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Here's why a UBS economist's 'Chinese pig' comment may have been offensive to Mandarin speakers

Business Insider | Jun 17, 2019, 08.09PM IST

Year of the Pig

Reuters/Stringer

  • A top UBS economist made a joke about a "Chinese pig," sparking a fierce backlash that resulted in his suspension and the Swiss bank losing out on a $1 billion bond sale.
  • Pigs are celebrated in the Chinese Zodiac and featured in classic Chinese literature.
  • However, several insults revolved around pigs, including "da ben zhu" or "big stupid pig" for someone clumsy and stupid.
  • China's current strained relationship with the West may also have been a factor.
  • View Markets Insider's homepage for more stories.

The fallout from a top UBS economist's joke about a "Chinese pig" could reflect the prevalence of pig-based insults in Mandarin, current and historical tensions between China and the West, or greater sensitivity, experts say.

Paul Donovan, global chief economist for the Swiss bank's wealth management arm, used the phrase while discussing swine fever and inflation last week.

"Chinese consumer prices rose," he said. "This was mainly due to sick pigs. Does this matter? It matters if you are a Chinese pig. It matters if you like eating pork in China. It does not really matter to the rest of the world."

After a fierce backlash from Chinese state media and trade groups and pushback on social media, Donovan was suspended and UBS lost out on a $1 billion bond deal.

The outsized reaction to the phrase surprised some experts.

Read more: UBS was kicked off a $1 billion bond deal because China is angry about a joke a senior economist made about pigs

"What's strange is that the pig has historically been associated with wealth and prosperity in China, and 2019 is the Year of the Pig in the Chinese Zodiac!" said David O'Brien, an assistant professor at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China. "People born in the Year of the Pig are considered to be gentle and patient."

Pigs have also appeared in famous Chinese literature, he added.

"In the Chinese classic Journey to the West, the character Zhu Bajie is part human and part pig and while he is certainly flawed, being lazy and lustful, he is also tolerant and optimistic," O'Brien said. He added that the response to Donovan's comment is "interesting and somewhat troubling in a time of escalating tensions between China and the West.'"

While Donovan's use of the phrase was inappropriate, "These days the Chinese are a little over sensitive," said Lianyi Song, principal teaching fellow at SOAS's Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures in London.

However, he flagged a potential source of offense: the animal's deployment in insults such as "zhu naozi" or "pig's brain" to call someone stupid, and "da ben zhu" or "big stupid pig" for someone clumsy and stupid.

Jakob Klein, a senior lecturer in social anthropology at SOAS, pointed to the same issue.

"Chinese slurs and terms of abuse do often involve comparing people to animals, and I can completely comprehend the offence if people thought they were being referred to as a nation of pigs," said Klein.

Still, calling a person a pig can be a term of endearment, he said, as "Cantonese people may sometimes refer to their small children as their 'piglets.'"

The fallout could reflect geopolitical and historical factors as well.

"Context is everything - it may well be that in the sphere of international trade and relations there are particular sensitivities around pigs, perhaps connected to China's history as a victim of Western and Japanese imperialism," Klein added.

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