Sick man of Asia

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The phrase "Sick man of Asia" (Chinese: 亞洲病夫; pinyin: Yàzhōu bìngfū), or "Sick man of East Asia" (Chinese: 東亞病夫; pinyin: Dōngyà bìngfū) when referring specifically to China, is a term denoting a country in Asia undergoing economic or political strife. It originally referred to Qing China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries which, experiencing internal divisions and social upheaval at the time, was taken advantage of by the great powers.

Early usage[edit]

The term "sick man of Europe" was initially coined in 1853 by Tsar Nicholas I to refer to the Ottoman Empire, which was then in a state of decline. After World War I the phrase was applied to various European countries including France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain and Germany.[1][2]

One of the earliest instances of the term "sick man" being applied to China was in the January 5, 1863 edition of the Daily News in an article about the ongoing Taiping Rebellion.[3] That article was reprinted in the January 7, 1863 edition of the Belfast Morning News under the title "The Supposed 'Sick Man' in China."[4]

In 1895, after Japan defeated China in the First Sino-Japanese War, Chinese writer Yan Fu described China as a "sick man" (病夫) in an article titled "On the Origin of Strength" (原強) in his newspaper Zhibao, helping popularize the term among Chinese intellectuals.[5]

In 1896, the British-run North China Daily News published an article stating: "There are four sick people of the world – Turkey, Persia, China, Morocco ... China is the Sick Man of the East." The phrase was not intended to be a derogatory comment on Chinese people's health, but rather a metaphor for the corruption and incompetence of the Qing government.[6] Around then, the phrase was adopted by Chinese thinkers who aimed to reform the Qing government, among them Liang Qichao and Kang Youwei. It was Liang who, in his 1902 New People, first associated "sick man" with the physical health of the Chinese population, which was then afflicted by opium addiction,[6] linking it to China's inability to defend itself militarily.[7] According to Jui-sung Yang, professor at the National Chengchi University, although Chinese intellectuals such as Zeng Pu initially agreed with the description of China as a "sick man", the term gradually became seen as a way in which the Westerners were mocking, humiliating, and insulting China.[7]

Contemporary usage[edit]

One of the most prominent 20th-century uses of the phrase was in the 1972 Hong Kong film Fist of Fury starring Bruce Lee, which was released across Asia.[6] According to Chinese writer Chang Ping, that film, and others, combined with Chinese education about its "century of humiliation", have linked the term "sick man" with Chinese colonial history, making it a symbol of foreign bullying.[8]

Recently, the term has been applied to countries other than China. For example, an April 2009 article entitled "The Sick Man of Asia" refers to Japan, not China.[9]

The Philippines has also been referred to as the sick man of Asia during the time of Ferdinand Marcos as president in the 1970s until his ouster in 1986.[10] The country managed to rise economically afterwards, where in 2013, under the presidency of Benigno Aquino III, the country was dubbed by the World Bank as Asia's Rising Tiger. In 2014, the Japan External Trade Organization survey showed "the Philippines as the second most profitable among ASEAN-5 countries, next to Thailand," formally abolishing the "sick man" status of the Philippines.[11] However, during the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, several commentators have argued that due to the slow growth of the economy and the administration's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Philippines has restored its "sick man" status.[10][12][13]

During the COVID-19 pandemic, India began to be referred to as the "sick man of Asia" as a double entendre after its government's poor management of the pandemic, with significant loss of life, wide disease expression, the eruption of the delta variant, and substantial economic difficulties.[14][15]

