I am trying to translate a Chinese word 奴才 into English. Quite often it is translated to slave. But 奴才 is more about a person's mentality, e.g. obedient servant and being numb, timid, apathetic, and utterly disinterested in public affairs.

Luxun, the most famous Chinese writer in 20th century used the word 奴才 a lot, e.g. in his novel "The True Story of Ah Q",

Lu Xun to write the "True Story of Ah Q" was to help the people in the nation to be able to have feelings of pain when they are getting suppressed by the society feudalism, and also help them turn into "men" from the "slave" during the revolution of China from feudalism to the "New China".

"Diary of a Madman"

The story is not just a depiction of a man suffering from mental illness with the delusion of being eaten but rather a symbol of the cannibalistic nature of Chinese customs and society wrapped up in the veneer of Confucianism. The story progresses with the appearance of imagery such as that of a dog, which symbolizes cannibalism and a certain "slave mentality".

Also I also find lackey from these words

Nuli  奴隶  (slave) and Nuchai 奴才 (lackey) are two keywords that are often seen in Lu Xun's 魯迅 works. Though the meaning of these two terms may appear so similar, and sometimes to a point that readers can get confused, there are subtle yet significant differences between them. By differentiating the differences between these two terms, we hope to be led to a new perspective from which we can re-examine Lu Xun’s thoughts and works closely and re-read his important novella entitled “The True Story of Ah Q”. Besides Nuli and Nuchai, a third term called Nulixing   奴隶性 (slave-like mentality) which appears in  “The True Story of Ah Q” also deserves some attention. This paper will investigate the complicated relationship among these three terms.

The important thing about the translation is to express the slave-like mentality

What is a good translation of 奴才,or I just use the word slave with some attributive adjective like I just mentioned?

The comment I got saying lackey is very derogatory. Then I would say it is better than slave because 奴才 is a very derogatory word in Chinese. When I say what is a good translation of 奴才 I don't need a concrete noun but I need my words to convey the derogatory meaning of 奴才.

--- update ---

After reading all the answers and comments I think I will add this my translation, 奴才 is someone like Winston Smith in 1984 after he was broken by the rats and offered Julia up for torture. From then on I believe Smith lived a life just as a 奴才 does.

To quote from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winston_Smith_(Nineteen_Eighty-Four),

By the end of the novel, O'Brien's torture has reverted Winston to an obedient, unquestioning party member who genuinely loves Big Brother... his total capitulation and submission to the party.


7 Answers 7


You could use servility:

the quality of being servile (= too eager to serve and please someone else ):

The world they want to create is one of constant submission and servility. (Cambridge)

As you can see, the dictionary juxtaposes submission to the noun I suggested. But for your context I would use submissiveness not submission. Submissiveness is defined as

the fact of being too willing to accept somebody else's authority and willing to obey them without questioning anything they want you to do (OxfordL)

  • Please check my update again. I find another translation lackey, although I feel it is not accurate. May 13 at 8:52
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    Give the exact sentence leaving a blank where you would insert that word.
    – fev
    May 13 at 9:11
  • 6
    @Qiulang邱朗 A 'lackey' in English is derogatory, but specifically for an aid or helper to someone in power, like an advisor (in making decisions, usually a 'yes man') or a personal servant or guard (a 'henchman'). A slave is one of millions of common people. Note that 'lackey' is a common word in translations of how Maoist China used to denounce Western powers: "imperialist running-dog lackey".
    – Mitch
    May 13 at 15:18
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    @Mitch - thanks for the nostalgic reminder! How I and my (UK, student, fashionably Maoist) friends fulminated against the imperialist running-dog lackeys back in 1969! And called certain of our number out for being 'leftist adventurers'! And read those tissue-thin bulletins from the Hsinhua news agency! I see it's spelled differently now. May 14 at 11:33
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    @MichaelHarvey these days we have earned another title for that, "wolf warrior diplomacy" lol May 15 at 2:15

The word subservient conjures up the abject state of the downtrodden:

From Merriam-Webster [bolding mine]:

How is the word subservient distinct from other similar adjectives?

