Chinaman (term)

Chinaman (term)

Chinaman is a contentious English language term that denotes a Chinese man or person, whether by Han Chinese ethnicity, or as a Chinese national, or, in some cases, an indiscriminate term for a person native to geographical East Asia or of perceived East Asian race. Although the term has no negative connotations in older dictionaries,[1][2] and the usage of such parallel compound terms as Englishman, Frenchman and Irishman[3] remain unobjectionable,[4] the term Chinaman is noted as offensive by modern dictionaries. Its derogatory connotations evolved from its use in pejorative contexts regarding the Chinese and other Asians. While usage of the term Chinaman is nowadays strongly discouraged by Asian American organizations,[5][6][7][8] the term has been used by English speakers of Chinese descent and others, without offensive intent,[5][8] and has also been used as a self-referential archetype by authors and artists of Asian descent.[9]


Historic usage

The term Chinaman has been historically used in a variety of ways, including legal documents, literary works, geographic names, and in speech. Census records in 19th century North America recorded Chinese men by names such as "John Chinaman", "Jake Chinaman", or simply as "Chinaman".[10] Chinese American historian Emma Woo Louie commented that such names in census schedules were used when census takers were unable to obtain any information and that they "should not be considered to be racist in intent". One census taker in Eldorado County wrote, "I found about 80 Chinese men in Spanish Canion who refused to give me their names or other information." Louie equated "John Chinaman" to "John Doe" in its usage to refer to a person whose name is not known, and added that other ethnic groups were also identified by generic terms as well, such as Spaniard and Kanaka, which refers to a Hawaiian.[11]

In a notable 1852 letter to Governor of California John Bigler which challenges his proposed immigration policy toward the Chinese, restaurant owner Norman Asing, at the time a leader in San Francisco's Chinese community, referred to himself as a "Chinaman". Addressing the governor, he wrote, "Sir: I am a Chinaman, a republican, and a lover of free institutions."[12] Chinaman was also often used in complimentary contexts, such as "after a very famous Chinaman in old Cassiar Rush days, (who was) known & loved by whites and natives."[13]

As the Chinese in the American West began to encounter discrimination and hostile criticism of their culture and mannerisms, the term would begin to take on negative connotations. The slogan of the Workingman's Party was "The Chinese Must Go!", coined in the 1870s before chinaman became a common derogatory term. The term Chinaman's chance evolved as the Chinese began to take on dangerous jobs building the railroads or ventured to exploit mine claims abandoned by others, and later found themselves of victims of injustice as accused murderers would be acquitted if the only testimony was from other Chinese. Legal documents such as the Geary Act of 1892, which barred the entry of Chinese people to the United States, referred to Chinese people both as "Chinese persons" or "Chinamen".[14]

The term has also been used to refer to Japanese men, despite the fact that they are not Chinese. The Japanese admiral Tōgō Heihachirō, during his training in England in the 1870s, was called "Johnny Chinaman" by his British comrades.[15] Civil rights pioneer Takuji Yamashita took a case to the United States Supreme Court in 1922 on the issue of the possibility of allowing Japanese immigrants to own land in the state of Washington. Washington's attorney general, in his argument, stated that Japanese people could not fit into American society because assimilation was not possible for "the Negro, the Indian and the Chinaman".[16]

Literary and musical works have used the term as well. In "Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy," an 1870 essay written by Mark Twain, a sympathetic and often flattering account about the circumstances of Chinese people in 19th-century United States society, the term is used throughout the body of the essay to refer to Chinese people.[17] Over a hundred years later, the term would again be used during the Civil Rights era in the context of racial injustice in literary works. The term was used in the title of Chinese American writer Frank Chin's first play, The Chickencoop Chinaman, written in 1972,[9] and also in the translated English title of Bo Yang's work of political and cultural criticism The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture.[18] In musical works, the term appears in Mort Shuman's 1967 translation of the Jacques Brel song "Jacky": "Locked up inside my opium den / Surrounded by some Chinamen."[19][20] (The phrase used in Brel's original French lyric was vieux Chinois, meaning "old Chinese.")[21] The term was also used in the hit 1974 song Kung Fu Fighting, by Carl Douglas; the song's first verse begins "They were funky Chinamen from funky Chinatown."[22]

