'Stealing Faces' - is AI good or evil?

Slow Chinese Weekly 每周漫闻

Hi 大家好!

Welcome to the Slow Chinese newsletter - 每周漫闻.

It’s a weekly dose of news-based content for long-time learners of Chinese, who lack the time, motivation, materials or environment to keep their Chinese language going.

This week:

  1. Words of the week: sellers have always got the upper hand

  2. New word: ‘face stealing’ from China’s Consumer Day

  3. Slang: how to say ‘you’re way out of your league’ - social media views of the UK

  4. Question: is it worse to be a rude guest, or a rude host? (US-China meeting)

  5. Language bites: weather from Mars and forgotten camels

Thanks for reading!

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1. Words of the week

This week’s word of the week is:

  • 买的没有卖的精 (Mǎi de méiyǒu mài de jīng)

    Buyers are never smarter than the sellers.

The seller is always cleverer (精 - Jīng) than the buyer, even when customer thinks they’ve got a good deal.

More on Chinese consumers getting bad deals below.

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2. New Word: ‘stealing faces’ 偷脸 (Tōu liǎn)

- Consumer Day in China

This week China celebrated World Consumer Day with its ‘3.15 Gala’ (3.15晚会) broadcast on CCTV.

Some of the dodgy deals called out included improper use of technologies such as AI in illegally gathering customer data.

A question asked by media was:

人工智能是善还是恶? is AI for good, or for evil?

One new word in particular stood out:

  • 偷脸 (Tōu liǎn) - ‘sealing faces’, or more accurately the improper and illegal gathering and using of customer facial data without their knowledge

    人脸识别技术的滥用 - abuse of facial recognition tech

With this tech, companies can suss out within seconds the gender, age, accessories worn, previous visits, even the mood of customers entering their shops.

This data is then tagged and helps inform sales staff how to best to get them to part with their cash.

It’s often said that data protection is not such a big issue for people in China, with statements such as this from Baidu CEO, Richard Li (李彦宏), in 2018:

中国人对隐私问题的态度更开放,也相对来说没那么敏感 - Chinese people have a more open attitude towards privacy issues; they are relatively less sensitive about [sharing their data].

Well, I suppose he would say that. But it might be changing now that people’s faces are being stolen.

Guilty companies include well-known international brands such as BMW, Max Mara and Kohler. Although, the face-stealing tech they use is Chinese.

Useful words

Privacy and data protection are interesting topics to wade into in Chinese. Here are some useful words to help you look like you know what you’re talking about.

  • 隐私换方便 (Yǐnsī huàn fāngbiàn) - ‘using private data in exchange for convenience’

    简单来说,就是中国人愿意用「隐私换方便」- put simply, Chinese people are more willing to use their personal data for the sake of making life easier

  • 打上标签 (Dǎshàng biāoqiān) - to ‘label’ or to ‘tag’ (this is different to 贴上标签 from a previous issue, which normally refers to abstractly labelling someone)

    在抓取人脸之后,性别、年龄、是否佩戴眼镜、第几次到店,甚至当时的心情状态等个人信息都被打上标签,成为了营销的手段 - after acquiring customer facial data relating to gender, age, if they are wearing glasses, how many times they have visited the store, even their mood, they can be tagged in the system, which then becomes part of the sales tactics of the company

  • 暗中 (Àn zhōng) - ‘in the dark’, secretly; also 不知情 - without knowledge of

    暗中收集上亿消费者人脸数据 - facial data of over one hundred millions customers has been gathered in secret

    消费者的人脸信息在不知情的情况下被获取 - customer facial data is gathered without them knowing

  • 暗戳戳 (Àn chuō chuō) - ‘to do something secretly’ (there are so many great ways to say this in Chinese!)

    房企暗戳戳开启「看脸」模式,借助人脸识别,帮房企判断购房者是「自然到访客户」还是「渠道客户」- Property companies secretly initiate their ‘face reading’ tech [as customers enter]. This helps them to recognise the faces of buyers which can help inform the sellers if they are are direct customers or if they’ve come through one of their sales channels.

  • Other great ways to say secretively, which can all be used in the same way, include:

    偷偷地 (Tōu tōu di) - secretly, sneakily

    偷偷摸摸地 (Tōu tōu mō mō di) - surreptitiously

    悄悄地 (Qiāo qiāo di) - quietly, or secretively (slightly more formal sounding)

    悄无声息 (Qiāo wú shēng xī) - quietly, on tip toes (more in written language)

    悄无声息地采集了用户的信息 - collected user data on the quiet


If you really want to impress with your Chinese and go deeper into this minefield, then you can drop one of these very old and beautiful one-liners:

  • 路漫漫其修远兮 (Lù mànmàn qí xiū yuǎn xī) - ‘there is a long road ahead’ (normally in finding the truth, or getting to grips with something difficult); I’ve heard this one in meetings three times in meetings in the last month so seems very useful!

    路漫漫其修远兮,吾将上下而求索 - the journey ahead will be slow and long; I will do all I can to explore it

    隐私保护还是路漫漫其修远兮 - [China’s laws for the] protection of privacy still have a long way to go

  • 杀人者兵也,非我也 (Shārén zhě bīng yě, fēi wǒ yě) - a famous line from a Mencius story during the Warring States period. It means: ‘It wasn’t me that killed him; it was the knife.’ In other words it’s not my responsibility [even though it really is]. This can be used as a standalone statement to describe someone, or a company, that is not taking repsonsbility for something.

