250 Ways To Stupid

Since arriving in China there has been one answer that I’ve quested for more than any other. Weeks into living here, I was given precious information that would leave me ‘in the know’ many times during my stay in China.

It was whispered to me in the busy halls of a Dalian Carrefour supermarket by a giggly and slightly shy Chinese woman. I was told never to use it, but that I should know it incase someone used it against me.

It was, if the picture didn’t give it away, Er Bai Wu (二百五) — or 250. Seems innocent enough, doesn’t it? Just sitting there between 249 and 251… nothing overly special about it. The pronunciation in Chinese doesn’t have any goofy homonyms, the numbers aren’t (in and of themselves) unlucky or what not, so why oh why if you use 250 in anyway with someone Chinese, is it the equivalent of calling them ‘stupid’?

This is wide-spread enough that if your purchase is 250 yuan, it will often be rounded down or up to avoid the possibility of the patron thinking the shop is calling them an idiot.

This odd way to insult someone baffled me, and so I began asking Chinese friends and co-workers (and eventually anyone I happened by) what the hell the reason behind it was. I got a lot of half-assed responses, but they always ended with “nah, I’m not really sure. Maybe nobody knows.”

I was starting to believe this until last night, when with a sly smile Maggie turned to me and said, “Hey, I finally found out where the whole erbaiwu thing comes from.”

She stumbled upon two explanations online, but as the first was some boring story relating to a Hong Kong card game — she nixed that and fed me the cool “long, long ago” version.


… Long, long ago during the Waring States Period (475-221 BCE) there was a well-respected, and rather wealthy ambassador named SuQin (苏秦) who travelled throughout the kingdoms of China delivering messages between emperors and such. Though generally liked, he had some enemies, and upon entering the Kingdom of Qi (modern day Shandong) some thugs killed him.

The Emperor of Qi was really pissed off, as SuQin was a friend of his court. He laboured to find a way he could discover the killer and then had an idea that I’m sure made him feel royally proud of himself. He cut off SuQin’s head and placed it on the capital’s main gate with a sign that said: “One Thousand Gold To The Killer Of This Enemy of Qi!”

A greedy bunch the Qi were, and four guys instead of one showed up to claim the reward. With a dilemma of who to hold responsible, the Emperor asked the men how he should divide the reward. They all agreed it should be split four ways — 250 each. So, the Emperor decreed (c’mon, how often do you get to write that word?) that the punishment be given to all four and informed his guards to:

“Ba zhe sige erbaiwu tui chuqu zhanshou! / 把这四个二百五推出去斩首! / Take these four 250s out and remove their heads!”

Alright, maybe I’m just a big 250 for believing such a goofy tale … but leave me be, no longer do I need to keep searching for that most elusive answer. Also, like the Cultural Revolution, that day in Tiananmen, and Mao’s body; it gives me a bit of knowledge about this country that most Chinese don’t know – and I can hold it over them and gloat. Hey, I never said I wasn’t petty.

13 Responses

  1. I’m wondering how ‘250’ would come up in a typical conversation, and in what kind of context. I’m almost positive I’ve had to pay 250NT before, but that might mean 1) that tale didn’t make it to Taiwan with the KMT, or 2) it did, and some shopkeep prrobably had a huge laugh at the end of the day with his baijiu posse.

  2. I’ll go with the Su Qin story. I checked the Hanyu Dacidian and all the references to 二百五 were of a pretty recent vintage. There was a speech by Chen Duxiu, a reference to the early 20th century playwright Tian Han, and a citation from Ma Feng’s novel, 吕梁英雄专. All with the definition of somebody or something being stupid, useless, or the state of being stupid or useless.

    I know we’ve got some pretty intense linguists (one could even say they are quite cunning) out there in the blogosphere, maybe they have some more insights. Great post, a lot of fun to read.

  3. Kan bu dong. Anyway, just for the crack I asked my C8 students if anyone knew the origin, and one of them (Miffy – yes, really!) told the same story more or less. Cool!!!

  4. Interesting topic! I first encountered this phrase when I was buying DVDs, and I remember adding up the total and getting 250, at which point everyone around me busted out laughing. It took me a long time to figure out what they were laughing about.

    This page gives four etymologies: http://www.ycwb.com/gb/content/2005-08/06/content_956502.htm. Unfortunately, it’s in Chinese, and Google’s translation (http://tinyurl.com/hqexu) doesn’t really help. I waded through the first two stories — the first one is the same as the one you give. The second one says something like this (I got a little bit of help with this, there were a few idioms I couldn’t get on my own, even with a dictionary):

    Once there was an old scholar who was trying to pass a test for a military rank. He studied ceaselessly, forgetting to eat and drink, but he was never able to pass, and he never had any sons. When he got old, he finally gave up, and sired two sons. He looked back on his life, judging whether it was a success or a failure, and couldn’t help but sigh with emotion. Thereupon he gave his two sons these names: one he called “Success” and the other he called “Failure”. He gave classes behind closed doors, and the days went by happily. One day, he told his wife, “I’m going to the market for a walk, you stay here and make sure they write characters. The eldest son should write 300, and the younger son should write 200.” When he got back from the market, he asked his two sons if they studied hard. His wife answered, they wrote, but Success didn’t write enough, and Failure wrote too many. Both are 250!”

    I guess this is sort of a play on words, but to me, it’s a little bit disappointing. I hate spending a lot of time translating something, and not getting a cookie at the end.

    The third and fourth stories are left as an exercise for the reader.

  5. I heard a different, and somewhat more boring, explanation.

    First of all, msot people I speak to say that this is 东北话 (dongbeihua) or a North Eastern word. That would makes sense, since (if I understand it correctly) lots of Dalian’s dongbeihua comes from people who moved here from Shandong.

    Another example: Dai mei dai fan? = Ni chi le ma? = Have you eaten?

    But anyway, on to the other explanation…
    I was told that 500 is a full brain, and if you’re an 二百五 (erbaiwu) that means you only have half a brain.

    Now, if I could only figure out why I was told such a simplified dumbed-down version…

  6. Though nobody has actual evidence, many scholers believe this to be true.

    In ancient times , Chinese coins had a whole in the middle. The coins would be grouped with a string into one diao (1000 coins). Bandiaozi was an insult similar to the english language insults like “one brick shy of a full-load”
    erbaiwu, is half of a bandiaozi, meaning even more ignorant.

    BTW, bandiaozi is not neccessarily a bad word anymore, and sometimes used to show modesty.

    Truth be know, this is not one of LaoLao’s Laoism’s, I got it from wicki :).


  7. I discovered this when a load of women started tittering at the sum of money I presented them with in a bookshop. I was corrected to “liang bai wu”. I asked a friend why later and just got laughed at. And now I know! Thanks!

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