Dwarfism and Chinese

I have lived in China for almost four years. This means that I have missed out on a lot of new TV shows over the years. I don’t mind at all for the most part; I’m not a big fan of TV. But occasionally I do like to pick up some TV shows on DVD. Recently I was watching an episode of CSI which dealt with dwarves.

There was one scene in particular which caught my attention. Character Nick Stokes is talking to Gil Grissom and uses the term “midget.” Grissom corrects him, telling him, “it’s dwarves or little people.” I didn’t think much of it at the time, other than a faint curiosity as to why the term “midget” is considered offensive.

Later I learned the reason from the LPA Online FAQ:

> In some circles, a midget is the term used for a proportionate dwarf. However, the term has fallen into disfavor and is considered offensive by most people of short stature. The term dates back to 1865, the height of the “freak show” era, and was generally applied only to short-statured persons who were displayed for public amusement, which is why it is considered so unacceptable today.

Later, when discussing this issue with a Chinese friend, I became very curious about the corresponding Chinese terminology. In that scene in CSI three terms were given: two acceptable, and one offensive in English. “Dwarf” seems the most scientific, as the medical condition is often referred to as “dwarfism,” although “dwarf” also has its own specific role in fantasy literature. “Little people” seems to be a rather new everyday euphemism. “Midget” is offensive for the reasons listed above. So how was this scene translated in the subtitles? For the most part, I find CSI’s Chinese subtitles to be very well done.

This is what I found:

Dwarfism (the medical condition): 矮小症 (ai xiao zheng)
Dwarf: 侏儒 (zhu ru)
Midget: 侏儒 (zhu ru)
Little person: 小人 (xiao ren)

I’m no expert on Chinese medical terminology, but the translation for “dwarfism” seems pretty solid (although it identifies it as an illness, which is not necessarily the case).

The translation runs into serious difficulty when it comes to “dwarf” and “midget,” however. Note that in the above translations, they’re the exact same word! The term 侏儒 (zhu ru) in Chinese has definite negative connotations, so it seems like a good translation for “midget,” but not dwarf.

Speaking of dwarves, the Chinese term used in the translation of The Lord of the Rings is none of these. It’s 矮人 (ai ren), an old term referring to a race of people of short stature — something like “pygmy.” That translation seems like a good translation for the fantasy world.

Back to CSI. The translation of “little person,” 小人 (xiao ren), is probably the worst. It was translated word-for-word, using the Chinese characters for “little” and “person.” The thing is, in Chinese the word 小人 (xiao ren) has a meaning all its own. It means a lowly person, a mean person, a dirty rat. [In Shanghainese and some other dialects it means “child.”]

So if you use the translations above, the scene completely falls apart. Originally it was:

> NICK: Okay. So, back to the midgets.

> (GRISSOM looks sharply at NICK.)

> GRISSOM: Nick … “Dwarves” or “Little People”.

> (NICK nods at the correction.)

With these Chinese translations, the meaning becomes:

> NICK: Okay. So, back to the midgets.

> (GRISSOM looks sharply at NICK.)

> GRISSOM: Nick … “Midgets” or “Dirty Little Rats”.

> (NICK nods at the correction.)

Evidently the translator knew something was off, though, and changed the dialogue a bit to get around the linguistic problems. (The above dialogue was not actually the one in the Chinese subtitles.)

The concept of political correctness is still evolving in China. It seems at this point, though, that the little people of China are still out of luck.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Huaxin Says: May 7, 2004 at 6:36 am

    Thanks for educating me about this difference of the words. I never know that midget is an offensive word. As a Chinese, i feel 侏儒 is NOT really offensive. There is no other word in my mind to descirbe a short person. 小人 has so many different meanings that we usually don’t use it to refer to 侏儒。 we use it only in some fantacy world like 小人国。so 侏儒 is pretty much the only word. it could be a little negative as well as neutral.

  2. If you want to watch TV shows go to http://www.suprnova.org to download them. Make sure to download bit torrent first. During spring semester I was too busy to watch TV so I missed most of The Apprentice, but I could download all the episodes off suprnova. It’s much faster than p2p networks and the files don’t carry viruses.

