Are Chinese People All Thieves?

Word of the Week: tōu

Most expats in China have experienced this: you’re minding your own business when a complete stranger asks (usually in quite broken English) if they can have a photo with you. I usually say wǒ bù shì míng xīng (I’m not a celebrity), but that doesn’t really matter because the smartphone has turned every Chinese person into a member of the paparazzi, and they’re ready to capture on camera the fame that is anyone who doesn’t look Asian.

So even if a Chinese person hasn’t asked you for a picture there is almost certainly a Chinese person who will tōu pāi 偷拍 a picture of you if you stay in China long enough. tōu means “steal” and pāi is the verb for “take a picture”. Together they mean you sneakily take a picture of someone without their permission.


a Baidu image search for “tou pai” shows lots of western people going about their daily business in China

I once met a rather peasant-like man in Guilin who tōu pāi a picture of me and then had the cheek to not only show it to me, but to also show me a picture of another “foreigner” he had tōu pāi about a year earlier. He said zhè zhāng zhào piàn shì wǒ tōu pāi de (this picture is one that I sneakily took) and he seemed to think that I would be as fascinated by the existence of “foreigners” as he was. I wasn’t.

You can also put the verb tōu (steal) in front of lots other verbs to indicate that the second verb has been performed sneakily, without permission and without anyone knowing. For example, kids might tōu chī (steal eat) between meals. That is, sneakily eat things without their parents’ permission. Or maybe you’re a student and sometimes shàng kè de shí hòu tōu chī líng shí (sneakily eat snacks without permission during class)

Another example, tōu kàn (steal look) means to sneak a peek or look at something without permission. A jealous boyfriend might tōu kàn nǔ péng you de duǎn xìn (sneakily read their girlfriends text messages without permission) and your friend might get your phone and tōu kàn nǐ de zhào piàn (look at your photos without permission). Similarly, tōu tīng (steal listen) means to eavesdrop.

By now you should have the idea and can probably guess that tōu liè (steal hunt) means to sneakily hunt without permission. Or in other words to poach. Although there are lots of these kind of collocations using tōu it’s important to remember that tōu can’t be put in front of every verb, so if you go around making your own combinations you might get a few strange looks. Or just not be understood. The good news is that you can double the tōu and add the particle de to make tōu tōu de. Why is this so good? tōu tōu de is an adverb and can be placed in front of any verb to mean “sneakily do”. So if you say tōu tīng it means to eavesdrop, but if you say tōu tōu de tīng it means to sneakily listen, which is basically the same thing.