The Mandarin Lingo: “二百五” (èr bǎi wǔ)

The Mandarin Lingo: “二百五” (èr bǎi wǔ)

Learning Mandarin shouldn’t just be about memorizing new words and regurgitating speeches found in textbooks. In every spoken language around the world, there are lingos there are spoken that never make it to the textbooks. This week, we are learning about the fun phrase “二百五” (èr bǎi wǔ).

Literally translated, it just means 250 (yes, two hundred and fifty). But it’s also what you would use to call somebody an idiot or moron. How do the Chinese get from a numeric digit to “idiot”?

There are many legends that attempt to explain the origins of “二百五”. Here are two that we found hilarious:

The story begins with Su Qin, a mighty warrior who is highly favored by his king. At that point in time, Su Qin had helped to defend his land against the enemies and was considered to be the embodiment of all all the great traits a warrior should possess. However, just as he was about to lay the final blow against the enemy, an assassin was sent to annihilate him. Su Qin died at the hands of the assassin that night.

Upon news of Su Qin’s death, the king of the land was seething with anger, looking to exact revenge against whoever had killed Su Qin. He immediately sent out men to find the assassin. After a week of futile search efforts, the king’s men came back to report that it would be too difficult to find this man. The king then cracked an ingenious plan to lure the assassin out. He instructed his men to take the head of Su Qin and mutilate it until it was bloody all over. His men were then to hang the head at the entrance of the town, along with a banner that read “The king has long hated Su Qin but could not find a way to exterminate him. To extend his gratitude towards Su Qin’s killer, the king will reward him with 1000 gold pieces.”

Sure enough, people turned up at the palace to claim the reward – 4 people to be exact. The king seethed in anger as the four men came forward to ask for the reward, but calmly asked them, “If there are four of you, how do you intend to split the reward?” They looked amongst themselves and declared that they will split the 1000 gold pieces four ways, each taking 250 gold pieces.

The king saw that they were giddy with excitement over the gold and his rage could not be contained. He roared, “Throw these 二百五 into jail!”.

Henceforth, 二百五 was used to describe gullible idiots.

Read the story in Mandarin:

此榜一出,果然有人上了钩。竟有四人前来领赏,而且他们都一口咬定:苏秦是自己杀的。于是士兵把他们“请”到齐王跟前。齐王见到他们四个人,恨得咬牙切齿。可他还是煞有介事地问:“这一千两黄金,你们四个人怎么个分法?” 这四个人不知道中了计,还高兴得立即回答说:“这好办,1000÷4=250,每人二百五。”


Here’s another story that explains how 二百五 came to be used to describe morons: Chinese copper coins had square holes in the middle for the coins to be strung. A string of 1000 coins is known as a吊 (diào). The term 半吊子 (bàn diào zi)  – half a set – was then used to describe something that is lacking or inadequate. The scholars of the day took it one step further and halved the half-set, to get 二百五.

We hope you’ve enjoyed these whacky stories that try to explain some seemingly unintuitive lingo found in the Mandarin language.

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