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Chinese Language

Which Language was Ma Ying-jeou Speaking in Hunan?

In Hunan, Ma Ying-jeou will now mostly be remembered as ‘the boy from Xiangtan.’

Jin Luo



There have been many headlines and views on former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou’s recent visit to mainland China. One aspect of his trip has received relatively little attention, even though it generated some buzz among Chinese netizens: Ma’s way of speaking Chinese. Jin Luo explains.

Ex Taiwan President and former Kuomintang Chairman Ma Ying-jeou (马英九) made headlines earlier this month after he ended his historic 12-day visit to mainland China.

One aspect of his trip that was discussed by netizens and reported by Chinese online media was Ma’s use of “Hunan dialect” (湖南方言). Many were amazed by how well he could speak it, how he interacted with locals in the Hunan dialect, and how he delivered his words with a genuine emotional connection while paying respect to his grandfather.

The official language used on both sides of the Taiwan Strait is Mandarin, although there are some variations in terms of accents and vocabulary. However, Ma did not speak standard Mandarin during his speech and visit to Hunan.

So what language did he use during his 10-minute speech at Hunan University and while he was paying respects at the graves of his ancestors?

Xiang: One of the Many Varieties of Chinese

The question “Do you speak Chinese?” is often understood without confusion because “Chinese” is generally interpreted as referring to Mandarin, which has the largest number of native speakers in the world at nearly 1 billion.

However, from a linguistic standpoint, “Chinese” is a collective term that encompasses hundreds of varieties, categorized into seven or ten groups, with the most well-known being Mandarin and Cantonese.

It is not always easy to determine whether the different varieties should be considered dialects or distinct languages. For instance, if you only speak Mandarin, you might not understand anything if you walk on the streets of Hong Kong, where Cantonese is spoken. Nevertheless, you would be able to read all the street signs since the written language and grammar are similar.

The degree of similarity or difference between various varieties of Chinese can vary widely. People from vast Mandarin-speaking regions can generally understand each other, while in the southern parts of China, people may face difficulties communicating with those in neighboring villages after crossing a mountain.

Map of sinitic languages. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

During his visit to Hunan, Ma Ying-jeou visited Xiangtan and spoke in the local variety called “Xiang” (湘), also known as “Hunanese” or “Changshanese,” which are sometimes used interchangeably. Hunan is located in South Central China. The main river in its east is called Xiang Jiang (湘江), and it passes through Hunan’s capital Changsha. Xiang is spoken by over 36 million people in China, with the most spoken variety being the Changsha dialect.

While Xiang may not be as well-known as other Chinese dialects outside of China, some of its speakers are very famous. Mao Zedong is perhaps China’s most well-known Xiang speaker. The popular North American-Chinese dish, General Tso’s chicken, is named after Zuo Zongtang, another prominent Xiang speaker. Zhu Rongji, who served as China’s premier from 1998 to 2003, is originally from Changsha, a city in the Hunan province where Xiang is widely spoken. And Ma Ying-jeou is one of the most well-known contemporary politicians who speaks Xiang.

What is especially noteworthy about Ma speaking Xiang is the fact that he was born in Hong Kong, grew up in Taiwan, and studied in the US. His March-April 2023 China trip was his very first visit to mainland China or Hunan. How come he speaks Xiang at all?

“Outside Province People”

Ma Ying-jeou’s parents were both from Hunan and were Kuomintang members. Before Ma Ying-jeou was born, they already had three daughters who were born in different locations. Ma Ying-jeou himself was born in Hong Kong in 1950, and two years later the entire family moved to Taipei.

Individuals such as Ma, who relocated with their families to Taiwan from the mainland after 1945, are known as Waishengren (外省人, literally: people from outside the province). They came from various regions of China, primarily the southern part. They generally speak Mandarin but still use their hometown dialect within their families. (The Han Chinese people who were already in Taiwan before 1945 are referred to as Benshengren 本省人, literally: native province people.)

