The Unspeakable Bi

By Eric Abrahamsen, published October 31, 2007, 11:06p.m.

The idea of ‘untranslatable words’ is very nice. It’s a token of value; it adds a touch of solemn mystery to the work of translation, which otherwise consists mostly of nose-scratching, window-staring, and finding something to weight the book down with. But look, you see? We also have an ineffable something; a tragic ideal; we’re not simply pulling a plow.

Sometimes I think there’s actually such a thing as an untranslatable word, sometimes I don’t. On a good day it seems that any word or phrase could be rendered into English with enough care, even if the word itself vanished and were detectable only through a subtle ruffling of the surrounding text.

But on a bad day, I'm trying to translate níubī.

On the face of it, niubi is not untranslatable at all: the characters niu and bi can be rendered into English with great precision by the words – and I beg your pardon – ‘cow pussy’, niu being the zoological reference, bi the anatomical. But though the denotation of niubi is embarrassingly plain, it’s connotations are far from obvious.

Niubi is a term of approbation, perhaps the greatest such term in colloquial Chinese. Niubi is an attitude, a lifestyle: a complete lack of concern over what other people think of you, and the resulting freedom to do whatever you please. It is knowing exactly what you’re capable of, making the decision to act, and to hell with the consequences. It is the essence of ‘cool’, but taken to the nth degree, and with a dirty word thrown in.

Of course, like all great philosophical concepts, niubi has an inverse side – an excess of niubi leads to self-importance, arrogance, hubris, imperiousness, and very dangerous driving. The key difference between positive and negative niubi is that in the former, you have the ability (本事, běnshì) to back your attitude up, while in the latter you don’t. Thus the derivatives bīyàng (the appearance of a bi), and zhuāngbī (pretending to be bi – in northeastern China this will start a fight). The line between positive and negative blurs when it comes to people in positions of power, who assume they are justified in a certain measure of niubi.

Some examples:

  1. A friend had a high-school classmate who spent every physics class staring at the ceiling, either asleep or completely indifferent. No matter how angry the teacher got the classmate never did the least bit of work, and his attention always remained fixed on the ceiling. When the semester was over and the test results came out, the classmate scored nearly 100%. The classmate was niubi.
  2. During the furor surrounding the Chongqing nailhouse case, the residents of the nailhouse were almost uniformly described as niubi. Their decision to stay in their home while everything around them was flattened is a perfect example of ‘are they crazy or just incredibly brave?’ – the essence of niubi.
  3. On an international flight out of China, a well-fed Chinese man with a crew cut was speaking very loudly to his companion (this was well after midnight). When a flight attendant came by to say that another passenger had complained, the man sat up and craned his head, saying “Eeeh? Who’s being niubi? A foreigner or Chinese?” Whereupon he gave the flight attendant his name-card and explained a bit about how important he was. From which we can infer that accusing someone of being niubi often results in being labeled niubi yourself. This is worth pondering.
  4. When my wife tells a joke and I respond with nothing but a cool stare, I am being niubi.

Niubi is not used in polite society, though niu by itself means the same thing and is fit for public consumption, even appearing in newspaper headlines. As blithely as under-30 Chinese throw the term around, a little decorum remains when it comes to the written characters. Few Chinese can bring themselves to write the proper character for bi, composed of the symbols for ‘body’ and ‘cave’, and instead use a homophonous character (usually 逼) or even the letter B. The only place I’ve ever seen the real thing (besides written by fingertip in window condensation) is in the dictionary – the FLTRP Chinese-English Dictionary, for instance, hurries by with a two-word definition. I’d be hard-put to write it even if I wanted to – as I type this, my computer’s Chinese input program suggests 57 different characters with the pronunciation bi – that of the cow is not among them.

Niubi is hard to translate not because its meaning is so obtuse, but because of the way it’s used. It is uttered under the breath in a moment of awe, or it culminates a long, obscenity-laced rant. It stands out by itself as a self-contained statement of respect, and is thus difficult to weave into the surrounding text. There’s simply no good way to replicate its concise punch in English. It usually appears as ‘awesome’ (or ‘fucking awesome’, to reproduce bi’s edge), but the problem is that ‘awesome’ is an empty adjective – it begs the question – whereas niubi is simply all you need to say.

One of these days I’ll climb up on a mountain ledge and fast until the proper English translation comes to me. Until then, I will be far from niubi myself.

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Comments

# 1.   

A marvelous article. In my opinion, niubi is a bit like the word 'cool'--the only way to translate it is transliteration.(酷 for 'cool') Something funny about the word bi: In fact, every Chinese boy (and girl perhaps) knows the word bi since they're very young. I myself learned it probably before I started primary school. It's the most common swear word in Chinese. In primary school, where written Chinese was taught, classmates would exchange ideas on how to writethe taboo word bi, and god knows who came up with the idea that it should be written by adding a dot to the middle of the character for woman (女). So some day one of your classmates would excitedly show you (after looking around to check if anybody is looking) how to writethat magic word. It was not until junior high school that I found the proper way to writeit in my 现代汉语词典.

