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Laowai (Chinese: 老外; pinyin: lǎowài) is one of several Chinese words for foreigner.

Etymology and usage[edit]

Laowai is a commonly used Mandarin Chinese word. It is a shorter, informal version of wàiguórén 外国人 ("foreigner").

There is some dispute about the correct Chinese characters used to write the word. While "老外" is the more common form, some[who?] argue that the character "佬", with the addition of the rén (person) radical (人字旁) is more correct. However, this form is grammatically awkward ("佬" is a slightly derogatory noun for an adult male), and infrequently used. A Google search will reveal only 2,000 hits for 佬外 and more than 4,000,000 for 老外[citation needed]. However the correct usage of the character "佬" should be "外国佬" (foreign man).

Lǎo 老, when used as an adjective meaning "old", is more frequently used to express long-term friendship, as in lǎopéngyou 老朋友, which means "old friend"; or respect, as in lǎoshī 老师, which originally means "elder teacher". However, there are also words with negative connotations containing the character 老, such as lǎo dōngxi 老东西 ("old disgraceful guy"), lǎo gǔdǒng 老古董 ("old outdated guy"), where 老 here connotes "stick-in-the-mud".

However, when lǎo 老 is used as the adverb "always" or "very", it can carry positive, negative, or neutral connotations.

Lǎohǎorén 老好人 (a person who is too nice),
Lǎoshí 老实 (truly honest)
Lǎodào 老道 (very seasoned)

Or negative words

Lǎohān 老憨 (simpleton)
Lǎowángù "老顽固" (old fogey, fuddy-duddy).

Laowai 老外 is generally a neutral term which can refer to: "an obvious foreigner" or "alien". Since Laowai is regarded as neutral by those who use it, whether it is seen as a derogatory word or not depends largely on how the word is used (such as the context, tone, manner...etc.). To the Chinese, the term may be used in an informal, good-humored, or genial way.[1]

Dashan expressed the view that "... the people who can't speak any Chinese are truly Laowai (...不会说汉语的外国人那才叫老外呢)"[citation needed]-CCTV New Year's Gala (2011), 186 minutes 17 seconds.

Many Chinese also use the word Lǎoměi (老美) to refer to Americans. In addition, many Chinese, especially overseas Chinese also use the word Lǎozhōng (老中) to refer to the Chinese themselves.[2]

Within the same usage, Chinese people make jokes with each other by giving nicknames made by their own characters with the prefix lǎo 老 as "always (or very)", such as a famous comedy role was named as Lǎoniān "老蔫" ("always listless"). Also the fans of actor Tom Hardy in mainland China would call him Lǎoshī "老湿" ("always wet") among the discussion in Chinese BBS; because of Tom's shiny hair which make him vigorously sexy looking[citation needed].

Lao as Empty prefix[edit]

Lao is also used as an empty prefix in words for some animals, such as lǎohǔ 老虎 ("tiger"), lǎoyīng 老鹰 ("Accipitridae"), and lǎoshǔ 老鼠 ("rat, mouse"). (There is disagreement about this "neutral" use of lǎo in front of these animal characters.[citation needed] In the prior cases mentioned, the animals are considered lucky, the rat in particular functioning as a fertility symbol. However, this term in addition to other cases (老狐狸 "lǎohúli" ("old fox") the "lǎo" indicates fear or discomfort.)[citation needed]

The 2004 edition of the Chinese-language dictionary 现代汉语规范词典 (Xiàndài Hànyǔ Guīfàn Cídiǎn) states that laowai carries a bantering connotation (谐谑; xiéxuè). An indication of any negative connotations of laowai is the fact that it can sometimes mean wàiháng (外行; amateur, or lay person).[3] Though this meaning of "amateur" or "lay person" does not really apply in this context, that is, when a Chinese person uses the term Laowai to refer to any foreigner, he/she is not thinking about that foreigner as being an amateur or a lay person. A pejorative term for foreigner, yángguǐzi 洋鬼子, which literally means foreign devil, was in frequent use early in the 20th century, but today is rarely used and is recognized by Chinese as inappropriate and racist.

Some Chinese use Laowai to refer exclusively to Caucasians. This kind of use of 老外 can cause some animosity among some Westerners[who?] who feel that they are referred to as "foreigners" on the basis of their skin color and not on the basis of nationality. Furthermore, some of these Westerners consider this way of naming them unfair for people from other places are referred to by their respective nationalities, such as rìběnrén 日本人 (the Chinese word for Japanese people) for Japanese nationals. While terms refer directly to a person’s skin color like hēirén 黑人(black person) do exist and are used for someone who has dark skin color and appears to be African in origin, many people of African descent do refer to themselves as "black people," whereas Westerners do not call themselves "foreigners." Thus, some Westerners complain that some Chinese are singling them out with a name that can be interpreted as "outsider" (hence 外) without providing a geographical location to indicate their place of origin.


The official Chinese press has expressed concern about the inappropriate use of Laowai and foreign sensitivities surrounding the word. Editorials, written by foreigners and Chinese, have appeared in English and Chinese language newspapers about the subject, but generally indicate that Laowai is not intended to be a pejorative term.[4] However, local governments have launched campaigns aimed at educating the Chinese public about the appropriate usage of laowai.

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ offers an example of an article using the word Lǎozhōng.
  3. ^ Li, Xingjian ed. Xiandai Hanyu Guifan Cidian (Beijing: Waiyu Jiaoxue yu Yanjiu Chubanshe, 2004), 791.
  4. ^ e.g.

External links[edit]