Modern usage

The term Chinaman is described as being offensive in most modern dictionaries and studies of usage.[23] It is not, however, as offensive as chink, which is an unapologetically racist term.[24] The New Fowler's Modern English Usage considers Chinaman to have a "derogatory edge",[25] The Cambridge Guide to English Usage describes it as having "derogatory overtones",[24] and Philip Herbst's reference work The Color of Words notes that it may be "taken as patronizing".[26] This distinguishes it from similar ethnic names such as Englishman and Irishman, which are not used pejoratively.[26]

In its original sense, Chinaman is almost entirely absent from British English, and has been since before 1965.[27] However, chinaman (not capitalized) is still used in an alternative sense as a left-arm unorthodox spin in cricket.[25] Most British dictionaries see the term Chinaman as old-fashioned, and this view is backed up by data from the British National Corpus.[24] According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, in American English Chinaman is most often used in a "knowing" way, either satirically or to evoke the word's historical connotations. It acknowledges, however, that there is still some usage that is completely innocent.[23] In addition, Herbst notes in The Color of Words that despite Chinaman's negative connotations, its use is not usually intended as malicious.[26]


The use of the term Chinaman in public platforms and as names of geographical locations has been the occasion of several public controversies in recent times.

On April 9, 1998, television sitcom show Seinfeld aired an episode in which a character referred to opium as "the Chinaman's nightcap". The episode prompted many Asian American viewers, including author Maxine Hong Kingston, to send letters of protest. In her letter, Kingston wrote that the term is "equivalent to niggers for blacks and kikes for Jews". Media watchdog Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) called on NBC, broadcasting network for the show, to issue a public apology. NBC did not issue an apology, but it removed the offending term from the episode in the episode's rerun in May 1998. NBC's executive vice president for broadcast standards and content policy sent MANAA a letter stating that the network never intended to offend. MANAA was pleased with the studio's response despite the lack of an apology, and Kingston, while disappointed there was no apology, was pleased that the term was removed from the episode.[5]

On July 7, 1998, Canada's province of Alberta renamed a peak in the Rocky Mountains from "Chinaman's Peak" to "Ha Ling Peak" due to pressure from the province's large Chinese community. The new name was chosen in honour of the railroad labourer who scaled the peak's 2,408 metre-high summit in 1896 to win a $50 bet to commemorate all his fellow Chinese railway labourers.[6][28]

In 2001, the Chicago Sun-Times was chastised by William Yashino, Midwest director of the Japanese American Citizens League, for using the term Chinaman in two of its columns. Yashino wrote, in a letter to the editor on May 16, 2001, that the term is derogatory and demeaning to Chinese Americans and Asian Americans, and that it marginalizes these communities and inflames public sentiment.[7]

In March 2007, media mogul Ted Turner used the term in a public speech before the Bay Area Council of San Francisco, California. Community leaders and officials objected to his use of the term, and immediately called for an apology. In a statement released by his spokesman on March 13, 2007, Turner apologized for having used the term, stating that he was unaware that the term was derogatory. Vincent Pan, director of the organization Chinese for Affirmative Action, said it was "a bit suspect" for someone involved in domestic and world politics like Turner to be unaware that the term is derogatory. Yvonne Lee, a former commissioner of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, said the apology was the first step, but wanted Turner to agree to further "dialogue between different communities".[8]

On April 11, 2008, golf announcer Bobby Clampett apologized for referring to golfer Liang Wen-Chong as "the Chinaman" during the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. Clampett, working the Internet broadcast of Amen Corner, made the comment after Liang missed the cut. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Clampett was taken off the broadcast after the comment.[29]

In 2010, the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre was forced to release a statement explaining their decision to produce a play by Lauren Yee titled Ching Chong Chinaman, a term which has at times been used in doggerel verse with racist overtones.[30] Artistic Producing Director Tisa Chang explained that, "Ching Chong Chinaman takes its controversial title from the late 19th century pejorative jingle and uses irony and satire to reverse prejudicial attitudes towards Asians and other outsiders.[31]