Paul, November 1, 2007, 1a.m.

# 2.   

The first time I heard "niubi" was in 1996, spoken in jest by a Chinese tutor from Heilongjiang. A Canadian classmate and I took to the phrase immediately, demanding to know the proper way to writeit in Chinese characters. We came up with various colorful English translations -- the cow's cunt, the bee's knees, the cat's pajamas, etc -- until we finally heard it shouted aloud at a Chinese rock show: "Niu bi!" In that context, it seemed to mean "Fucking cool" or "Fuck, yeah". Since then, we've heard some variations, often with a slightly ironic twinge: "Zhe xie daoyan duo niubi..." = "These directors [think] they're so damn cool..."

-C

-C

 Cindy Carter, November 1, 2007, 3:19p.m.

# 3.   

Very interesting topic!! I lean towards the translation "the bull's balls." 1) It's alliterative and sounds cool. 2) It's a fair direct translation. 3) It's got a slangy, unorthodox feel. 4) And even though it's not part of the English usage canon, if you said it in the proper context, people would know what you meant.

Jonathan, November 1, 2007, 5:34p.m.

# 4.   

For what it's worth, the Google pinyin input method does have 屄 -- as does Wenlin, whence I just copied the character since I'm on a Mac and Mac users get no love from Google's pinyin elves.

This is a nice rundown. I have to admit that I usually just punt with "badass," which I think almost covers it. Likewise I tend to translate 'shabi' as "dipshit" or "gobshite" or something of the sort. I do like "the bull's balls," though.

My question is: what's the locus classicus for 'niubi?' How does one get from the various '-bi' compounds (装屄 = 'poser cunt'; 事儿屄 = 'whiny cunt'; 看谁谁长得这个屄样儿 = 'look at so-and-so's unattractive countenance' etc.), which as far as I can think of are entirely negative, to 'cow cunt' acquiring a positive meaning? Are cows just so inherently niu that they can transform the cuntish into the awesome? If so, was 'niu used on its own with the same meaning beforehand, or is there something inherently 'niu' about the synthesis of 'niu' and 'bi?' I guess the question I'm asking here is: which came first, the cow or the cunt?

This is going to plague me until I get answers.

 Brendan, November 5, 2007, 8:17a.m.

# 5.   

If you ask which comes first, I think that should be niu. Sometimes the translation 'cow' is misleading, because cow seems to be associated with submission, docility (correct me if I'm wrong, 'cause I'm a Chinese speaker). But mention the word niu, and Chinese people think of the big, strong, stubborn farm animal more often than they think of the gentle animal that produces milk. So maybe 'bull' is more proper in certain contexts. For instance, we may say a person has got a niu piqi, or 'a bull's temper', and that means he's stubborn. If a man is niu qi, or 'puts on the air of a bull', he's arrogant. As for niu bi, the expletive bi adds an edge to niu. Instead of carrying any concrete meaning, it acts like a suffix. Someimes people say niu bi hong hong (or niu pi hong hong if they don't want to sound rude). Again, 'hong hong' doesn't have much concrete meaning: it simply adds zest to the word.

Paul, November 7, 2007, 6:42p.m.

# 6.   

One of the best things about slang - whether in Chinese, English or any other language - is that it manages to serve so many masters at once. It can be linear or lateral, literal or metaphorical, inclusive or exclusive; it can have antecedents or eschew them; it can make sense in context, out of context or simply make no sense at all.

Brendan asked: "What's the locus classicus for 'niubi'? [...] Which came first, the cow or the cunt?"

I wonder, in the kaleidoscope of usage that shuffles and reshuffles slang, if it is ever possible to determine which came first and how and why.

What made the 牛/niu so 屄/bi? Why did "bad" go from something undesirable or naughty to something all-out "good" (and then fall from grace so quickly)? How did "cool" go from "distant/aloof" to "friendly/likeable" (and then stay in common parlance for so long)? Why can 混/hun indicate both a slacker/someone who expends the minimum amount of effort (混子, 混日子), as well as someone who puts forth a lot of gongfu trying to get ahead in certain circles (混得起来,混进去--圈子,混得不错)? How is it that kids in Tokyo - who used to switch words and syllables around to make them sound cooler - made "Michael Jackson" into "Jaickal Maxson", and their parents didn't understand...but any American kid just off the boat would have understood perfectly?

 Cindy Carter, November 12, 2007, 11:44a.m.

# 7.   

dog's bollocks?

chao, November 22, 2007, 10:37p.m.

# 8.   

Rock on, Chao!

  • the dog's bollocks
  • the cow's cajones
  • the toro's huevos

(but somehow, not the oriole's ovaries)

 Cindy Carter, November 24, 2007, 6:52a.m.

# 9.   

translation doesn't nec mean coming up with one word - sometimes you explain the pragmatics to get at the semantics in a couples pages of explanation with examples ... as you have nicely demonstrated.

roy, May 4, 2008, 1:24p.m.

