17 May 2005 2005 nian 5 yue 17 hao

Study: Usage of 'Laowai'

Laowai Criticises Laowai

When I first arrived in America, some Chinese classmates took me out to a Chinese restaurant to welcome me.

Xiao Lin saw that several Americans on a neighbouring table were using chopsticks, and said: "More and more laowais can use chopsticks these days!"

"Those laowais are not just able to use chopsticks," said Xiao Wang, "They can order dishes too. And it's no longer just zasui* and spring rolls that they are able to order."

Xiao Zhang was just about to open his mouth when one of the laowais, who had already had his full of food and drink, slowly and casually walked up to our table and with a perfect Beijing accent said: "Please get it straight, you are the laowais here."

— a joke reprinted on a blog

* Zasui is the chopped internal organs of a sheep or cow. The idea that the average American would order such a dish is an inaccurate as spring rolls is accurate.


Recently, some of us have been discussing the much-misunderstood word laowai. Tom Vamvanij started it, Peking Duck's link attracted a number of comments, and I even wrote about it on my chinese blog.

(Additional: John at sinosplice.com has now also posted an article, theorising that the word is in a state of transition).

Laowai is a chinese word meaning foreigner; this much at least can be agreed upon. But opinions about the word's connotations vary widely, with some people calling it derogatory while others understand it as a friendly or even respectful expression. Foreigners in China are used to hearing this word uttered in isolation as they pass by, but how is it actually used in context?

In the hope of contributing some more concrete data to the debate, I have analysed the usage of the words laowai and, for the sake of comparison, yangguizi ("foreign devil") and waiguoren (the most basic word for foreigner) in several blog entries and news articles.

Blogs: Methodology

Blogs seemed like a good place to look for example of the word laowai, firstly because blog entries are often written in an informal style in which the use of a colloquial word such as laowai would be acceptable, and secondly because a blog writer can freely express sentiments, for example negative feelings towards foreigners, that might not be acceptable in other media and would hence bias the sample.

I chose to collect samples from www.blogchina.com, for the technical reasons that it is fast and it offers a search facility which can be restricted to the content of blog entries. The order that the search results are listed in depends only on time (reverse chronological order), not on content or author. Thus I simply searched for laowai and selected the first 30 search results (skipping articles which had identical content) to serve as the sample. Links to these articles, along with a translation of the sentence(s) in which the word laowai appears, are listed on a separate page.

In a similar way, I gathered a sample of 15 blog entries containing the word yangguizi. Again, these are listed on a separate page. I also searched for the cantonese word gwailo, but the occurrences (within a one week time frame, which the search facility seems to be limited to) were too few for an adequate sample.

I marked each context as critical, complimentary, or neutral, depending on the writer's judgement of the foreigner or foreigners referred to by the word laowai or yangguizi. I also indicated whether the word was used to refer to foreigners in general, or to one or more specific people.

Blogs: Results

One thing that should be noted is that not all the articles in the sample were written by the owner of the blog themselves. It seems quite common in the chinese blogging world to publish entries which consist of an article copied from another source, and this accounts for about a third of the laowai sample and a half of the yangguizi sample. Although to some degree this defeats my original purpose for sampling blog entries, the results are still interesting.

I found that in 20 out of 30 contexts (67%), laowai was used in a general rather than specific sense. This can be further broken down into three types of general reference. Firstly, the word can refer to all foreigners collectively, as in BL-22:

Why haven't laowais lost interest in rock music? For some reason it's just Chinese who have lost interest, and why haven't Chinese lost interest in other kinds of music?

Secondly, it can refer to any arbitrary foreigner, as in BL-15:

At the very least I'll gain proficiency in using simple [English] sentence patterns, then I won't be afraid to talk face to face with a laowai, and if worst comes to worst we can always use body language...

(Since the word laowai merely refers to a foreigner, the assumption here that all laowais can speak English is not strictly correct; nonetheless, it is an assumption that can be seen in contexts BL-1 and BL-17 too).

The third kind of general reference is the sense that "some foreigners do such-and-such", without specifying a particular instance, as in BL-3:

Apart from Buddhist believers, you can see laowais everywhere, as well as young women in twos and threes (quite good looking young women), and also many elderly Hong Kong citizens come to worship.

Of the 11 contexts where laowai was used in a specific sense (context BL-12 contained both general and specific usage), there was only one instance where the user of the word personally knew the foreigners being referred to, that being BL-16:

At least there, none of the other girls look down on me, because I'm educated, furthermore my English is good, many of my clients are laowais.

