Nucai (Chinese: 奴才; pinyin: Núcái; Manchu: ᠠᡥᠠ Aha) is a Chinese term that can be translated as, 'lackey', 'yes-man', 'servant', 'slave', or a 'person of unquestioning obedience'. It originated in the tribes of northeastern China as a negative and derogatory term, often reserved for insult for someone perceived to be useless or incompetent. However, it was used most prominently in the Qing dynasty as a deprecatory first-person pronoun by Manchu officials at court when addressing the Emperor. Han Chinese officials were forbidden from using the term for self-address; they used "chen" (Chinese: 臣) instead.
During the Qing dynasty, addressing oneself as nucai became a sort of 'privilege' reserved for ethnic Manchu officials. Officials of Han Chinese origin were forbidden to address themselves as nucai, and must address themselves as chen (臣, literally "your subject"). The rule was applied both in written and spoken situations. Such a rule surrounding the term nucai reflected that the relationship between Manchu officials and the Emperor as that between "master and servant" in a household, while that between Han Chinese officials and the Emperor as simply between ruler and subject. The equivalent Manchu term for nucai is booi aha. The exclusivity of the term nucai meant that Han Chinese officials are given lower status at court, even though chen was historically considered as a more prestigious form of self-address.
In 1773, the Qianlong Emperor received a joint memorial about imperial examinations from Manchu official Tianbao and Han Chinese official Ma Renlong. Both officials jointly signed the memorial as nucai, angering the Qianlong Emperor, who accused Ma Renlong of 'pretending to be a nucai' when he was not, and later decreed that if a Han Chinese and Manchu official were jointly petitioning the Emperor, they must uniformly use chen instead of nucai.
Chinese scholar Li Xinyu wrote that although the words of "master and servant" (i.e. nucai) has been institutionally abolished with the Chinese monarchy in 1911, people's "nucai mentality" (pejorative phrase for an attitude of servitude to the state or other authority figures) still exists in contemporary China.
Social critics point out that there is a degree of support for the so-called "nucai mentality" within elite circles, particularly by those who adhere by "Asian values". At the 2009 Boao Forum for Asia, actor Jackie Chan criticized Taiwanese and Hong Kong society as "chaotic" because they are "too free", saying "I'm gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled. If we're not being controlled, we'll just do what we want." In the ensuing controversy, the Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan attacked Chan for having "too strong of a nucai mentality" (奴才意識) and demanded that the Taipei Municipal Government remove Chan as the spokesman of the Taipei Deaflympics.
- Yi, Shuisheng (2006-10-03). ""奴才"一称的特殊地位 (The special status of "nucai")" (in Chinese). Xinhua. Retrieved 29 November 2009.
- Li, Xinyu (3 October 2008). "李新宇：皇帝崇拜与奴才意识 (The worship of Emperors and the Nucai Mentality)". Aisixiang. Retrieved 10 April 2012.
- "Jackie Chan: Chinese People Need To Be Controlled". The Huffington Post. 2009-04-18. Retrieved 29 November 2009.