See also


  1. ^ "Chinaman". Webster Dictionary, 1913. Retrieved 2007-03-20. 
  2. ^ Fowler's Dictionary of English Usage, 1956
  3. ^ Englishman has two plurals: (the) English, when speaking of the nation, and Englishmen when speaking of individuals. The same remark applies to: Dutchman, Frenchman, Irishman, Scotchman, Welsman, and Cornishman. Chinese is now rarely used as a singular, the compound Chinaman taking its place. A manual of English pronunciation and grammar for the use of Dutch students By J. H. A. Günther, p144
  4. ^ Oxford American Dictionary
  5. ^ a b c "'Seinfeld' Edits Out Anti-Asian Joke". AsianWeek. 1998-07-09. Retrieved 2007-03-21. 
  6. ^ a b "World News Briefs; Alberta's New Name For Peak in Rockies". The New York Times. 1998-07-09. Retrieved 2007-03-20. 
  7. ^ a b Williams, Stephanie (June 2001). "Chicago Sun Times — discrimination in reporting". The Chicago Reporter. Retrieved 2007-03-20. 
  8. ^ a b c Hua, Vanessa (2007-03-14). "Ted Turner apologizes for remarks on Chinese". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2007-03-20. 
  9. ^ a b "Frank Chin". Houghton Mifflin College Division. Retrieved 2007-04-03. 
  10. ^ "1891 Census of Canada". Vancouver Public Library. Retrieved 2007-04-03. 
  11. ^ Emma Woo Louie (1998). Chinese American names: Tradition and Transition. McFarland. p. 98. ISBN 0786404183. 
  12. ^ ""We Are Not the Degraded Race You Would Make Us": Norman Asing Challenges Chinese Immigration Restrictions". George Mason University. Retrieved 2007-07-22. 
  13. ^ British Columbia Geographical Names Information System, "Ah Clem Creek"[dead link]
  14. ^ "Geary Act of 1892". Retrieved 2007-04-03. 
  15. ^ "Sea Dog". TIME. 1936-02-24.,9171,755891-2,00.html. Retrieved 2007-07-22. 
  16. ^ "Victim of racism will gain posthumous bar membership". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. 2001-02-05. Retrieved 2007-04-03. 
  17. ^ "Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy". Retrieved 2007-04-03. 
  18. ^ "The Ugly Chinaman". University of Toronto. Archived from the original on 2007-02-03. Retrieved 2007-04-04. 
  19. ^ "Excerpts". Retrieved 2008-02-11. 
  20. ^ "LYRICS FOR "Jacky (Single Mix)"". MTV. Retrieved 2008-02-11. [dead link]
  21. ^ "La chanson de Jacky" (in French). Retrieved 2008-02-11. 
  22. ^ "Kung Fu Fighting". The Mad Music Archive. Retrieved 2007-07-22. 
  23. ^ a b "Chinaman". Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster. 1994. ISBN 0877791325. 
  24. ^ a b c Peters, Pam (2004). "Chinaman or Chinese". The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 052162181X. 
  25. ^ a b Fowler, Henry; Burchfield, R. W. (1996). "Chinaman". The New Fowler's Modern English Usage. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0198691262. 
  26. ^ a b c Herbst, Philip (1997). "Chinaman". The Color of Words: An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States. Yarmouth: Intercultural Press. p. 48. ISBN 1877864420. 
  27. ^ Fowler, Henry; Burchfield, R. W. (1996). "Chinaman". The New Fowler's Modern English Usage. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0198691262.  Fowler and Burchfield derive the date of 1965 from Fowler, Henry; Gowers, Ernest (1965). Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780191964121. 
  28. ^ "Ha Ling Peak (Chinamans Peak) Alberta". Retrieved 2007-04-29. 
  29. ^ "Clampett apologizes for description of China's Liang". 2008-04-14. Retrieved 2008-04-15. 
  30. ^ "ching chong chinaman, chin chin chinaman". Seedy Songs and Rotten Rhymes — the poetry of the playground.. 1997. Retrieved 19 June 2011. 
  31. ^ Chang, Tisa (2010). "Ching Chong Chinaman". Pan Asian Repertory Theatre. Retrieved 19 June 2011. 

Further reading

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