The second fact worth noting is that 26 contexts (87%) were neutral, like the examples above. One context, BL-4, was complimentary:

I couldn't comprehend the expressions with which they looked at me, because I have never been able to read a laowai's eyes. I always think the look in their eyes is very pure, very clear, and I envy them for still having that kind expression after reaching such an old age.

Two contexts, BL-2 and BL-28, were ambiguous. They could be interpreted as either critical or neutral. Only one context, BL-18(b), was unambiguously critical:

A rotten movie...laowais clearly have no idea what "daoyi" means, or what "jianghu" means.

However, note that each of these two examples judge foreigners in only one aspect, the look in their eyes and their ability to produce martial arts films respectively. None of the contexts in the sample revealed any distinct pro- or anti-foreigner attitudes.

In the yangguizi sample, it turned out that that in 5 contexts (33%) the word was not used to refer to foreigners but to chinese, usually as part of the expression "false yangguizi", used to suggest that a person has adopted foreign habits or sympathises with foreign interests.

Of the remaining 10 contexts, I judged half of them to be critical or insulting, for example BY-3:

And you, yangguizi with your unclean DNA, while I am risking my life to safeguard social justice, you are here embracing my most beloved.

In some cases, yangguizi seems to be used for special effect, for example BY-2 contains this sentence:

This was something that had never occurred before in five thousand years of Chinese civilisation, yangguizi invading Beijing, seizing the Temple of Heaven and entering the Royal Palace.

At this point in the article, the author is explaining why the 1901 revolution gained popular support, and it seems more reasonable to explain the choice of the word yangguizi as reflecting the surprise and anger of the people at the time, rather than the personal feelings of the author.

There are several cases where the word yangguizi is used in a neutral context, such as BY-14:

A yangguizi also appeared, as big and tall as always, like a large horse.

Since this sentence is the only reference to foreigners in the article, it can only be interpreted as a neutral observation. Why is yangguizi used in this case, rather than waiguoren or laowai? It may be that the author simply and unselfconsciously uses the word out of habit. More interesting is the use of the word by the writer Ludi in BY-8:

Actually just as I've said in the past, glorious inventions can in fact be forgotten, needing modern people or even a yangguizi like Joseph Needham to unbury them like one digs up ancient artefacts.

Ludi has published a number of articles on the internet, in which he consistently prefers the terms yangguizi and guizi to refer to foreigners. But at the same time, his attitude to western culture is quite positive, and he thinks that China would benefit by emulating the West in many respects. Presumably he has made a conscious decision to use the words yangguizi and guizi, which are described as terms of abuse in most dictionaries, although his reason is not clear to me.

Apart from Ludi's article, I also found several other examples of the word guizi (usually translated into English as "devil") without the yang ("foreign") prefix, used to refer to westerners.

As with laowai, the referent of the word yangguizi may be either general or specific.

News: Methodology

In the process of studying blog entries, I realised that laowai could be used in a reasonably formal style of writing too, so I analysed a sample of news articles as well. I took the sample from Xinhuanet, an internet news site founded by Xinhua News Agency. Note, however, that the range of the material on this site is quite broad, including selected articles from newspapers, magazines, and internet sites.

As I had trouble using the site's own search facility, I used Yahoo!'s YiSou.com service instead. As with the blogs, the search results were sorted in reverse chronological order. Ignoring articles with identical content, I chose the first 15 articles containing the word laowai (listed on a separate page), and the first 15 articles containing the word waiguoren (also listed on a separate page). The search did not return enough articles containing yangguizi for an adequate sample.

I classified each context as either a specific or general reference. I did not classify the contexts as critical or complimentary, as I did with the blog sample, because I expected most news articles to be more or less unbiased.

News: Results

Perhaps the first thing worth noting is simply that the word laowai is not limited to colloquial speech but also appears in serious news articles in publications such as the Qingdao Morning Paper (NL-1) and the Shenzhen Daily (NL-9). In total, there were 95 articles mentioning the word laowai published by Xinhuanet between February 1 and May 12, 2005, compared to 140 articles mentioning the word waiguoren during the same period. 3 of the 15 articles sampled (20%) use quotation marks around at least the first mention of the word laowai, presumably to indicate that it is a colloquialism.

