In China, you are “old”

By Craig Dietrich

In modern times as Chinese came into increasing contact with the outside world, they used several terms to refer to foreigners. These words reflect core cultural ideas, political climate, and degrees of familiarity.

One cardinal Chinese cultural distinction is nei-wai (inner-outer) or zhong-wai (central-peripheral). Nei-wai, for example, is used to talk about within-outside the family or within-outside a profession. Zhong-wai also means Chinese-foreign. China is Zhong-guo (Central Country), wai-guo is “foreign country.” A waiguoren (outside person) is a foreigner.

Waiguoren is neutral in tone. In the nineteenth century, Chinese had other expressions for non-Chinese, not all of them complimentary. A more negative term was Yangguizi (Ocean Devil), combining yang (from across the ocean) with guizi (demon or ghost). In Chinese popular belief, guizi are to be avoided and feared, and Westerners certainly seemed bizarre and dangerous. In a famous short story of the 1920s by Lu Xun, townsfolk derisively call fellow who affects Western demeanor Jia Yangguizi (Fake Foreign Devil).

There were of course specific terms for nations and regions: Meiguo (America), Yingguo (England), Faguo (France), Ouzhou (Europe), etc. They could be combined with ren (person) to mean citizens of that country, e.g., Meiguoren (American). But an ordinary Chinese person encountering an obviously non-Chinese individual could not tell whether this was a Meiguoren, a Yingguoren, or something else, and anyway many people knew little of these various countries. Thus “foreign devil” served as a catch-all term.

There was another, more neutral term: yangren, (ocean person) or someone from across the ocean.

Cantonese speakers used a term similar to “foreign devil,” namely guailo. Guai is “devil” in Cantonese pronunciation. Lo is a negative word for a guy or fellow; in Mandarin it’s pronounced lao. It is said that Cantonese mothers used to threaten their children, saying that the guailo would nab them if they were naughty.

In the Cold War era a term came into Mandarin that incorporated this lo or lao character for “fellow.” In Mandarin, it was Meiguolao (Yankee) and might be used thusly: Meiguolao cong Yuennan gunchuqu! (Yankee get out of Vietnam!). Needless to say, the connotations here are negative. There is also the more generic waiguolao foreigner.

Coming to the present time of globalism, reform, and opening, a more positive way of speaking about foreigners is required. That’s where another lao comes in. This is not the same character as the one meaning “fellow” that was just mentioned. The basic meaning of this lao is “old”: for example a laoren is an “old person.” It is also used as a friendly and familiar designation without reference to age: for example lao pengyou (old friend), old Wang, etc.

Today the term most commonly used for non-Asian foreigners is laowai, combining lao (old) with wai (outsider): literally “old outsider.” Because lao has familiar and friendly connotations, the term is not normally pejorative, like “foreign devil.” (Of course circumstances, an ironic tone, etc. can make it negative.)

Chinese speakers in the United States use another version: namely laomei and laozhong, meaning “Americans” and “Chinese in America.” (The mei and the zhong are the familiar characters for America and China.

The list of designations for foreigners includes many more items: for example, Riben guizi (Japanese devil during WWII); Meiguo guizi (American devil during the Korean conflict); guaipo (woman devil, in Cantonese); etc. Terms change over time, but for the moment at least, the mild and friendly laowai rules the day.

[Material for this article was derived from numerous contributions by scholars, Laozhong as well as Laomei, contributing to the H-Asia Listserv in 2008.]

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The Chinese & American Friendship Association of Maine provides forums and outreach that promote cultural interchanges between the US and China.

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