In this video One Child Policy: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) there's a description of only children:

little emperors or little meatballs as they're sometimes called in Chinese

These terms are referring to spoiled only kids.

Little emperor is easy: 小皇帝. But I don't think I've ever heard mention of "little meatballs." What's the original term? 小丸子? 小肉丸?

Any ideas? Where'd the term originate from?

  • Maybe it's 小肉球?
    – Becky 李蓓
    Oct 9, 2019 at 6:32
  • 2
    I never heard anyone call a child as "小肉球" in China. Oct 10, 2019 at 6:58

6 Answers 6


From my life experience, there's no such phrase as "Little Meatballs".

What children (or even some adults) use to make fun of overweight kids is "小胖墩". "小胖墩" literally means "Little Fat Chunk", and of course, it is a slang word. And here, it is more likely "小胖墩" is used to represent children been spoiled with foods since s/he is the only child.


Little meat ball (小肉丸 or 小肉球) is not a standard English expression,

  • He is a child therefore he's small (小)

  • He is full of meat (肉)

  • And he is plump/ round like a ball (丸/ 球) -- another words for fat

Oliver was making fun of that little plump child, saying he looked like a little meat ball (小肉丸).

If you indulge your child with excessive food, allow him to not do any work or exercise, he will be spoiled and looked like a little meat ball,

  • Do you have any references that back up your claim that 小肉丸 is a Chinese term that refers to spoiled only children on a par with 小皇帝?
    – Mou某
    Oct 9, 2019 at 7:22
  • I said it is not a standard term
    – Tang Ho
    Oct 9, 2019 at 7:32
  • Correct. You said it’s not a standard English expression, but the news article is insinuating that it is in fact a common enough Chinese term.
    – Mou某
    Oct 9, 2019 at 7:33
  • @user3306356 I have never heard the term 小肉球 being used when referring spoiled child. 小肉球 just means little meat ball, it can refer to 'plump child' or the "meatballs" under cat or dog's paws that people love to squeeze
    – Tang Ho
    Oct 10, 2019 at 20:25

Not a very standard way to refer to a small/newborn baby/child. 小肉丸/球 is a way to materialize the baby as a small meatball, which is cute and delicate.

This is because the kid is the only child, so parents stuff the child with excessive resources.


My Best Guess, "little meatball" should be refer to the Chinese word "小宝贝" which should be translate into "little sweety", but "little sweety" is a common nickname in English. To avoid confusion of audience and highlight the imagination of being spoiled, the speaker used "little meatball" instead.
There's another interesting fact about this, in traditional Chinese families, using such nicknames in public can be considered as a sign of spoiling, since traditional Chinese culture do not encourage people to express their love and affections in public.

  • I think the original quote refers to a literal meatball, i.e.: 丸子,肉丸,圆子,etc.
    – Mou某
    Nov 11, 2019 at 6:53

It is not used in this way at all. Even if it is used at all, I can only imagine it to be used to describe a newborn as cute, in a positive way. And I can't think of any word close to this meaning that could lead to a mistranslation. And from your comment, you said that the video is "insinuating that it is in fact a common enough Chinese term". Well, I wouldn't trust too much of it for language learning, given the fact that western media knows surprisingly little about Chinese culture and society, let alone a talk show like this.

It is possible, as Z.D.Chen suggested, that John Oliver or whoever wrote the speech intentionally translates some word like 小宝贝 or 小心肝 that neither means "fat" nor "spoiled" to "little meatball" to highlight his argument that "one-child policy could lead to child obesity". Hardly would someone check a translation from a youtube video anyway. Well, except you.


Before reading this!!!

—- I do not at all, believe that Oliver was using Little Meatball correctly! ——- sorry if my words confusing. I cleaned them up a bit to avoid misunderstandings.

What I am saying below, is that he INTENTIONALLY used it Incorrectly... It’s a classic litterateur trick used to convey a much deeper message.

I have studied this subject (Ancient Chinese Folk Religion) for 14 years. It is extremely fascinating.

