Who is a Laowai? Chinese Interpretations of Laowai as a Referring Expression for Non-Chinese

Yanfeng Mao


Laowai, a referring expression popularly used for non-Chinese, has found favor in the discourse of Chinese people. This article investigates Chinese interpretations of laowai based on survey data from a sample of 290 native Chinese. The results show that not all non-Chinese are called laowai. This expression—connoting a more complimentary meaning—is more often used by the Chinese respondents to name Western white people than any other cultural groups. For those who are not called laowai, other traits are used to refer to them—for example their nationality, skin color, or other features. The use of the expression laowai is generally based on ethnicity rather than nationality. Chinese interpretations of laowai reflect two features. First, the respondents tend to oversimplify the heterogeneity of other cultures. Second, the Chinese idea of shuren society regulates the respondents’ choice of the term laowai, which serves a dual purpose: 1) separating an “out-group” from the “in-group”, and 2) expressing a willingness to cultivate a friendly relationship between Chinese and non-Chinese.


laowai, referring expressions, nationality, non-Chinese, shuren society

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