  3. Da Xiangchang Says: May 7, 2004 at 8:12 am

    Well, some dialogue just doesn’t translate well. There are just some words in English that don’t exist in Chinese (see the Chinese dubbing of “Shrek,” for example–“ogre” just doesn’t exist in Chinese). Yet, there are words in Chinese that don’t exist in Engish (for example, the far more complex vocabulary for each of your relatives–older and younger siblings, maternal and paternal grandparents, etc.). Consequently, a lot of Chinese movies with English subtitles suck. Witness the scene in “Tokyo Raiders” where Tony Leung first explains to Ekin Cheung the truth serum TTTT. What was hilarious in the original Cantonese is completely lost in the English translation. Some movies and books just cannot be translated well. I mean, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, arguably America’s greatest novel, is just impossible to translate into any non-English language.

    As for the controversy regarding dwarves versus midgets, I personally know a dwarf (no, not when I look in the mirror!). He WOULD get offended if someone calls him a “midget” so the term probably shouldn’t be used in America. Since in China, nobody gives a fuck, we shouldn’t give a fuck. The last thing China needs is any political correctness bullshit (though, the country already has plenty of that in communism!).

  4. Huaxin,

    Actually, I was told that 侏儒 can be negative as well as neutral, as you say. But if it can be negative, doesn’t that make it negative (or at least not really neutral)?

  5. Thanks John, I’ve just learned some more new words. One thing though, a friend of mine here (haikou)tells me that xiao ren means a male prostitute. Have you heard that?

  6. Huaxin Says: May 9, 2004 at 3:04 am

    Well, haikou homey, as far as I know, 小人 never means gigolo in Chinese. it could differ from region to region. but i still doubt it means gigolo。 You could say 鸭 and 鸡 to refer to male and female prosititute, respectively. I personally try not to use them in day-to-day life. just don’t like them.

    For 侏儒,as Da Xiangchang said, we just don’t give it a shit. I never need to use it since i never meet any 侏儒. when you want to tell somebody he/she is a 侏儒, you could use this word. that does not mean you are making fun of the 侏儒。just don’t use it in the face of them when you really meet a 侏儒.

  7. Huaxin Says: May 9, 2004 at 3:08 am

    By the way, we use 小姐 to refer to prostitute, which is less embarrassing than 鸡, i guess.

  8. Cool stuff. Thanks Huaxin. I’ve got a lot of learning to do. My language book uses xiao jie as a waitress. So what do you call them fuwuyuan?
    By the way, what is the pinyin for those characters. Those are new to me. I’ve only been studying for a year!

  9. I also posted the same thing in your Chinese blog. I agree with the others that there seems to be no counterpart of the word “little person” in Chinese. ÙªÈ塱is definitely neutral£¨scientific£©or negative£¬and¡°°«×Ó¡±has only negative connotation. The only thing that I can think of that comes as close as it can get to “little person” is ¡°Ð¡°«ÈË¡±£¬as in¡°°×Ñ©¹«Ö÷ºÍ7¸öС°«ÈË£¨snow white and 7 dwarfs)¡±¡£But I’ve never heard anyone using it in daily conversations.

    The reason£¿I feel that Chinese culture has a long history and tendency of looking down upon people who are simply different. Another example, the English word “disabled” can be translated as either¡°²Ð¼²ÈË£¨the mutilated & the sick)¡±or¡°²»½¡È«ÈË(people who are not whole)¡±. It is not hard to see for yourself that neither of these two words is positive.

  10. ogre: ³ÔÈ˾«; ²Ð±©µÄÈË. IN MY E-C.DICTIONARY

  11. I think zhu ru is not negative nor neutral. Chinese characters place a big part in sections-matching. like san dian shui and a shao (little) word: makes: ɳ. zhu ru is matched with human side and zhu side which means precious. the Zhu is actually a surname character in Chinese. There is nothing neutral nor negative about zhu ru. If you understand how to match chinese characters, you will know which word is not discriminative.

    Jokes aside can place lawyers or policemen into critical conditions. subjects in English such as shortie or short simply determines and express the measurement. If someone laughs or hilariously pin-points at a shortie, do you think he is measuring the shortie or deciding which height of a wedding cake is good for his daughter’s wedding?

    In fairy tales, snow white and the seven dwarfs, why should snow and white be a princess name? It is to make her outstanding among smaller sized men.

    С°«ÈË makes someone outstanding. xiao is to besmall people. ai is already short. what for besmall short people? Unless you like it. That is a very exaggerating caption of °×Ñ©¹«Ö÷Óë»á7¸öС°«ÈË. Snow and White is best. This is traditional advertisement.

    This teaches people to distinguish people in a bias way. Have you ever heard of ´ó¾ÞÈË? No, it is just ¾ÞÈË – giant. No Big Giant. Unless you read another fairy tale the BFG by Roald Dahl.

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