Stump the Laowai: shuǎlài 耍赖

Partially inspired by the hoopla about zhēteng 折腾, this is first in a new series (of at least one post) about words that are difficult to translate into English. Today’s contestant:

shuǎlài 耍赖

(Click icons to look it up in different online dictionaries.)

Can anyone give a better definition and preferably an example situation (not just a sentence) where this word would be appropriate? The sentence examples at Nciku aren’t particularly helpful, especially not:

tā gǎn shuǎlài, wǒ gēn tā méi wán! 他敢耍赖,我跟他没完!

He dares to shuǎlài, I’m not going to play with him!

Ok, so we know it’s one of those adjectival verbs, but what does it mean?!

The example my student gave me today was:

S: You lend me a pen. Then you ask for it back and I say I never borrowed it. That’s shuǎlài.

Me: Ok, so it’s like lying?

S: No. It’s bāoyì 褒义.

Me: Oh really?

And then the “bú shì” bashing started as her classmates shouted that she was wrong and it’s definitely biǎnyì 贬义. Immediately, the original student’s genetic bargaining autopilot took over and she declared it zhōngxìng 中性.

I’d love to start using shuǎlài 耍赖, but I don’t dare until someone explains it better. Anyone?

See also:


  1. From Chinesepod:

    (I’m such a trustworthy person, how could I be playing tricks?)

    (As soon as he saw the situation was turning bad, he started to think of a way to get away with it.)

    (We’ve agreed ahead of time that the loser has to pay for the meal–no getting out of it.)

    (Like I need to use tricks? Are you ready? 1, 2, 3. Ha, your arm is so soft and flabby, like a piece of tofu. You have really lost face for the gym!)


  2. In my opinion, when you are lying(说谎), you are trying to convince the other person to bevieve your lie. And you would feel embarrassed when the other person found out the truth. But when you are shualai(耍赖), you are just trying to get out of it whether the other person knows about the truth or not.

    Take the example your student gave you: if you are trying to convince the person that you never borrowed the pen, then you are lying(说谎).
    On the other hand, if he asks the pen back while you are using it(that means both of you know you borrowed the pen), you still try to keep the pen and refuse to give it back. That is shualai(耍赖)

  3. Nicki,
    Sounds like “playing tricks” and “getting away with something” and “getting out of something” are the three translations we get from those examples. That’s way better.

    Thanks for the example. So “lying” means you are trying to get the person to believe something that’s not true. Maybe it they believe you then you’ll get what you want (you keep the pen).

    But “shualai-ing” means you are just trying to get what you want (the pen) and you don’t care what the other person thinks or believes, right? That would fit with “get away with something.”

    Because not caring about face or what people think seems to be important, perhaps we could say: “brazenly get away with something.” What do you think of that?

  4. Just to pss on what Wenlin tells me:
    耍赖[-] shuǎlài v.o. act shamelessly/perversely | Nǐ hái ¹xiǎng ∼? Do you think you can get away with this shameless behavior?

  5. 耍赖:means that someone openly does something dishonest, usually something that he and everybody around him know that he is wrong. He still shua3lai4 because everybody is reluctant to tell the truth openly. Why? just to save his FACE. That is reason why many Chinese officials shua3lai4.

  6. I would put shua3lai4 as “openly breaking the pre-reached agreement, oral or written”.

  7. Notice the AGREEMENT can be gentleman’s agreement, socially reached agreement that everybody is expected to keep etc.

  8. Max,
    Thanks for the Wenlin example. It just confirms “get away with.”

    A great example and great definition! I’m planning to update the MDBG dictionary definition soon.

    Could we say, “Openly acting dishonestly (i.e. breaking an agreement, etc.)” for the definition?

  9. My Chinese-Japanese dictionary gives two definitions:

    1) To act unreasonably. To force one’s unreasonables ideas on a person. To act rashly.
    2) To pretend not to know something you do know. To feign ignorance. To play dumb.

    Merge these two definitions together and you have 耍赖!

  10. Alec,

    Good ones. So, that dictionary translates Chinese to Japanese? Or does it give English definitions for Chinese and Japanese words?

  11. My Chinese friend gave me two examples on how to use it.

    1. A and B have a bet on something like guessing tomorrow’s weather forecast. A said he will give 100RMB to B if it rains tomorrow. Tomorrow it does rain, but A didn’t give money to B. A is 耍赖!

    2. A and B have a bet with playing cards, A changes his cards under table, A is 耍赖!

  12. When I’m having trouble grasping a Chinese term (which happens with regularity) I sometimes find it helpful to look in a Chinese dictionary to see how the natives define it. Here, 现代汉语词典 gives 使用无赖手段, “to use untrustworthy methods”.

    From this, it would seem that all the translations offered above are pretty good. We might also add: acting dishonorably, betraying someone’s trust, being irresponsible, dishonorable, undependable.

    The student who thought 耍赖 was a good thing must have been thinking of the “getting away with something” aspect of the term. Better keep an eye on that one!

  13. Sounds a little (in some situations, perhaps not “cheating” however) like Chutzpah to me (I’m not Jewish, so my understanding of that word is also suspect)

  14. I am a native Chinese. Most of the posts got it right. It means “get away with with an agreement, often oral and reached informally among friends”. It is not 褒义.

  15. just like lie,
    On the one hand,there are true lies which will hurt someone or deceive somebody.
    On the other hand,there are benignant lies in China which are good for someone…am I right?

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