# 10.   

You are very niubi.

obafgkm, September 11, 2008, 10:55p.m.

# 11.   

YOU SO cow pussy

EMANON, September 12, 2008, 3:22a.m.

# 12.   

SORRY you are so cow pussy

EMANON, September 12, 2008, 3:26a.m.

# 13.   

How cow pussy you are!

Max, September 12, 2008, 11a.m.

# 14.   

That's the nicest thing anyone's said about me in a long time...

Eric Abrahamsen, September 12, 2008, 5:59p.m.

# 15.   

I give you guys some recent updates on this word, it may help in making it international.

"Many people think they are full of Niubility, and like to play Zhuangbility, which only reflect their Shability. "

Ray, September 12, 2008, 6:26p.m.

# 16.   

Why "cow" and not "ox"? Then you could have "ox ass"!

CW Hayford, October 22, 2008, 7:05p.m.

# 17.   

"Rock on, Chao!

* the dog's bollocks
* the cow's cajones
* the toro's huevos

(but somehow, not the oriole's ovaries)" -- Cindy Carter (above)

Cindy, I honestly haven't met anyone on the ground in China as niubi as you and your way with English.

The only thing I can compare it to is sweatshirt Japanglish in Harajuku...

 Bruce Humes, October 23, 2008, 10:16a.m.

# 18.   

this post itself is very niubi,

pestwave, July 16, 2009, 5:50a.m.

# 19.   

This was a very useful resource as I tried translating a Chinese commentary "poem" about niubi, zhuangbi, and shabi. Of course, I couldn't figure out how to translate niubi either...

Jon, August 26, 2009, 1p.m.

# 20.   

I heard this in around 2005 when privately owned cars were on the rise. I was in a Beijing taxi and the passenger or driver (I'm not sure which) was commenting on the silver Citroen in front, driven badly. When they saw it was a women driver, they decided she was very 'niubi'. For a normal woman would never buy or drive a silver car.

yes,maybe,, May 12, 2010, 7:19a.m.

# 21.   

OF course there is a term for it in English. It's "asshole"

Peter Vernezze, November 2, 2011, 10:32a.m.

# 22.   

OF course there is a term for it in English. It's "asshole"

Peter Vernezze, November 2, 2011, 10:32a.m.

# 23.   

Well, I remember 吹牛,and chui niubi in circulation long before I came across niubi - does that help?

b

brianvholton, November 6, 2011, 11:51a.m.

# 24.   

Seems to me that niubi or "cow pussy", is pretty easily translatable into English as "substandard donkey"--im sorry, "badass"

Superabound, January 21, 2013, 4:11p.m.

# 25.   

My Chinese friends (mostly Shanghai region) taught me that niubi is something you say to your close firned when he makes a hole-in-one at golf, or executes an amazing dunk in basketball. I understood it (and occasionally use it) in the context of "You are THE man!"

They also taught me that, if in public or if ladies are present, you should say "niu cha" as a "self-editing" version. I cannot make any of the translators give me an exact value of "cha" in this context.

Thank you for the article and for the additional understanding.

Bama Cracker, January 31, 2013, 8:42a.m.

# 26.   

'Bama,

My understanding of "niu cha" is that it's actually "X", ie the offending character is replaced with an "X" (much as we might write "f@$ck" in English), and the "X" is pronounced chā. Sometimes it's a

 Eric Abrahamsen, January 31, 2013, 9:14a.m.

# 27.   

Well, I managed to use 'the dog's bollocks' for Nuibi twice in a current project, though I did toy with 'the canine cojones' and 'the terrier's testicles' (though not for long). It's a professional first for me!

Brian Holton, January 31, 2013, 10:15a.m.

# 28.   

What about going for something like 'the cow's coochie' by analogy with 'bee's knees,' 'dog's bollocks,' and 'cat's pajamas?'

Brendan, February 5, 2013, 1:08a.m.

# 29.   

Coochies and bollocks are all very well, when we're using niubi in a positive sense, but it's hard to imagine pulling those phrases out when you're cussing someone out for being a prick.

 Eric Abrahamsen, February 5, 2013, 5:32a.m.

# 30.   

I'm not so sure there's much of a point in having the English translations of 牛屄 and 傻屄 share a morpheme. (Though surely you could do it with "badass" and "dumbass," or "hot-shit" and "dipshit," or something like that. [Or just "the shit" and "a real shit."])

Brendan, February 6, 2013, 12:08a.m.

# 31.   

okay, arriving late on the scene--i just got a qq from an admiring student/intern-wannabe, here in Gz., describing me as "niubi"--i was most impressed with the breadth and, yes, depth of this discourse. i would opt for "badass" as it can be used both positively and negatively, as in the chinese. i'm just wondering, as a native english speaker (London & New York) how Chinese and the Latin languages all seem to include "cunt" as a reasonably acceptable term. even in today's breezy climate of linguistic lallygagging, it is surely the most offensive of all words available in the English lingo.

Doc Martin, September 7, 2013, 12:56p.m.

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