Take the 2-minute tour ×
Chinese Language Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for students, teachers, and linguists wanting to discuss the finer points of the Chinese language. It's 100% free, no registration required.

This is always a difficult topic because racial and ethnic identities are so complex, sensitive, and dynamic: what are the best (as in the most precise and neutral) terms for "White" people? I've heard terms like 老外, 洋人, and 鬼佬. Do Chinese also say 白人? More precisely, I'd like to know any terms that could be used for anyone that self-identifies as "White" (could have origins in Europe, North Africa, West Asia, or any of their former colonies like here in America). Many East Asians have skin that is as light as any European's; would they ever self-identify with a term that could be translated as "White"?

share|improve this question
We do have terms like "白人/白种人/白色人种", but for “黄种人”, we do not usually just say "黄人" –  shuangwhywhy Nov 8 '13 at 3:35
add comment

4 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

老外 and 洋人 are the general terms for foreign people, not specific to white people. 老外 is more often heard in oral Chinese. In formal situations, 外国人is more likely used. 洋人 is a somehow out of date word, seldom used today. 鬼佬 has an implicit negative meaning, don't use it.

And yes, Chinese refers to white people as 白种人 or 白人. But the words are not often seen in self introduction. The Chinese are more interested in where people are coming from, like whether one is coming from France, India, or South Africa, etc. And I got to say this is not for foreign people only. When two Chinese met for the first time, the usual introduction often includes 我是山东人 or 我来自东北, etc.

share|improve this answer
鬼佬 is often heard in Cantonese -- and it isn't derogatory in Cantonese (at least the speaker isn't aware of it). –  Stan Aug 4 '13 at 5:37
@Stan I didn't know that, but Wikipedia did say 鬼佬 or 洋鬼子 has negative meanings due to historical reasons. –  Yu Hao Aug 4 '13 at 5:43
nice reference. In that wiki page, it says 很多以粵語作為母語的人於公衆地方,仍然用「鬼佬」一詞稱呼白種人或西方人,他們認為這詞不含貶義和爭議。 (Many Cantonese native speakers still call white people or western people 鬼佬 in public, and they don't think this word has any derogatory meaning.) That's what I experience in Hong Kong. –  Stan Aug 4 '13 at 5:55
You seem to have left out 高加索人. –  deutschZuid Aug 4 '13 at 23:23
@deutschZuid Right, but that word is too academical, I bet over half of the Chinese have no idea what 高加索人 means. –  Yu Hao Aug 5 '13 at 2:39
show 4 more comments

My closer Chinese friends do use the terms 白人 and 白种人 neutrally in the same way we use "white people", but by and large I find Chinese people avoid these terms, and are set slightly on edge when I drop them casually into conversation. One friend told me she doesn't use 白人 because "听起来有种族歧视,不是吗?". Instead she and other Chinese usually use "美国人/法国人/英国人 etc." to indicate whiteness, but of course this can lead to some politically incorrect statements:

A: “你的朋友是华裔吗?” ("Is your friend ethnically Chinese?") B: “不,她是美国人.” ("No, she's American.") [actually she's both]

Or this one:

B: “是不是美国人和黑人之间发生过很多冲突?” ("There have been many conflicts between Americans and black people, right?") [as if the two are separate groups]

In both examples, I'm fairly certain that the speaker is using "美国人" to mean "白人". Most Americans would take offense at this definition, because it subtly implies that non-whites are not true Americans, even if the speaker didn't mean it that way. Ironically, it is the avoidance of the term "白人", not its use, that causes the political incorrectness.

So, to answer your question, I think "白人" or "白种人" actually is the most neutral term possible for "white people", despite the fact that it seems to make most Chinese people slightly uncomfortable. Neutrality aside, 老外, 洋人, and 鬼佬 all refer to all Westerners, not just whites. And I don't think any Chinese people would self-identify as "白人" because of their skin color, except jokingly.

share|improve this answer
Love this answer! The explanation is true and insightful. –  NS.X. Aug 4 '13 at 18:38
When referring to white people in general, I feel that Chinese speakers would more often use "西方人". Otherwise as Gus said, the speaker would try to find out which country the person is from and refer to him or her by that. –  Question Marks Aug 5 '13 at 16:02
Despite its political incorrectness, it's still a wide perception that Europeans and Americans are white, and non-whites are not as European/American as the white people. The sensitive political correctness isn't really a problem in China at all, LOL. –  user58955 Sep 27 '13 at 4:14
add comment

I can't speak to mainland usage, but in Taiwan 老外 doesn't actually mean "foreigner", it absolutely and definitely means "white person". You'll never hear anyone with a skin tone darker than light beige get called a 老外.

share|improve this answer
How are black people called in Taiwan? –  user58955 Sep 26 '13 at 23:07
@user58955, I think that would be 黑人. –  Question Overflow Sep 27 '13 at 3:27
Yep, black people are 黑人。 –  Tetsuo Sep 28 '13 at 18:45
add comment

Of the many years I spent in Guangzhou I was always said to be 百人 in terms of the color of my skin.my Chinese friends called themselves 黄人 or yellow skin. No PC involved just strait facts.

share|improve this answer
Did you really intend to use 百 "hundred" instead of 白 "white"? I'm guessing it was a mistake. –  hippietrail Feb 17 at 12:12
add comment

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.