While the Waishengren are predominantly Han Chinese, which is the ethnic majority in both Taiwan (95-97%) and mainland China (~92%), they are actually considered a minority group in Taiwan now.

In 1990, Waishengren accounted for approximately 13% of the population, but since then, the official identification of this group has been discontinued. However, surveys on self-identity conducted in the 21st century have consistently indicated that the Waishengren make up around 10%-12% of Taiwan’s population.

Most Han Chinese in Taiwan can trace their ancestry back to mainland China, whether their ancestors arrived 60 or 600 years ago. Many Han Chinese in Taiwan have genealogy records that detail the towns their ancestors came from and moved to. Ma Ying-jeou is one such person, and one of the main purposes of his visit to mainland China was to pay respect to his ancestors in Hunan.

Fallen Leaves Return to Their Roots

In the Chinese context, one’s jiguan (can roughly be translated as ‘ancestral home’) refers to the birthplace of one’s father. This was once a compulsory item to fill in official documents in most of the Greater China area. For example, former NBA star Yao Ming was born in Shanghai, but his jiguan is the nearby city of Suzhou because that is where his father was born.

Similarly, Ma Ying-jeou’s jiguan is Xiangtan County in Hunan, even though he had never been there until recently. This is because his grandfather was also born in Xiangtan County, and died there when Ma Ying-jeou’s father was 7 years old. His grandfather was buried there, and as such, Xiangtan County is considered to be Ma Ying-jeou’s ancestral home.

Lineage holds great cultural significance in southern China and among overseas Chinese, many of whom originated from southern China. Lineage is often traced through ancestral villages, genealogy books, lineage associations, and sometimes even a unique dialect. Ancestors are revered as deities or, in non-religious settings, a spiritual connection to the supreme power of heaven. In Confucianism, paying respect to one’s ancestors is a demonstration of filial piety, one of the most important virtues.

The Qingming Festival, held every year around April 4-6, is dedicated to visiting ancestors’ tombs. For those who have moved away from their ancestral hometown, it is important to visit when they get older or be buried in the same place as their ancestors. This is expressed in Chinese as luoyeguigen (落叶归根), which means “fallen leaves return to their roots.”

Visiting one’s ancestral hometown for the first time is often a deeply emotional experience, and this was certainly the case for Ma Ying-jeou and his four sisters when they visited Xiangtan four days before the Qingming Festival.

Ma was filmed while giving a speech in front of his grandfather’s tomb, speaking in Xiang. He spoke in detail about the family’s journey since 1927 and talked about how the family has been prospering, with 38 people in his generation. He also discussed his achievements as a politician and how he contributed to the peace of the mainland-Taiwan relationship.

Ma Ying-jeou reading out his speech for his ancestors, screenshot, video via Weibo.

In the end, Ma expressed how emotional he felt being able to visit his grandfather’s tomb for the first time and how grateful he is that the family’s virtues have been passed down through the generations. He wished that his grandfather’s soul would forever bless the Ma family to continue contributing to humanity. As he finished his speech, it was clear that he was in tears.

“Boy from Xiangtan”

Visiting the mainland at this particular time certainly carries political implications, particularly given that current Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen was visiting the US at the same time. The visits by the Taiwanese politicians to China and the US have generated a range of reactions from both sides of the Taiwan Strait, with some expressing praise and others voicing criticism.

While Ma’s visit to mainland China was significant, it is notable that the focus of his trip was not on politics, but on emphasizing cultural identity – language being an important part of it. Ma’s apparent deep emotional connection to his ancestral roots in China is a highly valued cultural trait that resonates with many Chinese people.

During his Xiangtan visit, local residents warmly welcomed him with the phrase “Welcome home.” In response, Ma spoke in the Xiang dialect and said that “the boy from Xiangtan has returned” (“湘潭伢子回来了”). This simple yet powerful message reiterated Ma’s sense of belonging, and its impact was felt not only in what he said but also how he said it.

