Tyrant's bling

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Arguably the hottest term on the Chinese internet these days is tǔháo 土豪 ("[local] tyrant / despot"), but transformed to mean "bling", and with a sharply satirical edge.  How did tǔháo 土豪 ("[local] tyrant / despot") morph into "bling"?  The story is told in "#BBCtrending: Tuhao and the rise of Chinese bling".

In Chinese "tu" means earth [VHM:  "earthy; rustic; local; colloquial"], and "hao" means rich [VHM:  a person of extraordinary powers or endowments; bold and unconstrained; unrestrained; forthright; literary giant; hero(ic); despot(ic); bullying; outstanding personage"]. To say someone is tuhao is to imply they come from a poor peasant background, and have made it rich quick – but don't quite have the manners, or sophistication to go along with it. It's like the term "nouveau riche", says Professor Steve Tsang at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies in Nottingham – but has even more negative connotations, suggesting a certain vulgarity.

[VHM:  the usual way to say "nouveau riche" in Mandarin is bàofā  hù 暴发户 ("household / family that explosively becomes wealthy")]

"Tuhao" is actually an old word – dating back perhaps as far as the Southern Dynasty 1,500 years ago – but it has always meant something rather different. During the communist revolution, from the 1920s to early 1950s, it was widely used to refer to landholders and gentry who would bully those beneath them.

This new usage of the term took off in September after a widely-shared joke about a rich, but unhappy man, who goes to a Buddhist monk for advice, expecting to be told to live a more simple life. The monk replies instead with the phrase: "Tuhao, let's be friends!"…

This new application of tǔháo 土豪 falls into the pattern of creative use of superficially innocuous terms for critical purposes that we have often discussed on Language Log, most recently in posts such as these:

"Blocked on Weibo"

"Handy Nasty" (near the end)

Also see this New York Times article:

"Better Than a Tweet? In Four Characters, a New World of Meaning"

[h.t. Yao Hui]


  1. hanmeng said,

    November 12, 2013 @ 9:55 pm

    On a somewhat related note…
    Years ago I heard about a Chinese woman with poor English skills who'd just started working in a U.S. Chinese restaurant and who didn't understand when a customer asked for an order "to go". She asked her coworkers (in Chinese) what tǔ​gǒu 土狗 was. It became her nickname.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    November 13, 2013 @ 7:15 am

    Good one, hanmeng!

    Incidentally, for those listening in who don't read Chinese, tǔ​gǒu 土狗 means "local dog". It has particular resonance for me at this time because of all the talk about tǔ​ 土 ("local; colloquial") speech forms, i.e., tǔhuà 土话 ("patois; dialects") we've been engaged in on Language Log in recent weeks.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2013 @ 7:23 am

    "Money culture: A new word for China’s brash nouveau riche catches on"


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