Cursing in Chinese

It is not a good thing, but it is like that and there’s not much that can be done about it. Spanish people curse a lot. We use a lot of offensive words in our daily conversations. We even transformed some vulgar adjectives into praise words (well, it depends on the intonation and the situation). I think Spanish-speaking Latin Americans cringe when they hear us speak and we drop the c-word here and there as if nothing happened. (In Spanish, the c-word also has four letters and refers to certain part of the female anatomy).

With this introduction, you will understand better now when I tell you that, in Spain, when we start learning a language, the first thing we want to learn are the cursing words. Or even when we are not learning a language. I know how to say “lady of negotiable affections” in Hungarian, and that’s the only Hungarian word I know. On my defence I have to say that it is easy to remember because it sounds very similar to a Spanish word.

When I started studying Chinese in 2002 during my first year in university, I remember we asked our teacher, the lovely professor Zhang, to teach us some bad words. But most professors don’t teach that kind of things, so what he taught us was 你不是东西, which literally means “You are not a thing”. You’re nothing, I guess. Wow, that hurts! In Chinese it sounds as innocent as it does in English, and obviously I have never heard anyone using that expression in China.

Cursing in a language that is not your mother tongue can be very tricky because most of the time you are not really sure how “bad” the word is in that culture. Is it going to be like in Spain, where you can call your friend a word which originally was meant to describe a man whose wife was cheating on him with his consent? Do people in other countries usually spice up their sentences with the c-word and the f-word (or their equivalents)? You better be careful here or you might be risking your physical integrity.

In China people swear less than in Spain, although in certain groups (young, urban, alternative people) I hear the f-word (操 cào) a lot. One interesting thing about cursing words in Chinese is that there are also euphemisms, which are displayed in the form of character substitution or of homophones. Example: the aforementioned 操 cào is the less vulgar way of writing the f-word, which can also be 肏 (also pronounced cào). If you know Chinese you will immediately recognize the components of this character: above we have 入, which means enter, and below we have 肉, which means flesh. Very graphic, right? But the most widely heard cursing word is 他妈的 tāmāde, which means “his mother”. That is probably what your taxi driver will say when the car in front of you suddenly stops or turns right without prior warning.

A few years ago the expression 草泥马 cǎonímǎ became popular. It literally means grass mud horse but the first character sounds very similar to the f-word, the second sounds very similar to “you” or “your” and the third sounds very similar to “mum”. I think you get it. The grass mud horse became a meme and an anti-censorship symbol on the internet and to represent it they chose the image of an alpaca.

Alpacas are a very popular animal in China.

Alpacas are a very popular animal in China.

During rock gigs, when youngsters are enjoying the show, they yell 牛屄 niúbī at the band. It means “f. awesome” but its literal meaning refers to a certain part in the body of a cow. The second character is extremely vulgar (it is basically our c-word) so people usually write this word as 牛逼 (same pronunciation) or 牛B.

When a friend or someone close is suggesting to do something and you really don’t feel like it, you can reply 放屁 fàngpì (to fart), which means something like “no way”. Chinese people don’t have any taboo about body functions related to the digestive system. Have I told you about that time when I was visiting a supplier, I asked him where the toilet was and he asked me if I needed to pee or to poo? He didn’t even use cute words like pee and poo, but the normal piss and shit ones. Spanish people are also quite scatological, but no one would dare to ask a costumer about that!

Many expressions that Chinese people use to insult others have to do with the brain, like 脑子进水了 (you got water inside of your brain) or 脑子有病 (you have a brain problem).

You have to be very careful when using these words with Chinese people. They seem calm, but the truth is that they get angry and start fights very easily. And if you get in a fight in the street, you can be sure that you will get a circle of people around to enjoy the show.

Do people curse a lot in your mother tongue? Do you curse more or less when you talk in another language? Any colourful piece of cursing that I can add to my collection?