I agree that 小肉球 is never used in the manner Oliver used it. That was obvious. He did it for a reason, and intentionally created the illusion, which many assume is correct. People in China have even assumed this is correct! I sent the video to a close friend of mine in Guangzhou, and she honestly did not know if it was correct. She initially assumed that maybe some in Northern China use it. Many lack the education or exposure to ancient texts to know how frequently 小肉球 is used in Ancient text!

I asked a colleague in Northern China, who confirmed that he has never heard or read of anyone using 小肉球 to describe a spoiled child. Even in Northern China he had never heard of anyone use 小肉球 to describe a spoiled child.

My point expressed in my initial post, is that there is a much, much deeper meaning!

The characters used are most frequently used in Chinese Literature to describe facial features. In more than a decade of research of Chinese literature, I have Never read those characters to describe a spoiled child.

They are however used to describe eyes of an angry or intense man in Ancient Chinese Folk religion, quite frequently actually! The irony is that most Chinese people who’s haven’t studied ancient texts, would not even know this. Please do not misunderstand what I have written.

I provided an excerpt from a very common book frequently used in Chinese universities that teach about ancient Chinese performance. Sociological and Art majors I specific know how frequently 小肉球 is used. These students and professors are who Oliver targeted as the prime audience. He targeted this audience, because they WILL think about this. They will KNOW exactly why so many people in today’s China do not know how common it is used. I will not go into specifics because it is a VERY controversial and complicated subject. What I can tell you with confidence, is that the impact of making this particular audience realize the irony, is going to have a profound impact, far more than any gun or soap box ever will.

I can provide 100+ references of the characters 小肉球 used to describe eyes, I am more than happy if anyone would like some literary references for their particular study. I find this to be a brilliant use of irony and respect Oliver for it.

Now that I have made myself clear, my original post is below... Please do not misunderstand it. I find it laughable that someone gave it a downvote.


This is a great question! From my literary eye, this is a very, very clever use of the expression.

At face value the most obvious accord our mind develops on the matter is exactly what the OP described. I saw the show and can confirm that it was a direct statement with a seemingly clear meaning. They simply claimed that meatball described a small, round boy, seemingly squeezed into his surroundings. That’s where it gets interesting, though. It only seems true, when one isn’t a native Chinese speaker. We simply accept it as fact because it seems likely. Accepting these things as fact is a very common mental shortcut, that authors use to introduce a surprising plot twist.

Contrary to what one might assume from Oliver, there is a much deeper meaning from one audience to the next. The mass majority will incorrectly assume that 小肉球 is used in the matter Oliver described. Those however who have studied ancient chimes religious performance will see IRONY.

The start of the realization is in knowing simply that 小肉球, as a descriptor is not an overwhelmingly common expression, and outside of literature and descriptive language isn’t used very frequently at all. Occasionally used in the North to describe someone temperament, just as it was used in the old days.. ironically, Many simply assume that someone, somewhere uses it in the matter they described.

Little Emperor (小皇帝) is used to describe a small, round boy, seemingly squeezed into his surroundings. The reason being that their grandparents (generally) regard it as a sign of health. During their time as children, being well fed meant that one escaped the carnage of hunger. It’s a term used is a wide variety of contexts to describe the same general scenario. Usually jokingly and/or affectionately, in regard to one child policy. Loving grandparents use it to show their love for their grandchildren who they see as healthy, not spoiled. Some use it to make fun of this ironic situation where the child is actually obese or bratty.

Now, onto why this strikes me as a cunning use of 小肉球. The reason is both literary and historical in nature.

In modern Chinese literature, the term is used occasionally. It’s a powerful descriptor that readily presents a literal image in the readers mind. Tabloids and magazines sometimes use it in the press to express a persons temperament.

The irony comes when we look through the lens of History, and compare it with modern history.

The original use of 小肉球 in Chinese Folk Religion, was based on a combination of more than a couple belief structures. The deities often represented familial ancestors and heavenly figures. Their personalities where described with facial features in particular. Stories and proverbs, where frequently told through performance and display art (masks). They sought to convey ancient wisdom as divinely inspired, which demanded a certain uniformity to detail. In this way, display art connected with other scholarly written/verbal proverbs. The features where described using certain words and characters, uniformly between the various structures.