Some common synonyms of subservient are obsequious, servile, and slavish. While all these words mean "showing or characterized by extreme compliance or abject obedience," subservient implies the cringing manner of one very conscious of a subordinate position.


So basically the crux of the question is this: The oppressive policies of the state have stripped the men of their worth and reduced them to mere puppets. Since the writer in question is urging them on to reclaim that sense of worth and dignity (...and also help them turn into "men" from the "slave" during the revolution...), I would suggest spineless (adjective) to describe this mentality where one is willing to forgo even their dignity. Here's the definition per Collins:

If you say that someone is spineless, you mean that they are afraid to take action or oppose people when they should. [disapproval]

  • 2
    I like spineless. In my other question is history site, I translate some words as "completely breaking the backbone of its people", which is spineless then May 13 at 9:39
  • Yes. Plus it's highly derogatory.
    – user405662
    May 13 at 9:52
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    Spineless is good.
    – Fattie
    May 13 at 17:08
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    That thought (Winston Smith) came to my mind after reading all the answers and comments. To quote from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winston_Smith_(Nineteen_Eighty-Four) "By the end of the novel, O'Brien's torture has reverted Winston to an obedient, unquestioning party member who genuinely loves Big Brother... his total capitulation and submission to the party" That is exactly what 奴才 would do. May 14 at 9:28
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    @user405662 I learned another word I can use, yoke, it conjures up a vivid image. The writer LuXun indeed wrote those novels to rouse our people to action to break free from the tyrants' yoke (qing dynasty) May 15 at 2:36

As a native English and native Chinese speaker, and as someone who is deeply interested in this precise topic:

I strongly second fev’s answer, and Mitch’s reply to that answer: servile / servility is the word that you are looking for.

I apologize for the duplicate answer, and I encourage everyone to not upvote this answer, but instead upvote fev’s answer, which this post is seconding.

I would normally never duplicate someone’s answer, but I felt impelled to action due to a combination of:

  1. Your unexamined and somewhat rude dismissal (which I feel is not a very academic approach) of what I view as the correct answer.
  2. The higher vote counts on two answers that I strongly felt were strictly less correct.
  3. StackExchange’s nonsensical policy of allowing answers but not comments from people with 0 reputation.
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  • Thanks for the answer but what did you mean when you said "Your unexamined and somewhat rude dismissal (which I feel is not a very academic approach) of what I view as the correct answer." ? May 14 at 1:15
  • 3
    I’m sorry, I was in a bad mood when I wrote that, for reasons unrelated to you, and I criticized you for no good reason. I meant that I felt you dismissed the answer easily rather than digging deeper, perhaps because you liked a different answer better. However, that was an assumption on my part, and regardless, it’s only my opinion that the answer I preferred is better. I have no right to assert that you were wrong, nor to call you rude for no good reason, especially when I was the one being rude.
    – Jimmy Luo
    May 14 at 1:59
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    Thanks, if you like we can further discuss this question at some other places as this is also a topic I am deeply interested in. Before I asked the question I already suspected there was no such word in English and I need another long sentence to describe what 奴才 is in English. May 14 at 2:15
  • 1
    After reading all the answers and comments I think I will add this my translation, 奴才 is someone like Winston Smith in 1984 after he was broken by the rats and offered Julia up for torture. From then on Smith lived a life just as a 奴才 does. May 14 at 8:31
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    This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. - From Review
    – verbose
    May 15 at 16:56

The person/people might be

People who are downtrodden are treated very badly by people with power, and do not have the ability or the energy to do anything about it.

The owner is making huge profits at the expense of downtrodden peasants.

From Collins Dictionary, while Merriam-Webster has

suffering oppression

a war that was supposed to liberate the downtrodden citizens of that nation

  • The word downtrodden immediately remains me the words by Sir John Barrow's in his book "Travel in China", "While they are by nature quiet, passive, and timid, the state of society and the abuse of the laws by which they are governed, have rendered them indifferent, unfeeling, and even cruel.". But unfortunately downtrodden only conveys the first part, not the result of that, have rendered them indifferent, unfeeling, and even cruel. I didn't know downtrodden, thanks. May 13 at 11:44

The important thing about the translation is to express the slave-like mentality.