Ma’s ability to speak the language of his ancestral hometown immediately connected him with the local Hunan people. He engaged in lengthy discussions in Xiang with students at Hunan University, caused traffic jams by strolling through a night market in Changsha, and even sang a song on a Hunan TV program. As a result of his visit to Hunan, Ma became somehwat of a wanghong, an online hit.

Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of Global Times, also posted about it on Weibo and expressed surprised at how well Ma speaks the Hunan dialect. The Hunan provincial party secretary, who is not a native speaker of Xiang, also expressed his admiration for Ma’s proficiency and said he felt pressured and inspired to learn from him.

Despite its political timing, Ma’s visit has been reported as a “private visit,” and the former President also did not have any officieel meetings in Beijing. Rather than engaging in political rhetoric, Ma seemingly sought to connect with the Chinese people on a personal and cultural level.

In addition to paying respects to his ancestors, he also visited museums, met with locals, and did some sightseeing. At times, he appeared as an ambassador and peace negotiator, while at others, he resembled an excited tourist exploring new sights for the first time.

Meanwhile, he also appeared simply as a 73-year-old retiree, finding comfort in speaking his hometown dialect that few people in Taiwan can speak with him. In Hunan, he will now mostly be remembered as ‘the boy from Xiangtan.’

Read more Chinese language-related articles here.

By Jin Luo 


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Jin Luo is a language & culture educator based in Berlin. Teaching three languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, English) and learning two (Russian, German) while having lived in 10 cities across 7 countries, her mission is to boost intercultural understanding and communication through education.

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China Media

Wang Huidi: Stop Referring to Singapore as a Chinese ‘County’ (坡县)

The author suggests that comparing Singapore a small county in contrast to the giant nation that is China not only reflects negatively on Singapore but also on the Chinese individuals who use this term.

Manya Koetse



In Lianhe Zaobao, Singapore’s largest Chinese-language newspaper, author Wang Huidi (汪惠迪) recently wrote a column in which he argued that Singapore, officially the Republic of Singapore, should no longer be referred to as “坡县” (trad. 坡縣, Pōxiàn) in the Chinese-language online media sphere.

The topic received quite some attention on Chinese social media, where Singapore is often nicknamed “坡县”/Pōxiàn, “Po County.”

The names of many foreign countries are transliterated in Chinese, which means Chinese characters are used to create a word that sounds similar to the original name of the country. The characters may or may not actually mean something, and some characters may even have multiple meanings.

Singapore in Chinese is 新加坡, Xīnjiāpō, which also sounds like ‘Singapore.’ The character for ‘Po’ 坡 () in Xīn Jiā Pō means ‘slope.’ In Chinese, this part of the name is sometimes combined with the word for ‘county,’ 县 (xiàn), which is an administrative division unit in China.

Referring to Singapore as ‘Slope County’ or ‘Little Po County’ may give the impression that it’s merely a small part of China, as some Chinese netizens or Chinese immigrants living in Singapore might see it as a place no bigger than a county-level city in mainland China. China is approximately 13,344 times bigger than Singapore.

In his latest column, Wang Huidi, a renowned Chinese editor, writer, and language researcher, argues that it is derogatory to refer to Singapore that way, especially when ‘Po County’ is used by Chinese who are living and working in the country.

The article by Wang in Lianhe Zaobao.

Wang referred to the famous ‘little red dot’ incident, in which third Indonesian President Habibie had allegedly made an unfriendly remark about Singapore and had pointed to a map, saying: “(..) there are 211 million people in Indonesia, [just] look at this map: all the green areas are Indonesia. Singapore is only that little red dot.”

While the derogatory term “little red dot” eventually gained popularity and was embraced by Singaporeans as a self-defining moniker, Wang argues that it still carries a deeper significance, highlighting the country’s diminutive size and vulnerability.

Wang suggests that those who refer to Singapore as ‘Little Po County’ in the Chinese language should consider how they would feel if others referred to China in a similar fashion. He emphasizes that words carry weight and convey a specific perspective on the part of the speaker.

