Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Evolution of the Chinese Terms for Foreigner -- Devil or Ghost? From Oldie to Friend

Quote  :

Misunderstandings could have been avoided if people stop referring to ghost as devil. The literal translation of "gui3" is ghost. Since the last two centuries, Chinese have stuck with habit of calling "yang2 gui3zi" 洋鬼子 short form for ghost from western oceans. It is a similar to Cantonese version of "gweilo" 鬼老 (old ghost).

It is a serious mistake to use ghost and devil interchangeably. Devil is "mo2" or "yao1" in Chinese, not "gui". Such errors are unforgivable, not just a loss in translation but reinforces prejudice and misgiving among nationalities.

Is "gui" racist? It all depends on the context, intentions and expression of the speaker. Ghosts are not confined to Caucasians, Japanese and Africans. There are many ghosts among Chinese too - people who are out of the normal range, such as gambling ghost "du gui", lazy ghost, misery ghost and greedy ghost. Elderly people sometimes shake their heads and comment disapprovingly of the ghostly behaviour of youngsters. There are times when ghosts of the human and nonhuman dimensions mingle.

Nevertheless, it was true that historically, self sufficient Chinese civilisation saw the Middle Kingdom as the centre of the universe and other tribes and races were deemed barbaric. During the Opium War and unequal treaties which ensued, the term "ghost" was used with some degree bitterness by Chinese who were patriotic and suffered from mistreatment. For generations, the habit could not be discarded. Like all stereotypes and especially historical ones, the term has lost its meaning and purpose.

In the last half a century the term "lao3 wai4" 老外 was widely used in the USA and among some English speaking Chinese. It means a foreigner similar to 外国人. The word "lao" means old is an informal form of address, a reference to "that person" as in old pal. Among Chinese, it's often used with a surname like "lao Li" or "lao Wang". There are no racist connotations but some foreigners prefer to be called a Mr so-and-so, not a "lao".

The preferred term nowadays is "wai4 guo2 peng2 you3" 外国朋友 (foreign country friend / friends from another country), quite a mouthful but can help to avoid misunderstandings of people who are easily offended. A more common and popular term among the baby boomers is "xi ren" 西人 or western person.

(Posted by Fables)

* Acknowledgement : permission granted by oneworldtalk forum to publish the synopsis of the discussions.

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