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Anti-American Children's Verses from Taiwan


The following little article appeared in Western Folklore, vol. 33(3): 205-209 for July, 1973. For this web version I have reformatted it and have revised the occasional Mandarin Romanization to conform to the internationally standard Pinyin system. I have also minimized italics (which display badly on computer screens).

As a concession to computer typography, the Hokkien eighth tone (yángrù shēng 陽入聲) is indicated by an accute accent rather than a vertical stroke, a simplification shared with several dictionaries.


Anti-American Children's Verses from Taiwan

… his scholars sat upon the ground
And learned their letters upside down,
Slippery, sloppery, snap and sneeze,
That's the way to learn Chinese!
Anonymous, ca. 1870 [Note 1]


A frequent device used in China for maintaining boundaries between ethnolinguistic groups and subgroups is catcalling, particularly by children. Anderson has commented on this, [Note 2] marveling that there seem to be no two distinguishable ethnic or linguistic groups in Hong Kong that are on such good terms that abusive cat-calling is absent between them.

In Taiwan as well inter-ethnic slurs, jokes, and catcalling have a long tradition. During the Japanese administration (1895-1945) Taiwanese schoolchildren were required to stand before the portrait of the emperor each morning and shout bonsai (long life!). They took great delight in substituting the Taiwanese phrase pàng-sái (defecate!). The sounds were close enough that the Japanese seldom discovered them in their game, and the practice passed into the corpus of popular tales about the stupidity of the Japanese.

With the arrival of mainland refugees in large numbers between 1945 and 1949 and with gradual Taiwanese disillusionment at their often unguestlike behavior, the term "pig" (ti) or "piglet" (ti-á) came to be applied to them, and often was shouted after them from the roadside by small boys. When the Mandarin-speaking mainlanders eventually discovered that the Taiwanese word ti meant "pig," their annoyance was often rather directly expressed, even against wee boys catcalling at the side of the road. Various ingenious substitutes were tried.

Many a mainlander must have been puzzled to learn that the word kam-á hurled at him from the roadside meant merely "orange," never realizing that Taiwanese often place an orange in the mouth of a slaughtered pig when it is displayed in feasts, and "orange" was just a roundabout way back to the original pig.

In recent years the presence of large numbers of Americans has of course inspired more catcalling. By and large the Americans are viewed more sympathetically than the mainlanders of a quarter-centuy ago, and the most usual things shouted at them are simply "America" (bí-kok), "American" (bí-kok-lâng), or "Americaling" (bí-kok-á). [Note 3] Also frequent are references to big noses, big noses being as integral a part of the Chinese stereotype of the American as "slant" eyes are of the American stereotype of the Chinese. Thus the term "big-nose" (tōa-phīⁿ-á or a-tok-á) is also commonly catcalled.

Catcalling in Verse

Some children do not stop at a single expression, however. In Táinán 台南 City and the surrounding countryside, at least, many children shout a short, mocking rhyme:

phīⁿ-á tok-tok(his) nose is high

To this some children add two more lines:

bák-chiu lô-lô(and his) eyes are blue
ài chiáh bân-thô(and he) likes to eat bread

These incorporate two more very common impressions of Americans. In a small temple in a backstreet of Táinán, I was able to elicit an even lengthier text from some children who had begun by catcalling at me and ended by helping me get an accurate transcription of the "complete verse." Here is the text they produced:

bí kok The American
phīⁿ-á tok-tok has a high nose
bák-chiu lô-lô and blue eyes
ài chiáh bân-thô; and likes to eat bread;
bân-thô péh-péh, since the bread is white,
ài chiáh hoan-béh; he likes to eat (white) maize;
hoan-béh íⁿ-íⁿ ; since the maize is round,
ài chiáh hún-íⁿ; he likes to eat wheatflour balls;
hún-íⁿ kút-kút, since the wheatflour balls are slippery
ài chiáh gín-á lān-hut! he likes to eat children's testicles!