The author goes on to suggest that comparing Singapore to a “little dwarf” in contrast to the giant that is China not only reflects negatively on Singapore but also on the Chinese individuals who use this term. As a result, Wang concludes that this expression should not be used casually, and people who use it should recognize the significant impact it holds.

By now, a hashtag related to this story has garnered over 100 million views on Weibo (#中国网民叫新加坡坡县引发争议#). Although the column has triggered quite some discussion, it also was a reason for banter.

Some joked that Australia must feel bad for its Chinese nickname ranks even lower in administrative level; it is sometimes referred to as “澳村” (Ào Cūn), or “Aussie Village.” This nickname isn’t related to Australia’s size but reflects how some Chinese see the country’s urban environment and way of life as more akin to a ‘village.’

“You should be happy we don’t say Po village (坡镇), and still call it a county!”

“Would you like us to call you ‘Po prefecture’ (坡州区) instead?”, others write.

Some commenters argue that it’s simply a sweet term of endearment and that people shouldn’t overanalyze it. They write: “You are too sensitive.” Or: “Even my friends in Singapore use this term themselves!”

A few commenters do agree with Wang, writing: “I do feel that calling [Singapore] this isn’t appropriate, especially after it has been pointed out. If there’s no good reason to do so, it’s better not to use this name anymore.”

Other Weibo users mention that they hadn’t used the term ‘Little Po County’ before, but Wang’s article has introduced them to it: “Thanks for that, I’ll start using that now!”

Most netizens appear to agree that Wang is making a big deal out of nothing. However, Wang does have a point in noting that the same online population tends to get easily upset when foreigners refer to China in ways that are considered offensive or derogatory. One Weibo commenter wrote: “A lot of web users in China do seem to have double standards.”

By Manya Koetse

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Featured photo by Jay Ang (link).

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China Arts & Entertainment

Behind 8 Billion Streams: Who is Dao Lang Cursing in the Chinese Hit Song ‘Luocha Kingdom’?

What’s behind the Dao Lang hit song that has everyone talking these days?

Zilan Qian



“Who is being mocked and cursed in this song?” This question has ignited a wildfire of speculation across the Chinese internet, as a recently released folk song by a relatively low-profile singer has amassed a staggering 8 billion plays, surpassing the success of previous hit songs.

A newly released Chinese song, composed and sung by a 52-year-old singer who was primarily active in the 2000s, has achieved an astounding milestone of 8 billion streams in less than two weeks since its release.

The song, titled “Luosha Haishi” (罗刹海市; “Raksha Sea Market” or “Luocha Kingdom”), has been widely acclaimed on various social media platforms, with many claiming that it has surpassed the Guinness World Record for the most streamed track worldwide, a record previously held by “Despacito” in 2017 with 5.5 billion plays. The official Weibo account of Guinness World Records recently stated that they haven’t received any application for a new record yet, and thus, no record has been officially confirmed broken at this time.

However, even 8 billion plays alone are enough to marvel at. The sudden surge in popularity of a song created by a low-profile singer, who has not participated in any major shows or held performances for the last few decades, has raised numerous questions: Who is the singer? What is in the song? And why has it become viral in China? We’ll answer some of these questions for you here.

Question 1: Who is Dao Lang?

Dao Lang (刀郎), whose real name is Luo Lin (罗林), embarked on his musical journey at a young age. Born in 1971, he made the decision to leave school at the age of 17 and fully immerse himself in learning keyboard instruments at a music hall in Neijiang. Over the next four years, he ventured to different locations such as Chengdu, Chongqing, Tibet, and Xi’an, where he gained experience and honed his musical skills. Throughout the 1990s, he actively participated in various music projects and bands, shaping his career in the music industry.

In 2004, Dao Lang’s album The First Snow of 2022 (2002年的第一场雪) was unexpectedly well-received, winning him nationwide popularity. After enjoying success with previous albums, Dao Lang diversified his musical endeavors, collaborating with other artists and exploring different genres, such as folk and ethnic music. Between 2010 and 2012, he participated in various performances and events, including appearing at Hong Kong singer Alan Tam’s concert and the Television Arts Evening Celebration for the 90th Anniversary of the Communist Party of China’s founding.