I can think of no single word in English that expresses this idea. I suspect there is none as, based upon your excellent and detailed description, it would have to be exceptionally specific.

I suggest you lose the "-like" from slave-like mentality, and simply use "slave mentality".

The word "Slave" carries a sufficient derogatory nuance.

The OED has


  1. Mental character or disposition; the characteristic attitude of mind or way of thinking of a person, social group, etc. Frequently with modifying word.

1958 Something of the kind happens as soon as we are confronted with the Eastern mentality. R. F. C. Hull, translation of C. G. Jung, Collected Works vol. XI. vii. 480

1974 These Port managers, with their special knowledge and important position, tended to acquire the bureaucratic mentality. U. K. Le Guin, Dispossessed vi. 133

That said, there is bovine:

  1. Belonging to, or characteristic of, the ox tribe.
  2. figurative. Inert, sluggish; dull, stupid; cf. bucolic adj.

1855 Where bovine rustics used to doze and dream. O. W. Holmes, Poems 235

1879 Neither in the ranks of bovine Toryism nor of rabid Radicalism. Contemporary Review 291

And Merriam Webster:

Bovine 2: having qualities (such as placidity or dullness) characteristic of oxen or cows

He had a stupid, bovine expression on his face

  • Never heard of bovine and it feels quite alien. What I learned from all the answers and comments (I read each one of them carefully) is "slave in American English doesn't have the connotation of having poor character at all" while you said "The word Slave carries a sufficient derogatory nuance." so I guess this is one of nuances I should pay attention to. Thanks. May 14 at 2:05
  • @Qiulang邱朗 slave in American English doesn't have the connotation of having poor character at all" Your original description has no mention of having a poor character. I assume by "poor character" you mean "dishonest/untrustworthy", which is the meaning in English. However, address someone a slave (in the literal sense), and they will not be happy as it implies blind obedience and servility.
    – Greybeard
    May 14 at 21:47
  • By"poor character", I mean numb, timid, apathetic, and indifferent and some others words I got from answers like subservient, servile and kowtowing. May 15 at 2:07
  • @Qiulang邱朗 "By"poor character", I mean numb, timid, apathetic, and indifferent"... Ah... this is incorrect. "poor character" has a specific meaning in English.
    – Greybeard
    May 16 at 15:12
  • What is the specific meaning then ? 2 days ago

The adjective you're looking for is

debased: When applied to a person, someone who has become lowered in "status, esteem, quality, and character." https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/debase

This is someone who is both oppressed AND the worse for it (in terms of character).

In terms of noun, minion has somewhat of the quality you are looking for, although it implies people with direct loyalty to one master. Beasts of burden literally means donkeys and oxen, but it can sometimes be metaphorically applied to people who are treated like animals. Your first example turn into "men" from the "slave" seems to demand a non-human descriptor for contrast (although "men from minions" has a nice poetry to it). At one time, "slave" would have been an appropriate translation in English, but in modern times we have a greater appreciation that so-called "slaves" were full human beings under adverse circumstances, rather than a different category of being.

Another potential noun might be subhumans. "Subhuman" could also be used as a modifier for one of the other suggestions. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/subhuman . (As noted in the comments, this word, while well-understood and in common use, is problematic, since it has connotations of the analogous German term, which was used by the Nazis as a part of their dehumanization of their victims. But it does, arguably, capture the meaning you're trying to translate.)

  • Is sub-humans a common phrase in English? It feels like semi-barbarian that Lord Macartney used. May 14 at 2:02
  • @Qiulang邱朗 "Subhuman" has connotations of "untermensch", so I'd recommend avoiding it.
    – wizzwizz4
    May 14 at 17:00
  • @wizzwizz4 - It's not a word I would choose to use myself--no people are subhuman--, but this is a question of translation., and I think it expresses the concept the OP wants translated. I've edited my post to note your concern, however. May 14 at 17:10

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