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Salty or Sweet? Your Guide to Mastering Sarcasm in Chinese

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Mandarin Monday is a weekly column where we help you improve your Chinese by detailing learning tips, fun and practical phrases, and trends.



It's safe to assume that most of you Chinese learners are past being able to discern your "cao ni ma" from your "ni hao ma?" However, as with most languages, there's a further level of nuance that allows you to undercut your verbal sparring partner with sly sarcasm and a mocking tone.

Among all Chinese, Beijingers are considered the masters of this skill. Despite our usual laid-back and straightforward personalities, we do not hold back when there is an opportunity to outwit others in an argument. Even the famous Beijing-born scholar Liang Shih-Chiu once quipped, "Clever sarcasm needs to be so subtle that people don’t even realize that you were initially mocking them. Only when they chew on what you said for a second or third time should they start to develop a bitter taste in their mouth. Then you can enjoy their faces turn from smile to blush, then to angry purple to an ashamed gray."
With that in mind, here are some of Beijingers' favorite strategies for sarcasm.



Let your elders teach you some 规矩 (guījǔ), discipline


nín - "Your highness"


您 is probably the most emblematic word in the Beijing dialect besides the 儿话音 ér huàyīn. Having lived alongside emperors and their cohorts and families for centuries, it is only natural that Beijingers are perhaps more conscious of using reverential language when talking to elders or people above them in societal rank. Yet, Beijingers have also learned to twist 您 into a sarcastic utterance to label someone a clown. There are also several variations of 您 depending on the context, such as 小祖宗 xiǎo zǔzōng ("little ancestor," often used when talking to a naughty kid or teenager) or 您老 nín lǎo ("your elder," an alternative when you want to emphasize someone's older age).



您真棒 (nín zhēn bàng, you are awesome)


Example

你真棒!
Nǐ zhēn bàng!

You are so awesome!
vs.
您可真棒!
Nín kě zhēn bàng!
Look what you have done! (Can be used when someone shows off their trivial achievements or messes up something simple after boasting.)

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yòu - Again


又 usually indicates that something has happened before, so when 又 is used sarcastically, it emphasizes that a person is continuing to bother you.

Example
你怎么了?
Nǐ zěnme le?

What’s wrong?
vs.
您又怎么了?
Nín yòu zěnme le?
What’s your problem this time, you giant cry baby?

Using affirmatives repetitively


èn,是 shì, and 好 hǎo are all affirmatives that help denote your approval of a topic or matter at hand. However, by using the same word repetitively is also an effective way to show impatience and disagreement.

Examples
嗯,你说得对。
Èn, nǐ shuō dé duì.
Hmm, you are right about that.
vs.
嗯嗯嗯,您说得对。
Èn èn èn, nín shuō dé duì.
Geez, just shut up already.
得,是我错了。
Dé, shì wǒ cuò le.
Ok, my bad.
vs.
得得得,是我错了。
Dé dé dé, shì wǒ cuò le.
We all know whose fault this is.

Beijing-specific phrases


Besides the aforementioned examples, which are fair game to be used anywhere where Mandarin is spoken, Beijingers also have several localized phrases when they want to get real salty.

Examples
  • 事儿妈 shì er mā - "The mother of troubles" i.e. a drama queen
  • 越活越抽抽儿 Yuè huó yuè chōuchou'er. - "The older you get, the more juvenile you become." (抽抽儿 chōuchou'er is a vivid description of the action of shrinking.)
  • 装蒜/揣着明白装糊涂 zhuāngsuàn/chuāizhe míngbái zhuāng hútú - Pretend to be confused without having a thorough understanding of the situation.
  • 幺蛾子 yāo'ézi - Used to express that something is a strange, wicked, or bad idea i.e. 别让他们出什么幺蛾子 Bié ràng tāmen chū shénme yāo ézi. - "Don’t let them play tricks."
  • 鸡贼 jī zéi - Someone who is stingy lit. a "chicken thief."
  • 穿小鞋儿/挤兑 chuān xiǎoxié er/jǐduì - Used to give someone a hard time lit. "Let someone wear small shoes" i.e. 他喜欢给别人穿小鞋 Tā xǐhuān gěi biérén chuān xiǎoxié. - "He likes to have his revenge."
  • 急赤白脸 jí chì bái liǎn - Someone who is grumpy.
  • 顺毛驴儿 shùn máolǘ'er - A person who only listens to praise.



READ: Mastering 儿 so That You Too Can Speak Like a True Lao Beijinger



Images: Sina, Sohu



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