Chinaman (//) is an ethnic slur referring to a Chinese man or person, a Mainland Chinese national or, in some cases, a person native to geographical East Asia or of perceived East Asian race. While the term has no negative connotations in older dictionaries and the usage of such compound terms as Englishman, Frenchman and Irishman are sometimes cited as unobjectionable parallels, the term is noted as offensive by modern dictionaries. Its derogatory connotations evolved from its use in pejorative contexts regarding Chinese people and other Asians as well as its grammatical incorrectness which resembles stereotypical characterizations of Chinese accents in English-speaking associated with discrimination. While usage of the term Chinaman is nowadays strongly discouraged by Asian American organizations, it has also been used as a self-referential archetype by authors and artists of Asian descent. It may have come from literal translation into English of the Chinese term for "Chinese man/person", 中國人 (Zhōngguó rén) = "China man/person".
Use in the United States
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". Chinese American historian Emma Woo Louie commented that such names in census schedules were used when census takers could not obtain any information and that they "should not be considered to be racist in intent". One census taker in El Dorado 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.
In a notable 1853 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." 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".
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 victims of injustice as accused murderers (of Chinese) would be acquitted if the only testimony against them 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".
Use on Japanese people
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. 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."
Use on Korean people
Mary Paik Lee, a Korean immigrant who arrived with her family in San Francisco in 1906, writes in her 1990 autobiography Quiet Odyssey that on her first day of school, girls circled and hit her, chanting:
A variation of this rhyme is repeated by a young boy in John Steinbeck's 1945 novel Cannery Row in mockery of a Chinese man. In this version, "wall" is replaced with "rail", and the phrase "chopped his tail off" is changed to "chopped off his tail":
Ching Chong, Chinaman,
Sitting on a rail.
Along came a white man,
And chopped off his tail.
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. 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, 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.
During the 1890s detective fiction often portrayed Chinese characters as stereotypically conniving, tending to use the term "Chinaman" to refer to them. This occurred to such a great extent that it prompted writers of the 1920s and 1930s (during Britain's Golden Age of Detective Fiction) to eschew stereotypical characterizations, either by removing them from their stories entirely (as suggested by Ronald Knox in his "Ten Commandments" of Detective Fiction) or by recasting them in non-stereotypical roles. This "Rule of Rule Subversion" became an important part of Golden Age detective fiction, challenging readers to think more critically about characters using only information given in the story.
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." (The phrase used in Brel's original French lyric was vieux Chinois, meaning "old Chinese".) 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."
The term Chinaman is described as being offensive in most modern dictionaries and studies of usage. The New Fowler's Modern English Usage considers Chinaman to have a "derogatory edge", The Cambridge Guide to English Usage describes it as having "derogatory overtones", and Philip Herbst's reference work The Color of Words notes that it may be "taken as patronizing". This distinguishes it from similar ethnic names such as Englishman and Irishman, which are not used pejoratively.
In its original sense, Chinaman is almost entirely absent from British English, and has been since before 1965. However, chinaman (not capitalized) is still used in an alternative sense to describe a left-arm unorthodox spin bowler in cricket. Most British dictionaries see the term Chinaman as old-fashioned, and this view is backed up by data from the British National Corpus. 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. In addition, Herbst notes in The Color of Words that despite Chinaman's negative connotations, its use is not usually intended as malicious.
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.[dead link]
On July 7, 1998, Canada's province of Alberta changed the name of 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 railway labourer who scaled the peak's 2,408-metre (7,900 ft)-high summit in 1896 to win a $50 bet to commemorate all his fellow Chinese railway labourers. Ha Ling himself had named it "Chinaman's Peak" on behalf of all his fellow Chinese railway workers.
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.
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".
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.
In 2010, the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre released 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. 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.
Children's book author and illustrator Dr. Seuss used the word "Chinaman" along with a racial caricature of a bright-yellow man with a queue and chopsticks in his 1937 book And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. The rest of the characters in the book have white skin and apparent eyes. It was initially changed to "Chinese man" and his queue and bright skin color was removed, but the controversy ensued. In March of 2021, Dr. Seuss's estate announced that Mulberry Street was one of 6 Dr. Seuss books that would no longer be published due insensitive portrayals. Multiple examples of other anti-Asian sentiment by Dr. Seuss can be found in his banned books and political cartoons.
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