In both art, and ancient literature, many of the same proverbs were communicated. When it came to art, the devil was in the detail. The finer details of an individual, were taught as a way to judge others. For instance, a persons temperament, was based on his facial features. The ancients used 小肉球 to describe eyeballs of a specific nature. In fact it is still today used to describe eyes belonging to a specific nature relating to many forms of performance/written art. Ancient Chinese artists took their expressions very seriously.

In 云南贵州戏曲By 王丽, we get a brief glimpse of how 小肉球 (meatball) was crafted into a specific face. Here is an excerpt from the chapter about masks use in Religious Performances: “还有的面具刻有猿牙,分上猿牙、下猿牙和上下对生猿牙几 种,这是俊戏特有的产物。面类的刻法也很别致,武将面部肌肉被刻成两个肉疙将,像是满脸横肉的样子。”

Here we see the term is used to describe intense beady eyes; As in “形成两个小肉球.” The chance of this term ever being used to describe a chubby boy is slim to none. (That’s the plot twist).

Whoever authored that Joke at Oliver’s show, had to have known this.

Now why is it relevant?

In 1949, the Communist Party of China, did not allow politicians serving to practice religion. The Cultural Revolution was firmly against anything “old.” From mid 60s to mid 70s, many of the ancient religious traditions were literally destroyed. Surviving elements were forced underground or smuggled out of the country. Most were smuggled into Taiwan.

Some specific Chinese Folk Religion elements managed to conform too and pass on much of its wisdom despite the cultural revolution, by adapting to the times. They did this by dropping the insinuation and teachings that the beliefs were “religious.” Instead they related it too Emperors and famous scholars whom the communist party viewed as important aspects of history they should preserve.

In this light, more than half of China’s population some how managed to continue their belief structure of Ancient Chinese Folk Religion. They stories carry a very heroic appeal that kids are told usually through word of mouth. The new generation however has almost all but forgotten how much Folk Religion influenced these stories.

Nowadays, the party officially recognizes a hand full of religions (5). Emperors were/are not generally described as religious, rather spiritual. Many of whom believed to be immortal. Not today’s China, a small group of those who study ancient performance art, are starting to revive the knowledge of how related ancient folk religion is to the spiritual/astrological beliefs held by today’s generation.

The author of Oliver’s joke, injected a plausible assumption, and used it too describe/compare the Ancient Folk Religion, with today’s more common beliefs about spirituality. He did that by using a word that is used to specifically describe ancient Chinese Religious masks. Many of the masks were lost during the cultural revolution, but many also survived. The knowledge is slowly reviving from the ashes.

This is clearly a use of a common literary trick, false assumption / plot twist, to connect a tragedy (destruction of ancient religion), with the Communist One-Child Policy. Those who study ancient performance will see how the policies completely changed the understanding of Ancient Religion, all of which leads them to through clever irony, to see how in today’s China they are using Little Emperor to describe how the one child policy led to the commonality of spoiled children. The very thing that Communism changed views of (Emperors being spiritual rather Religious) is now ironically used to describe the product of other Communist policies. Oliver brought a light to that irony, and specifically showed it to some who will become influential people in Chinese society. Literary tricks like this have absolutely profound effects of future generations. It shows how no government can completely quash history, and it makes us feel humor.

Ps***Sorry for spelling/grammar errors. Typing with my thumbs. I’ll try to edit later on my laptop,***

Please message me if you have any more thoughts or questions.

Best Regards,

Christopher J. Hoffman

-Please do not copy or repost any of this content without my consent, thanks!-

  • Welcome to Chinese.SE. I get the impression you have knowledge of Chinese literature, but are unfamiliar with Stack Exchange. This answer involves a lot of reading; it would benefit from highlighting what the reader should focus on. Here we avoid unnecessary material like "Thanks" and "Please message me"; we're also interested in Chinese, not John Oliver. We also encourage the use of external references to support claims [we don't know who you are]. Please also be aware of licensing.
    – Becky 李蓓
    Dec 25, 2019 at 2:32

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