Dao Lang (Weibo).

Subsequently, Dao Lang appeared to withdraw from social media, only resurfacing with two albums in 2020 and 2021, which were released with minimal promotion. However, it is his latest album, titled There Are Few Folk Songs (山歌寥哉) that has brought him back into the public eye, primarily due to the “Luosha Haishi” song.

Question 2: What’s the Song About?

What makes a song so powerful that it has brought Dao Lang back into the public’s attention after almost 20 years?

The song carries strong folk and ethnic elements, and the lyrics are quite cryptic. The song itself has the same title as an ironic story in the famous Liaozhai Zhiyi (聊斋志异), or Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, a collection of supernatural and ghostly tales written by Pu Songling (蒲松龄) during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The song’s sudden popularity is mainly attributed to the mocking implication embedded in the lyrics.

One particular verse, in particular, has sparked significant discussion:


That Don Kee does not know that he is a donkey
That Scarlet does not know that she is a whore
Brothels have always pretended to be elegant
Since ancient times, eunuchs are fond of their mighty reputation


The terms “Mǎ Hù” (马户) and “Yòu Niǎo” (又鸟), translated here as ‘Don Kee’ and ‘Scarlet’ 1, are not commonly used terms in modern Chinese. Mǎ Hù (马户) is a combination of the characters 马 (), meaning “horse,” and 户 (), meaning “household” or “family.” If these two are combined as one character, you get “驴” (), meaning “donkey,” hence the ‘Don Kee’ translation to English.

Similarly, “Yòu Niǎo” (又鸟) is a made-up term consisting of two character components that, when put together, means “chicken” (“鸡”, ).

Both ‘donkey’ and ‘chicken’ have been used as curses in China. People use phrases such as “as silly as a donkey” (“蠢得像头驴”) to describe foolish behavior. On the other hand, the term “chicken” (鸡) often implies prostitution when used in the singular form, but it can also take on the meaning of “trashy” (辣鸡, a phonetic adaptation of the word 垃圾, rubbish) or “weak” (菜鸡) when combined with other characters.

The term that is translated as “brothel” here is “gōulán” (勾栏), which refers to a type of performance venue for opera in urban areas during the Song and Yuan dynasties but is also used to refer to brothels.

The term “gōng gong” (公公) is used to address the father of one’s spouse, but is also has additional meanings and was historically used as an appellation for eunuchs, (castrated) male servants in the imperial court.

So we could say that the first two lines of these lyrics can be interpreted as mocking or cursing people who are unaware of their own silliness or weak status. When combined with the third and fourth lines, which describe things that are pretentious, we can deduce that these lyrics are meant to point out how some people perceive themselves as much more than they actually are, vainly focused on how they portray themselves to others and their status.

Question 3: Who is Dao Lang Cursing in This Song?

There are various online theories on what or who Dao Lang is actually referring to in this song.

◼︎ One trending theory is that it is about Na Ying (那英). Na Ying is a Chinese singer who rose to national fame after serving as a coach in the the popular television singing show The Voice of China in 2012.

Despite gaining recognition in 2004 for his album The First Snow of 2002 (2003), Dao Lang was not widely celebrated as an artist at that time. When Chinese media asked various artists about their thoughts on the ‘rising star’ Dao Lang, he was often criticized and belittled. Among those with the deepest grudge against Dao Lang, it is widely rumored that Na Ying was the one.

In 2010, during the selection of the “Top 10 Most Influential Singers of the Decade,” Na Ying, as the jury chairwoman, vehemently opposed Dao Lang’s inclusion. She allegedly believed that Dao Lang’s songs lacked aesthetic value, despite their high sales, and that music should not be solely judged based on sales volume.

