Yes, the Term “Chinaman” is Derogatory

July 9, 2014
The cover for a 1940's novel, which illustrates the racial history of the term "Chinman".
The cover for a 1940’s novel, which illustrates the racial history of the term “Chinman”.

I remember when I first met Professor Frank Wu (@frankhwu). I was president of Cornell’s student-run political Asian American organization, and he was dean of law at UC Hastings (correction) law professor at Howard. He was working a book tour to promote his new book: “Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black & White“, a self-reflective and easily digested exploration of Asian American identity. We had invited him to lecture as a keynote speaker for our on-campus celebration of Asian American Heritage Month.

I remember being excited and in awe of Wu as I organized his visit, hopeful he would bring with him a poignant and insightful discussion of the Asian American experience through rejection of the conventionally binary lens of American race relations.

On the morning of his keynote address, Wu was invited to give our student group an informal preview to his keynote talk in a more intimate setting. Gathered in a small conference room, ten of us conversed with Wu; it was a conversation that quickly became a grilling.I remember surprise, and even a little bit of disappointment: for an author who had penned a book about finding an Asian American experience outside of Black and White, Wu spent much of his time nonetheless comparing Asian Americana to Black and White America. In his presentation, Yellowness was situated somewhere intermediate between Blackness and Whiteness, defined predominantly by its proximity to both. Instead, I yearned for revolutionary thinking about Yellowness through construction of a racial pedagogy that had more than two points, one that didn’t ultimately and unintentionally leave Asian Americans occupying a space as “minority lite”. In short, I was and am far more radical than Professor Wu, and I didn’t hide it.

I remember at the end of that conversation, Wu — offended, exasperated and exhausted — brusquely retorted to us before shutting the session down that if we didn’t like his book, we should just go write our own.

(To his credit, Wu’s book appears to be written primarily for the non-Asian American audience and with the goal of introducing major stereotypes and tropes of the Asian American experience to those who would view “race” and “Blackness” as synonymous. Today, I feel that my 19-year-old self was somewhat unfair to Wu and what he was trying to accomplish. If he recalls our interaction at all, I’m sure he would describe us as a group of disrespectful and pugnaciously idealistic children. I have, in fact, mellowed over the last decade and if Professor Wu reads this article, I apologize for our contentious treatment of him in that setting.)

This first interaction with Professor Wu is representative of my thinking on him and his work: I thoroughly respect him for his accomplishments as one of our earlier and most prominent academics. Wu was one of the the first Asian American academics to popularize general conversation on the Asian American identity, and in so doing he mainstreamed the Asian American experience for American race relations. To some degree, his insisted presence in the proverbial room actually did push the boundaries of race beyond Black and White. But, at the same time, whenever I engage Wu’s writing, I am reminded of the wide chasm between our racial politics. I find my radical opinions at odds with his more conventional outlooks. I am frustrated by his insistence on focusing his writing primarily on the Chinese American experience, to the detriment of other ethnic identities that find themselves within the Asian American diaspora. This blog is arguably the book Wu told me I should write if I didn’t like his.

These days, Wu balances his work as Dean and Chancellor at UC Hastings College of Law with a regular writing gig at Huffington Post. Over the last several months, Wu has penned a number of op-eds, many of which explore the Asian American identity.

Last week, Wu wrote an article asking: Is The Term ‘Chinaman’ Derogatory? Wu asserts a (qualified) no. He argues that the permissiveness of slurs is contextual and should depend primarily on whether members of the target group take offense. Paralleled with Wu’s own excuse of the term “Chinaman” in a recent production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, the article leaves the reader with the impression that “Chinaman” is, itself, a largely inoffensive term problematic only because some Asian Americans would kick up a fuss where Wu wouldn’t.

It would be an understatement to say I disagree, patently and wholeheartedly.

The cast of the 2014 production of Private Lives at the Shakespeare's Theatre.
The cast of the 2014 production of Private Lives at the Shakespeare’s Theatre.

Much of Wu’s op-ed is a broad description of the plot of Private Lives, but in the section where he tackles the use of the slur “Chinaman” in the dialogue of the play, Wu documents his issues with the term thusly: 1) it is grammatically inaccurate, and 2) it is often paired with condescension. He then writes:

In contemporary popular culture, there has been a lively debate on whether the term is offensive. I’ve always regarded offensiveness as the wrong test. A prude would be offended by the sexuality of Coward’s work, to say nothing of his life. It’s how people respond when the problem is presented that interests me. 

