Thursday, September 4, 2008

Beijing Dairy Air - the origin of "niu bi"

My most successful (in terms of views) posting so far was the one about the Chinese saying "jia you" (let's go!). In that entry I mentioned another, more infamous Chinese exclamation: "Niu bi!" (牛屄 niu2 bi1, pronounced "nee-yo bee"). This phrase is interesting for a number of reasons.

1) It is used as a cheer, but also an exclamation meaning "awesome," or "fantastic."

2) It literally means "cow [bad word for genitalia]."

3) The real character for "bi1" is so graphic and profane that almost nobody uses it. The substitute character most often used is "逼", which is a homonym for the other word but actually means "to compel." Another substitute is the Roman letter "B." [If you search Google for each of these combinations, the real phrase (牛屄) yields about 31,000 results. The second, euphemistic, 牛逼 comes up with 3 million, and "牛B" gives up about 5 million results.]

4) It's origin is an enigma, surrounded by riddles, shrouded in mystery. (You know, like Russia)

5) I will now attempt to explain, for the first time ever, the history of this colorful and bizarre phrase for the Western audience.

Theories abound online about the origin of the phrase. It is worth mentioning that there are two versions of the expression, with slightly different meanings. The first is as I described above, 牛屄, niu bi, meaning great or awesome. The second version is 吹牛屄 (chui1 niu2 bi1), which literally means "blowing the cow ****." This means "to boast or brag." You can also just say "chui niu," blowing the cow, which also means to brag. What the hell, you might ask. The prevailing theory is that 吹牛屄 (chui niu bi) is actually a corruption of the less-dirty 吹牛皮 (chui niu pi2), which also means to boast (lit. "blowing the cow skin"). The parables I found on Chinese search engine Baidu that make *the most sense* (they are still weird) are as follows:

1) The Boastful Butcher

Long ago (and still today) after a butcher slaughtered a sheep or a pig and drained all the blood out, the butcher would cut a small hole in the animal's leg, near the foot. They would insert an iron pipe into the hole, and blow into the pipe until the carcass was fully inflated. This made it much easier to skin the animal, and with just a light touch of the knife the skin would come right off. This was called "blowing the pig" or "blowing the sheep." If you do this to a cow, it is called "blowing the cow." But, butchers rarely used this method on cows, because the cow's body is so large, and its skin is tough, and there is little fat under the skin. So to inflate an entire cow carcass in this manner would take an incredibly strong diaphragm and super-powerful lungs, so only an extraordinary person could do it. So whoever says they can "blow the cow (吹牛 chui niu)" is 99.9999% "blowing the cow!"

2) Crafty Rafters

According to experts' research, the Chinese expression "blowing the cow skin" comes from the upper reaches of the Yellow River. As the river flows through the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia and Shaanxi, the waters are fierce, the waves are hazardous and piloting boats is difficult. In ancient times, when bridges were not so developed, the people on the shores had to figure out how to deal with the difficult problem of crossing the river. So they came up with the idea of using leather rafts instead of boats. Until the 1950s, before trains had reached these areas, leather rafts were an important transport tool for the people living along the upper reaches of the Yellow River.

The basics of a leather raft are as follows: During slaughter, the butcher would remove the skin of a sheep or a cow as one piece. Then they used salt water to remove all the hair, spread plant oil on the four limbs and neck, soaked it in water, and dried it in the sun. After it became soft, they sewed it up with a thin cord to make a sealed bag, leaving just one small hole. After it was blown up the hole was sealed and several of these leather bags were linked together with wooden boards, and thus a raft was created. And in those days, there were no pumps so the only way to inflate these rafts was to use your mouth. A sheep skin was pretty small and you could just blow it up. But even with the sheep skin, it took a lot of lung strength to do it. But a cow skin was too big, and it could not be done by using your mouth only. So, along the upper Yellow River, if someone said he could blow up a cow skin raft, he was considered a braggart. The people there, not tolerant of boastful words, would say to those who bragged about themselves: "If you really have what it takes, go down to the river and blow up a cow skin! (吹牛皮 chui niu pi), " So, over time, "blow the cow skin" came to mean brag or boast.


Eventually the phrase was altered by Beijingers and the dirty part was added to connote extra vehemence when deriding a braggart. Then, the 吹 (blow) part was dropped and the last part, cow ****, was left and came to mean totally awesome.
Ah, Language. What a bizarre and twisted mistress you are.
Some other theories from Web forums:

"Some say that because a niu bi is pretty big, “niu bi” has the meaning of surpassing the ordinary. I think this makes sense, and submit it to the reader for consideration."

"The phonetics of the word were corrupted. 'Pi' was changed erroneously in Beijing to the similar sounding and oft-used word, 'bi.'"

"Beijingers have always been clever and inventive and full of humor. Maybe they thought that “pi” was too boring and abstract. Why would you blow a “pi”? Let’s blow the cow “bi”! This song is offered as evidence:

If you want to blow 'niu bi,'
First climb the West Drum Tower.
Buy a leather pipe
Aim at the 'niu bi'
Use a little effort,
And the cow will roll its eyes"

You decide!


Susan said...

Weirdly informative and yet super discreetly phrased. The stories are truly eye opening. And we thought English was rich!

Anonymous said...

And you thought a Chinese would know how this phrase came about! Wowza! ~Vince~

Lewis N. Clark said...

The grandson of King Sho Tei, Sho Eki had harelip. The 4 representatives of the Ryukyu Kingdom at Fuzhou ordered Tokumei to learn surgery because of his Chinese and his skill.