2020 Wall Street Journal article[edit]

On February 3, 2020, The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece by Walter Russell Mead regarding the COVID-19 epidemic entitled, China is the Real Sick Man of Asia.[16] On February 19, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang issued a statement revoking the press credentials of three Wall Street Journal reporters and ordering their expulsion.[17][18] The statement said the WSJ article "slandered" China's efforts in fighting COVID-19[19] and "used such [a] racially discriminatory title, triggering indignation and condemnation among the Chinese people and the international community."[18] The Wall Street Journal editorial board then published a piece noting that while the term "sick man" may be seen as "insensitive", the Chinese government's actions were intended to divert public attention from its management of the coronavirus or in retaliation for the U.S. government designating Chinese state-run media operating in the U.S. as foreign missions.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Scott, David (2008). China and the international system, 1840-1949: power, presence, and perceptions in a century of humiliation. State University of New York Press. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-7914-7627-7.
  2. ^ Karaian, Jason; Sonnad, Nikhil (2019). "All the people, places, and things called the "sick man of Europe" over the past 160 years". Quartz. Retrieved 2021-12-21.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  3. ^ "London, Monday, Jan. 5". Daily News. London. 5 January 1863. p. 4. Retrieved 12 June 2020 – via British Newspaper Archive. Great pains have been taken to impress upon the public of this country the idea that China is in "agony," but that cannot be truly said of it as a whole, and there seems some danger that the disorder of this sick man is about to be aggravated rather than alleviated.
  4. ^ "The Supposed "Sick Man" in China". Belfast Morning News. 7 January 1863. p. 7. Retrieved 12 June 2020 – via British Newspaper Archive.
  5. ^ 被误读的“东亚病夫” [The Misunderstood Term 'Sick Man of East Asia]. People's Daily (in Chinese). Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. 7 March 2012. Archived from the original on 29 August 2012. Retrieved 12 June 2020. 1895年,中国刚刚遭遇甲午惨败,全国上下反思中国文化的声音开始萌发。此时,严复在天津的《直报》上发表了题为《原强》的文章,这篇文章中写道:"盖一国之事,同于人身。今夫人身,逸则弱,劳则强者,固常理也。然使病夫焉,日从事于超距赢越之间,以是求强,则有速其死而已矣。今之中国,非犹是病夫耶?"严复以后,一大批觉醒的知识分子纷纷沿用了他的这个提法。
  6. ^ a b c Yau, Elaine (27 February 2020). "China enraged by 'Sick Man of Asia' headline, but its origin may surprise many". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 12 June 2020.
  7. ^ a b Yang, Jui-sung (26 February 2020). 专访:此“病夫”非彼“病夫” [Interview: This "sick man" is not that "sick man"]. Deutsche Welle (Interview) (in Chinese). Interviewed by 邹宗翰. Retrieved 12 June 2020.
  8. ^ Chang, Ping (28 February 2020). 长平观察:“东亚病国”药不能停 [Chang Ping observes: "sick country of Asia" cannot stop taking its medicine]. Deutsche Welle (in Chinese). Retrieved 13 June 2020.
  9. ^ Auslin, Michael (3 April 2009). "The Sick Man of Asia". Foreign Affairs. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved 12 June 2020.
  10. ^ a b Beeson, Mark. "The Philippines: former sick man of Asia suffers relapse". The Conversation. Retrieved 2021-08-05.
  11. ^ Lopez, Ron (Feb 18, 2014). "Aquino: Philippines 'Sick Man of Asia' no more". Manila Bulletin. Retrieved 19 June 2014.
  12. ^ Pesek, William (2021-07-29). "Duterte restores Philippines as 'sick man of Asia'". Asia Times. Retrieved 2021-08-05.
  13. ^ "[ANALYSIS] Duterte's legacy: We're the 'sick man of Asia' again". Rappler. 29 January 2021. Retrieved 2021-08-05.
  14. ^ International media describe India as the ‘Sick man of Asia’ as funeral pyres cast a shadow. National Herald of India. Accessed 27 April 2021
  15. ^ The Sick Man of Asia. Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS). Accessed 9 July 2021.
  16. ^ Mead, Walter Russell (3 February 2020). "China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 13 June 2020.
  17. ^ Hjelmgaard, Kim (19 February 2020). "China expels Wall Street Journal reporters over 'racist' headline on coronavirus". USA Today. Retrieved 3 March 2020.
  18. ^ a b Feng, Emily; Neuman, Scott (19 February 2020). "China Expels 3 'Wall Street Journal' Reporters, Citing 'Racist' Headline". NPR. Retrieved 19 February 2020.
  19. ^ Geng, Shuang (19 February 2020). 2020年2月19日外交部发言人耿爽主持网上例行记者会 [February 19, 2020 Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang Holds Online Routine Press Conference]. Foreign Ministry of the People's Republic of China (in Chinese). Archived from the original on 15 March 2020. Retrieved 13 June 2020. 该文诋毁中国政府和中国人民抗击疫情的努力...
  20. ^ "Banished in Beijing". The Wall Street Journal. 19 February 2020. Retrieved 13 June 2020. The truth is that Beijing's rulers are punishing our reporters so they can change the subject from the Chinese public's anger about the government's management of the coronavirus scourge...Perhaps they are also in part a response to the State Department's decision Tuesday to identify the U.S. operations of state-run Chinese media as foreign missions...