This seems to assert that terms like “Chinaman” do not carry innate racial pain; that instead its status as a slur is a matter of debate. Yet, slurs are not slurs because of the political sensitivities of target groups. This would suggest that the controversies over these words would just go away if only (some, less well-behaved) minorities grew a thicker skin. This permits the debate over the usage of such words to rest at the feet of the “over-sensitive” few.

I argue otherwise: slurs are slurs because they invoke a more racist time, when men and women of colour were conventionally viewed as odd, Other, or lesser than. The casual use of a slur is a rosy-eyed reminiscence for a time before minorities had the power to object to these words. Their contemporary use is an implied challenge issued to people of colour from a position of privilege: that we should know better than to resist, that we should “know our place”, and that there is something wrong with us if we won’t tolerate the unthinking racism of others.

The Chinese coolie in the American minstrel tradition.
Turn of the century usage of “Chinaman” or “John Chinaman” as a racist reference to the generic Chinese American, often coupled with dehumanizing stereotypes. In this comic, a simian and queued “Chinaman” is labeled as a “destroyer of women and children”, deserving of the whip.

The history of the term “Chinaman” is telling: it is a word that invokes the 18th and 19th century American idiom “a Chinaman’s chance in hell”, which refers to how Chinese American coolies were given the most dangerous jobs in the building of the Central Pacific Railroad — tasked with running live dynamite into half-dug tunnels so that mountains might be blasted. Thousands of Chinese American labourers perished in the construction of the railroad; today, their sacrifice is only just earning popular recognition. Subsequently, it was used alone or as part of “Johnny Chinaman” as a generic reference to Chinese coolies; here, it emphasized the dehumanization and lack of individuality of Chinese Americans — we were not even worthy of having distinct names. The phrase “Chinaman” is not ambiguously offensive. It is a relic of a time when Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans lacked most basic legal rights; when the vast majority worked as indentured servants; when rape, beatings and lynching were commonplace; when the life of an Asian American was jokingly worth so little, a common idiom arose around it.

In short, there can be no question: yes — the term “Chinaman” is absolutely derogatory, and this doesn’t rely upon how an Asian American audience member at the Shakespeare’s Theatre might perceive it as such. It is so obviously a slur that (as some Asian American commentators noted off-the-record) over two decades ago, both Frank Chin and Maxine Hong Kingston — two writers who are otherwise completely at odds with one another — both found reason to try and reclaim it.

Yet, there remains resistance in the mainstream to label slurs as derogatory. We still question the offensiveness of archaic terms like “Chinaman”, “Oriental”, “Coloured”, “Negro” or “Redskins”, presenting narratives that might cast doubt on their history of racism. I think this is a product of the grossly oversimplified nature of the debate. We popularly believe that slurs should never be used, and that they should be functionally (if not explicitly) banned under all circumstances. To paraphrase Wu, a person who consciously uses a slur after a target minority objects must be an asshole; furthermore, any minority who hears it must — blind to context — work tirelessly to stamp it out lest they be seen as an apologist or sellout. Therefore some slurs that enjoy more popular or regional usage — like “Chinaman” or “Oriental” — must not be all that derogatory. Since Coward wasn’t trying to be an asshole, since he also insulted the French and Catholics, and since Wu felt no need to jump from his chair and stop the production screaming “racism”, “Chinaman” must not be all that bad.

This is completely circular reasoning.

I think we need to move past the notion that the way to fight slurs is to ban their usage in all settings. I think the more reasonable approach to the debate is to encourage education and awareness over the history of racial slurs, and to discourage  their casual and light-hearted usage, but to not ban them outright. We must emphasize that archaic words like “Chinaman” and others carry the weight of racial pain and hatred, regardless of context. When Coward’s Amanda remarks in Private Lives, “I haven’t had any particular cravings for Chinamen or old boots”, we must acknowledge that this theatrical line reinforces the racist marginalization of Chinese and Chinese American men and equates sexual relations with them as a form of deviancy. This weight comes at the moment of the slur’s utterance, regardless of the good-natured intent of the production’s playwright.