Unfortunately the text seems rather dull in its literal English translation. Chinese makers of ethnic slurs are as aware as English-speaking bigots that the whole thing becomes more condescendingly annoying in doggerel verse. (Compare the Mother-Goose quote with which this article begins.)

Accordingly the following verse translation, while less accurately representing the sense of the Taiwanese, seems to me to be more in keeping with the offensive intent of the original:

Behind his schnoz and his hair that's red
the hungry Yankee chokes down bread.
The bread is white and pretty foul,
so he sticks some corn into his jowl.
The corn is round and yella and dry,
so the blue-eyed Yankee eats a pie.
They eat their wet, round pies with zest,
but they like children's balls the best.

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A Variant

To the north of Táinán City in the township of Xīgǎng 西港 lies the pseudonymous village of Bǎo'ān 保安, which I have described elsewhere. [Note 4] The children of that village, like those in the city, had a certain fondness for catcalling Americans, even though I was the only one available most of the time. A group of children in Bǎo'ān provided another version of the entire poem. There was some disagreement on how much of the first version it superseded. Some children thought the couplet in parentheses below should not be included in this version, others that it should. Here is their poem:

phīⁿ-á tok-tok
The American
has a high nose
(bák-chiu lô-lô
ài chiáh bân-thô);
(and blue eyes
and likes to eat bread);
chîⁿ tē hō· sio-sio,
théh khí tiàm-á bè kin-chio;
since the money in his pocket's hot,
he takes it to the shop to buy bananas;
kin-chio léng-léng,
ài chiáh géng-géng; [Note 5]
since the bananas are cold,
he likes to eat dragon's eyes (lóngyán 龍眼);
gong-gēng bô bah,
ài chiáh ti-bah;
since the dragon's eyes are not meaty,
he likes to eat pork;
ti-bah chhè-chhè,
ài chiáh kam-phòe; [Note 6]
since the pork makes a crunching noise,
he likes to eat bottle glass;
kam-phòe sì-kak sì-kak,
ài chiáh lêng-kak;
since the glass bits are squarish,
he likes to eat caltropes; [Note 7]
lêng-kak chiam-chiam,
ài chiáh han-chhiam;
since the caltropes are pointed,
he likes diced sweet potatoes;
han-chhiam siuⁿ tōa-kho·,
ài chiáh káu sái-kho·.
since the sweet potato bits are big,
he likes to eat dogs' dung.

Again, a doggerel verse translation seems to me more in the spirit of the thing:

Behind his schnoz and his hair that's red,
(the hungry Yankee chokes down bread;)
his money's hot 'and burns his hand,
so he buys bananas at a stand;
he finds bananas much too cold,
and turns to dragon's eyes, I'm told;
the dragon's eyes are not too plump,
so he eats some pork, a great big lump;
when he eats the pork it. makes a crunch,
so he adds a bottle to his lunch;
the broken glass is sharp and square,
so an ox-horn nut becomes his fare;
the nut's as sharp as the horn of a ram,
so he eats long slices of dried yam;
he bits of yam are big like logs,
so he eats instead the dung of dogs.


I am not a specialist in the folk verse of Hokkien-speaking China, though hopefully these two examples of that verse will find their way into collections of those who are.

The message that I have drawn from these verses in my own mind and in the course of using them as examples in lectures on China, is that prejudice, ethnic stereotyping, and ethnocentrism are not one-way affairs. Given the student ethos in the United States at the moment, it is fashionable to talk about American misperceptions of the Chinese and to heap scorn even upon sympathetic earlier observers of the Chinese scene like Arthur Smith for having been ethnocentric in their evaluations.

Yet the Chinese view of foreigners is often even less sympathetic (and almost certainly less accurate). When Taiwanese school-children recite long verses to tell us that Americans eat dog's dung, mutual sympathy still has a long way to go.

Anthropologists of course understand this. I have found that my Taiwanese children's verses, particularly in doggerel translation, make the point vividly to American students as well.

University of California, San Diego

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