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Turtle Eggs and Scorpion Hearts: The Colorful World of Chinese Cursing

Discover China’s favorite swear words and their cultural contexts

Sh*t, p*ss, f**k…

Even with asterisks, these words might still have made you wince or giggle. But what if someone told you to “roll away like an egg?” If you aren’t a Chinese speaker, you might be more amused or confused than insulted. The term 滚蛋 (gǔndàn, literally “rolling egg”), however, is a common way in Chinese to rudely tell someone to get lost.

Eggs, seemingly nutritious and innocuous perhaps, are liberally used in Chinese profanity. If someone is being a jerk, you could call them (as in English) a “rotten egg (混蛋 húndàn),” but you could also describe them as a “turtle egg (王八蛋 wángbādàn).” And if someone’s lack of smarts drives you mad, you might call them a “stupid egg (笨蛋 bèndàn).”

Insults in Chinese, including these various forms of eggs, are a colorful reservoir of everything from ancestors to animals. And while classics like 他妈的 (tā mā de, literally “his mother’s”), which references the target’s mother and is often used like the English “fuck,” is almost universal in its vitriol, certain Chinese insults are very much rooted in the country’s cultural context.

For example, Lu Xun (鲁迅), one of the most famous modern Chinese writers, dedicated a whole article (titled simply “Ta Ma De ) to this vulgar term, which he called China’s “national swear word (国骂).” “The number of times it is used is perhaps no less than that of the courteous ‘hello,’” Lu wrote. Almost a century since the article was written in 1925, the insult is still used liberally today.

You might also catch Chinese speakers angrily referencing one another’s “eighteen ancestral generations (祖宗十八代 zǔzōng shíbā dài).” According to Lu Xun’s account, Chinese society had placed a huge emphasis on family backgrounds since at least the Jin dynasty (265 – 420). “To men and women hiding under the name of their families...‘ancestor’ was the only talisman they relied on,” he wrote. “Once the ‘ancestor’ is defaced, everything falls apart,” hence the power of a well-directed barb at one’s family.

China’s regional dialects contain even more colorful familial curses, such as “靠北 (kaobei)” in Taiwanese, which translates to “crying over your father’s death.” You’ve got to admire the efficiency of wishing death upon your family, while insulting you for grieving about it, with just two syllables.

Another popular category of insults compares people to animals. Saying someone “can’t even live up to the level of a dog or pig (猪狗不如 zhū gǒu bù rú)” can be a powerful way to insult one’s character. Celebrated 20th century writer Lao She (老舍) used the insult in his 1944 novel Four Generations Under One Roof (《四世同堂》). To call someone “蛇蝎心肠 (shéxiē xīncháng), or “having the heart of snakes and scorpions,” is to condemn their cunning and cold-bloodedness. Even as early as the Yuan dynasty (1206 – 1368), the phrase was used in the opera Chen Lin Holds a Makeup Box at Jinshui Bridge (《金水桥陈琳抱妆盒》).

Even the Records of the Grand Historian (《史记》), a history of ancient China written in the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), enlisted animals as insults. Its author Sima Qian (司马迁) used the phrase “tiger and wolf (虎狼)” to denounce the cruelty of Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Qin dynasty (221 – 206 BCE), and compared thieves to mice.

Some curses might even be doubly insulting, mocking your ancestry while reducing you to an animal at the same time—such as “狗娘养的 (gǒu niáng yǎng de, son of a bitch)” which insinuates that your bloodline may contain canine qualities.

While the innocuous-sounding eggs can be weaponized by angry Chinese, insults that are politically or socially incorrect in English can carry a lighter meaning in Chinese. Calling someone a “psycho” can be humiliating in English, or considered demeaning to people with mental illness. However, in Mandarin, “你有病啊 (nǐ yǒubìng a, you must be ill)” is sometimes casually flung at friends in affectionate teasing. Calling someone a “神经病 (shénjīngbìng),” depending on the tone, can come off as a playful “you’re being silly!” rather than “you suffer from neurological conditions.”

Many foreign swear words have also made their way into colloquial Chinese, such as 法克鱿 (fǎ kè yóu), a homophone of “fuck you.” Meanwhile, some Chinese stand-up comedians use words like “goddammit” and “shit” in their English sets, but don’t incorporate nearly the same amount of profanity when conversing or performing in Mandarin. Alvin Liu, a Shanghai-based comedian, tells TWOC that he feels “less guilt” cursing in English, since “it’s a second language and something you see in movies.”

The power of linguistic transgression can be diluted when one curses in a second language, or uses transliterated swear words with foreign origins. “法克鱿,” for example, often appears on the internet with a joking air. Since its final character means “squid” in Chinese, netizens named it one of “Baidu’s 10 Mythical Creatures,” a 2009 hoax entry on Baidu’s online encyclopedia. Most of the list consists of popular profanities (Chinese or foreign) transliterated to sound like names of animals in Chinese.

Liu notes that strict censorship rules mean there’s a dearth of profanity in Chinese film and TV. Netizens, however, have continued to fulfill their urge to curse online via creative means—such as by writing “TMD” or the similar sounding “特么的 (tè me de).” However, in 2015, state-owned news agency Xinhua published a list of forbidden terms in Chinese media that included TMD, and updated it in 2016 with “38 uncivilized terms,” including 法克鱿.

Profanity, however, may be cathartic. Psychologist Richard Stephens told CNN in 2019 that “by swearing you’re triggering an emotional response in yourself, which triggers a mild stress response…which carries with it a stress-induced reduction in pain.” Other researchers have found evidence that cursing communicates emotions more honestly and is associated with a richer vocabulary.

Lu Xun, on the other hand, elevated the use of simple, vulgar curse words, like the infamous ta ma de, to an act of resistance by those considered to be lower class against self-righteous elites or wannabes. He was scathing of supposedly educated people who purge swear words from their vocabulary without having truly improved their moral character. “Today, the Chinese still have countless ‘classes,’ relying on their family status, their ancestors,” he wrote toward the end of Ta Ma De.” “If that does not change, there will forever be the ‘national curse,’ voiced or silent.”

Perhaps next time someone calls you the “grandson of a turtle (龟孙子 guī sūnzi),” you will be able to return fire all forms of egg, animal, and ancestor-based insults, and consider yourself to be taking a stand against elitist wannabes.

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