Chinese Corner

Animal Associations2 min read

An introduction to the Mandarin menagerie – Liz Carter

When you say someone’s foxy, you would expect your listener to know that you meant he or she was very good looking. But like many things, these associations don’t always translate in Mandarin, where calling a woman a total fox can get you slapped. Animal associations and metaphors, which vary from person to person and place to place, can be tricky for the language learner. To that end, here are a few fauna-related expressions to give the lay of the land in the Mandarin animal kingdom.

Cow (niú )

Calling someone a cow in English is not recommended, but if you exclaim that something or someone is “cow” in Mandarin it’s a compliment – níu is slang for “awesome”! Be careful, though. When used in this context, it is actually a shortened form of níubī – “cow vagina.” The story of how this came to be a very positive term is another tale for another time.

Chicken (jī 鸡)

If you say someone is a chicken in English you’re implying they lack bravery, but if you refer to a lady as a chicken in China, you’re saying she’s a sex worker. As the Mandarin word for chicken is an exact homophone for “prostitute,” the two words came to be associated over time.

Duck (yāzi 鸭子)

A male practitioner of the above-mentioned profession.

Wolf (láng )

In China cultural associations with wolves are generally similar to those in the US, with one exception: someone is a “white-eyed wolf” (báiyǎn láng 白眼狼) if they are particularly ungrateful.

Cat (māo 猫)

Cat expressions in China run the usual range, but one that stands out is the idea of the “cat mom” (māomā 猫妈) or “cat dad” (māobà 猫爸) – the opposite of the tiger mom/dad. While “cat mom” can mean the mother of a cat, or a cat who’s become a mother, it also describes a very relaxed parenting style.

Dog (gǒu 狗)

As we approach the Year of the Dog, you might be wondering about how man’s best friend figures in the language of metaphor. The answer is, it’s a mixed bag. Someone can be “not even as good as pigs and dogs” (zhūgǒu bùrú 猪狗不如) compared to other humans. Someone who is single can self-deprecatingly refer to themselves as a “single dog” (dānshēn gǒu 单身狗), and couples who make a lot of public displays of affection are said to be “serving” single people “dog food.”

Well, the saying goes that “dogs can’t change the fact that they eat shit” (gǒu gǎibùliǎo chīshǐ 狗改不了吃屎), so perhaps the Year of the Dog is the perfect time for us to ditch the New Year’s resolutions we made in January and embrace our true selves.

Featured image courtesy Liz Carter.

Liz Carter

Liz Carter is the author of Let 100 Voices Speak (I.B. Tauris, 2015) and co-author of The Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon (China Digital Times, 2013). Formerly managing editor of Tea Leaf Nation, she is currently based in Los Angeles pursuing a PhD in Chinese linguistics at UCLA.