correspondents + subsequent edits — sure It's Just a Blog Post, but LL needs to attribute more carefully.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    August 6, 2023 @ 4:24 am

    Maybe maybe.




  9. M. Paul Shore said,

    August 8, 2023 @ 6:26 pm

    Prof. Mair: Speaking of distinctive expressions, your use of “Here ‘tis” in the original post is the first time I’ve encountered that whimsical locution outside of the speech of my father (1929-2019) and his Iowan parents (setting aside any possible sightings in the works of sixteenth- through eighteenth-century authors). My father’s father, who may have been the most frequent user of the expression, grew up in New Market in the far southwestern corner of the state and was often perceived as having a Missourian accent; he may also have incorporated North Carolinian, Indianan, and/or Illinoisan speech influences from his own parents. My father’s mother was from Cedar Falls.

  10. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 9, 2023 @ 4:15 am

    Whilst for this Briton, "here 'tis" passed completely under the radar. Although I don't use the expression on a daily basis, it is certainly a fundamental part of my (informal) idiolect.

  11. M. Paul Shore said,

    August 9, 2023 @ 8:58 am

    Taylor, Philip: Am I correct, though, that you aren’t claiming that you say “ ‘tis”—i.e., in a variety of contexts—on a regular basis, only that you use the joke phrase “Here ‘tis” from time to time? (Note that I’m talking about a real “Here ‘tis”, not a quickly spoken “Here it is” with the “i” of “it” weakened but not fully absent.)

  12. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 9, 2023 @ 11:15 am

    MPS — I would use 'tis in more contexts than just "here 'tis'". I might say, for example, "'tis not what you think". Both usages would be jocular, but easily understood by those to whom they were addressed. There is also an alternative form of "here 'tis", often spelled "yer 'tis".

  13. M. Paul Shore said,

    August 9, 2023 @ 1:02 pm

    Interesting. So I’m curious, then: To the extent that the average Briton would perceive “Here ‘tis” or “Yer ‘tis” as jocular, is that because those phrases seem to be gentle mockings of the quaint speech habits of the people of the past, or of rural people, or perhaps of both? I’m also wondering whether the phrases could’ve already been largely jocular when ancestors of mine came to what’s now the United States perhaps two-and-a-half to three centuries ago. (I.e., as opposed to essentially the same past-mocking and/or rural-mocking linguistic joke having been created independently on opposite sides of the Atlantic at some later time.)

  14. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 9, 2023 @ 3:46 pm

    "is [the perceptions as jocular] because those phrases seem to be gentle mockings of the quaint speech habits of the people of the past, or of rural people, or perhaps of both". I think that they are generally perceived as being imitative of rural topolects rather than of the putative chronolects of yore.

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