The next thing to note is that laowai is only used to mean "foreigner" from the point of view of China (the exception being the joke at the start of this article, which is based on exactly this point of usage). On the other hand, the sample contained 6 cases where waiguoren was used to refer to foreigners from the point of view of another country, for example the headline of NW-23 is:

Russia honours waiguoren who supported it during World War II; 27 Chinese veterans receive commendations

It has been commented before that many chinese tend not to use the word laowai in referring to other Asian ethnic groups, but in the sample there was one article which used laowai to refer to a Nepalese student (NL-4), and one which used the word to refer to three persons from an unspecified country in southern Asia (NL-1).

Laowai seems to be used frequently in headlines, perhaps because it is shorter and more eye-catching than alternatives (such as waiguoren or a specific nationality). There are five articles (NL-1, NL-12, NL-13, NL-14, and NL-15) where laowai is used in the headline but the article itself uses a different (usually more specific) term. For example, the headline of NL-15 is "[A] laowai's evaluation of the English versions of Jin Yong's novels", while the body of the article identifies the foreign critic by name and nationality.

Four articles in which laowai appears (NL-4, NL-8, NL-12, and NL-14) are basically "human interest" stories, and have a more or less positive spin. For example, NL-8 describes a trip to China by a group of elderly American tourists, emphasising their enjoyment of the experience and the friendship between them and their chinese hosts. In NL-4, laowai is used in conjunction with a number of positive adjectives:

Every friendly pair of eyes was focussed on the young and handsome laowai standing on the platform.

During the interview, although there was the occasional word that he momentarily did not understand, it was only necessary for me to repeat it once and this adorable laowai would tap his head and then immediately understand.

Several native speakers have suggested that laowai carries a certain tone of affection, comparing it to the practice of referring to a close acquaintance by using the term lao (literally "old") in conjunction with their surname. This may be true in some contexts, and is consistent with its usage in the cases above, but there is also evidence that it is not true in all contexts: laowai appears in three sampled articles (NL-1, NL-9, and NL-11) where the behaviour of the foreigners involved is either illegal or unpleasant. The headline of NL-9 is:

Laowai unreasonably causes an argument and vents his anger on a guard

Most uses of laowai in the sample have a specific referent; there are only two which use the word to refer to foreigners generally. Of course this is probably due in part to the fact that news articles usually report on specific events, but it may also suggest that, in more formal styles of writing, the word waiguoren is preferred when making general statements (there is no evidence to support the converse idea that laowai is preferred for specific references, however).


In an old episode of the British television series The Bill, one constable is accused of being homophobic. "I've got nothing against shirt-lifters," he retorts. Seeming not to know a more suitable alternative, he unselfconsciously uses a derogatory term in a neutral sentence. Likewise, yangguizi is recognised as a derogatory term, yet in several cases we saw it used in a neutral context.

It is clear then that this sort of study, especially considering the relatively small sample sizes, cannot alone establish the subtle connotations and associations related to a word. But considered in conjunction with other data, such as the interviews with native speakers which I reported on in a previous article, I believe it adds to the body of evidence that the much-debated word laowai is neither a slur nor a term of respect, but nothing more than a neutral, informal word for foreigner.


Yangguizi is definitely a negative term. However, it is one that is primarily reserved for the Japanese rather than as a term to describe all foreigeners in a negative manner.
Gordon [homepage]
18.05.2005 , 17:11

Thanks for doing all the work, Todd! That's something I'd be too lazy to do, but I was interested in seeing the results.
John [homepage]
19.05.2005 , 01:42

Most chinese in Australia call local people as 'guizi', and 'guimei' specially for young females.

As a chinese lives in Australia, I like your blog so much
15.06.2005 , 14:40

Actually, Gordon's not entirely correct. The word 'Yangguizi' is reserved for Westerners, and if a Chinese person wants to refer a Japanese that way, then one simply say the word 'Japan' in conjunction with the word 'Guizi'

Bad words are only offensive becuase people who use them mean to offend. If everyone say the 'f' word with love, I'm sure its properness would change in several decades. As for the 'Yanguizi' part, since China isn't an extremely raically diverse society (based on skin color anyway), people who use words like 'Yangguizi' never address a foreigner directly, and therefore ususally don't mean to offend them. 'Yangguizi' could be used negatively, but sometimes people just say it causally as a slang, or just out of jest.
29.06.2005 , 13:03

There's actually a band in Beijing called "Lao-why?" It sounds funny as a name but their music is reviewed as being well thought out and danceable.
29.07.2005 , 06:19

Actually , or more precisely, "xi yang guizi" refers to Westerners, while "dong yang guizi"refers to Japanese
17.02.2006 , 16:22

Comments disabled. Sorry for any inconvenience.

Previous Index Next