Further reading

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3. Slang: Inflating one’s own social status - 抬咖 (Tái kā)

- Social media opinions of the UK

With the publication of the UK’s Integrated Review on Tuesday, the tag ‘the UK sees China as a systemic competitor’ (#英国视中国为系统性竞争对手#) was a trending topic on Chinese social media earlier in the week.

There are useful slang words in some of the comments.

抬咖 (Tái kā) - ‘lifting status’ - is one.

In English it would be:

‘you’re way out of your league’

‘don’t get above your station’

‘you’re getting a bit big for your boots.’

Originally from China’s entertainment and celeb circles, it comes from another slang word 咖位 (Kā wèi) which means standing or position in a social circle.

The top trending comment on the story was:

“真的不配!别给自己抬咖了” - You really are no match [for China], you shouldn’t over-inflate your status 

Another good word is 不配 (bù pèi) - ‘no match’, unworthy.

Many reactions on social media followed a similar tone of surprise at the UK considering itself a competitor to China.

Other comments about over-confidence included:

”英国这么小的国家…还“系统性” - the UK is such a small country, how can possibly it be a systemic competitor [to China]?

太高估你自己了 - [you’ve] really over-estimated yourself

这么普通却又这么自信 - So average, and yet so confident.

Comment: to fully appreciate the humour in this last comment, ‘average but confident’, you need to listen to the hilarious sketch by Chinese comedian, Yang Li (杨笠).

Youtube link here - it’s well worth a watch.

The most famous line from it is the question asked by Yang:

为什么他看起来那么普通,但是他却那么自信?Why can he be so confident even though he looks so average?

‘Average but confident’ is now a common saying in spoken Chinese, very useful to say you’re not impressed with someone who’s too full of themselves.

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4. Question: is it worse to be a rude guest, or a rude host?

- US-China meeting

The Chinese friends and colleagues I spoke to were generally impressed with Yang’s delivery yesterday - not reading any notes throughout, standing up to America’s perceived condescending (居高临下 - Jū gāo lín xià) approach, and only having had an Instant Noodles (泡面 - Pào miàn) for lunch before the afternoon meeting.

Both of these words - condescending and instant noodles - were popular trending topics through the day yesterday.

Two quick thoughts:

First, it was a tough gig being an interpreter in that meeting!

There are three things that strike abject panic in the mind of an interpreter:

  • The Chinese side open their mouth and produce an unintelligible thick accent that’s impossible to understand

  • And/or they forget to stop for the interpreter because they are so exited, passionate, inconsiderate or furious.

  • And, on top of one or both of these, your Chinese interlocutor also speaks beautiful English - adding even more pressure to get things right

Neither Antony Blinken nor Yang Jiechi stopped during their remarks. Yang’s English is immaculate.

An entertaining moment in the otherwise heated exchange was when Yang, after his 15-minute response to Blinken’s opening statement, asked the interpreter in Chinese:

这需要翻吗?“Do you need to bother interpreting that?”

On realising he’d totally forgotten, he then said in English:

This is a test for the interpreter!

She certainly passed the test.

Second, is it worse being a rude guest, or rude host?

Another trending topic on Chinese social media was something that Wang Yi said:

这不是正常的待客之道 (Zhè bùshì zhèngcháng de dài kè zhī dào) - this is not following the way of a good good host

There’s not much that’s more important than being a good host in China.

But, so is being a polite guest.

Which is worse? Being a rude guest, or a rude host?

I did a quick survey with my Chinese colleagues on our weekly Zoom call on Friday afternoon.

The responsibilities of the host are explained in the following idioms - all of which are must-have’s when you are a guest or host in China:

  • 尽地主之谊 (Jǐn dìzhǔ zhī yì) - do everything you can to be a friendly host

  • 有朋自远方来 不亦乐乎 (Yǒu péng zì yuǎn fāng lái bù yì lè hū) - how wonderful it is to have friends come from afar

  • 主随客便 (Zhǔ suí kè biàn) - a host must do as his guest pleases

Whereas, as a guest you really just have to:

  • 入乡随俗 (Rù xiāng suí sú) - do as the locals do

So, the overwhelming verdict: a rude guest and a rude host are both bad. But being an inhospitable host is even worse.

Further watching

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5. Language bites: weather from Mars and forgotten camels

With Beijing’s biggest sandstorm in a decade earlier in the week (feels like a long time ago now!), my Wechat feed was full of surreal orange city-scapes, with people saying they’d forgotten their camels.

  • 今天“出门感觉自己忘骑骆驼了 (Jīntiān “chūmén gǎnjué zìjǐ wàng qí luòtuóle) “I thought I’d forgotten my camel when I left the house this morning.”

Other good comments included:

登上了火星 - [We’ve] landed on Mars!

到了公司已经成了“兵马俑” - [I’d] turned into a Terracotta Warrior by the time I got into the office! 

自己“穿越回了北宋” - I’ve travelled back in time to the Northern Song Dynasty

觉得是世界末日 - it feels like the end of the world

Keep these ones in your back pocket for the next big sandstorm!

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That’s it for this week.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in your inboxes around the same time next Saturday.

And please do help share Slow Chinese with anyone who you think needs to brush up on their spoken, written, slang, idiomatic, poetic or classical Chinese language skills.

This newsletter aims to be THE resource for them.

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