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I've heard someone saying 小祖宗 to a little kid (literally: little ancestor).

I assumed it was some sort of general exclamation or lament, like 我的天呢!as the mood was of slight annoyance. However after inquiring some more it seems it is more or less equivalent to 难搞 — hard to please, a nuisance.

How come that a "little ancestor" becomes "a nuisance"?

There is this entry in Baidu, which is basically a copy-paste from Zdic.net, and does not explain the origin of the term.

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長輩對後輩可以任意指使,不用聽他們意見,更不用說聽他們教訓了, 用反話稱小孩為小祖宗就是抱怨小孩不聽教訓,難以服侍

小祖宗於是成了難侍候的孩子的代名詞

祖宗是要拜的,對人說:「算我拜拜你這個祖宗」基本上是説: 「算我求你,別這麼難服侍了」

The elders can instruct the younger generation at will, without listening to their opinions, let alone listening to their lessons. To use irony to call a child a little ancestor is to complain that the child does not listen to the adults and is difficult to serve/ please.

The little ancestors became synonymous with children who were willful and hard to serve/ please

Ancestors are meant to be worshipped. Saying to people, "I will worship (beg) you as my ancestor" is basically saying, "I beg you, don't be so difficult."

Believe it or not, 小祖宗 is an affectionate term. You don't call children whom you don't love and take care of 「小祖宗」

A nuisance maybe, but it is a nuisance you willing to live with

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  • Nice explanation about both the reason why using the word "祖宗" in the phrase for kids, and the phrase being an "affectionate term"!
    – ALife
    Commented Feb 20, 2022 at 3:52
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It is an exclamation, as well as a mild complaint (埋怨), usually used by the grandparents or household servants towards a difficult to handle kid (調皮的小孩) or immature young person (不成熟的年輕人).

When a person calling "小祖宗", he/she often feels hopeless in managing the situation (难搞,頭痛) and the need to beg the receiver to comply to his/her request, by either calling out loud or speaking in mind - "我求你了,拜託聽聽話吧!".

Or, faced with a mess, one of the elders/servants might feel anxious (惶恐,不知所措) and exclaims, with the mild complaint, "我的小祖宗,你都做了什麼? 要我如何向你父母交待呢!"

Behind all, there is a lot of love (疼愛) and unconditional acceptance (包容) toward the key-actor - "小祖宗".

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    Commented Feb 21, 2022 at 2:55

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