Na Ying commented that Dao Lang’s songs lack of aesthetic characteristic in the 2013’s show (source).

This publicly known clash with Na Ying has sparked widespread speculation that the person subtly mocked by Dao Lang in his song is actually her. Moreover, some interpret the repetition of the character “那” (, “that”) throughout the song as a reference to Na Ying’s surname.

Soon after the album’s release, Na Ying’s social media accounts were inundated with netizens convinced that the song was directed at her. Her follower count on Douyin (Chinese TikTok) surged from 770,000 to 1,800,000, and her recent video garnered millions of comments, with many referencing Dao Lang’s song and blaming her for belittling Dao Lang back in the day.

◼︎ Another trending theory is that Dao Lang is cursing the popular music talent show The Voice of China and its coaching panel. Besides Na Ying, singers Yang Kun and Wang Feng also received ten thousands of comments related to Dao Lang’s song on their social media accounts.

One of the reasons why people think the song refers to the show is because it contains the line “Before speaking, they turn around” (“未曾开言先转腚”), which reminds people of the show’s “chair turning moment” in which coaches, whose chairs are turned away from the blind audition stage, can press a button that turns their chair around to face the stage if they are impressed by the contestant’s voice and want to work with them.

In the 2015 season of “The Voice of China,” Wang Feng, Na Ying, and Yang Kun (from the second left to the right) participated as coaches (image source).

◼︎ A third trending theory suggests that the song’s meaning extends far beyond the music industry and carries geopolitical implications. Some netizens have let their imaginations run wild, arguing that the song is actually mocking the United States. The opening line “The land of Rakshasa extends 26,000 li to the east, crossing the Seven Gorges and the scorched Yellow Mud Land of three inches” (“罗刹国向东两万六千里,过七冲越焦海三寸的黄泥地”) is a point of focus.

Since 26,000 li is a traditional Chinese unit of distance, equivalent to half a kilometer, some believe it aligns precisely with China’s territory. Consequently, they speculate that the Rakshasa country, located 13,000 kilometers west of China, is a metaphor for the United States.

The Aftermath

Amidst the nationwide speculation on whom Dao Lang is targeting in his song, several “suspects” have responded to netizens’ guesses. Some chose to resolve the controversy humorously, while others indirectly expressed their distress over the online abuse stemming from these unfounded speculations. Recent reports indicate that Na Ying, in her latest debut, seemed to be greatly affected by the harsh comments made by netizens.

While the speculations surrounding the song have garnered significant attention for both the song and the singer, some discussions are not necessarily constructive. As some netizens point out, the song might not even aim to curse anyone.

It could also be that the song is simply inspired by one of the stories in the book Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (聊斋志异), which is set in a place called Rakshasa Country, located 26,000 li west of China, resembling a bustling market. In this country, people have peculiar and bizarre appearances, and the more non-human they look, the more attention they receive, while those who appear human live at the bottom of society. Therefore, it is possible that the song aims to narrate these stories instead of attacking someone in particular.

Moreover, the extensive speculations surrounding the song’s intention have also seemingly transformed Dao Lang’s music from a source of enjoyment into a source of analysis, with netizens now meticulously scrutinizing every lyric line.

Among the billions of streams, it begs the question: how many listeners are genuinely enjoying Dao Lang’s music, and how many are just eager sleuths, searching for clues to support their theories about the song’s targets? This raises some curiosity about the true significance of the song’s popularity.

On the other hand, Dao Lang would likely not mind if the song eventually finds its place in the Guinness Book of Records, alongside a note that recognizes it as “the no 1 one most-played hit song that kept everyone guessing.”

By Zilan Qian


1. Part of the translation provided, namely the translation of ‘Ma Hu’ 马户 as ‘Don Kee’ and ‘You Niao’ 又鸟 as ‘the scarlet woman’ was created by Xiangdong Zhu & Ning Wan on on August 1st 2023, although the original page has since been deleted.

This article has been edited for clarity by Manya Koetse


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Part of featured image via Xigua Shipin.

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