But, we must also shift the fight over the use of slurs away from the blanket banning of words; this only encourages an anti-intellectual and unengaged approach towards word choice. I find movements to blindly ban lists of words highly Orwellian; I think slurs should not be banned, but nor should they be used freely and lightly. When used, they should be used consciously, thoughtfully, and with acknowledgement that they will be hurtful and that minorities have a right to be offended. The use of “Redskins” — with accompanying redface — is completely inappropriate for a national sports team. The use of “Jap” in the context of a 1982 hate crime is galling. The use of “Coloured” to defend anti-affirmative action policies that disadvantage African Americans and other underrepresented minorities is appallingThe use of “Oriental” in a satirical comedy bit is painful, but also a deliberate tool to highlight a concomitant example of racism. The use of “Negro” in a feature-length epic set during chattel slavery is deliberate, educational and expected.

Stephen Colbert: "Now folks, you are here on an historic night. The Report has been on the air almost seven years now and it has gone through a lot of changes. I mean, who could forget year one and my animated antigovernment sidekick, The Spends Too Much Chinaman. It was a different time. We can’t judge them."
An early Colbert joke: “Now folks, you are here on an historic night. The Report has been on the air almost seven years now and it has gone through a lot of changes. I mean, who could forget year one and my animated antigovernment sidekick, The Spends Too Much Chinaman. It was a different time. We can’t judge them.”

Slurs always carry the weight of racial hatred. These words are always derogatory, but context still matters. There are situations where a slur may be used with deliberation and purpose to educate or incite, but never without pain. It is not up to individual minorities to judge how the context of a slur renders it offensive or not; it is always offensive. Instead we have room to judge how its usage may be thought-provoking, educational, and artistic (or not) in the face of that offensiveness. It is here that the diversity of the minority experience can and should produce a broad range of opinions.

As I close this post, I contemplate ABC’s upcoming family sitcom, “Fresh Off The Boat” (or FOTB) which invokes a common anti-Asian and anti-immigrant slur. Some have already taken offense to the show title, which is based upon the autobiography of celebrity chef Eddie Huang. Yet “Fresh Off The Boat” hopes to reclaim the slur as part of the show’s goal of reframing the Asian American identity through a direct challenge to cultural assimilationism. It is possible that FOTB may treat this subject matter with care and nuance; or, it may be a racial disaster that gives a free pass to non-Asians to use a term that is derogatory on its face. Either way, there is no sense in seeking to ban the show’s invocation of FOTB before it has had a chance to make a case for itself.

The context of ABC’s newest Asian American family sitcom will not change whether or not the phrase “fresh off the boat” is a slur. “Fresh off the boat”, like “Chinaman”, is always derogatory; that is a given. What may (or may not) matter is what is said next.

 

  • “Instead, I yearned for revolutionary thinking about Yellowness through construction of a racial pedagogy that had more than two points, one that didn’t ultimately and unintentionally leave Asian Americans occupying a space as “minority lite”.”

    I think you guys invited the wrong Frank. Y’all should have invited Frank CHIN. 🙂

  • Ha – but I think there are a few OTHER things I would’ve disagreed with that Frank on. 🙂

  • Olivia Rollins

    “This seems to assert that terms like “Chinaman” do not carry innate racial pain”

    A) I find it difficult to believe that you actually read this “op-ed piece” all the way through and understood the point the author was trying to make. The quotation you posted doesn’t “assert” that at all. What it means is that he (Frank H. Wu) personally doesn’t feel the “offensiveness” of the term (whether it’s offensive or not) is interesting, not that the term isn’t “offensive”.

    He also says

    “I have to say that in my life, I have never heard the term “Chinaman” said in the same manner as the term ‘Englishman,’ as a description without condescension. I suppose, however, that for Coward, it could have been meant without disparagement.”

    In other words, he wasn’t offended when he heard the term used in the play because he didn’t jump to the conclusion that it was intended to be offensive – both when it was written in 1930 and when it was spoken during the production of the play. He watched the play with an open mind and an understanding of the era in which it was set.

    He acknowledges that the term has always been used condescendingly when he’s heard it used in a contemporary setting, but that that doesn’t mean that every use of it throughout history has been intentionally insulting.

    B) The term “Chinaman” _doesn’t_ “carry innate racial pain”. If you mention the term “Chinaman” in a non-pejorative tone to an English-speaking person who’s never heard it before, they won’t know that it’s “derogatory” because it contains no derogatory components. (“China” is not an insult; “man” is not an insult; therefore, “Chinaman” is not “innately” insulting.) It’s the context, method of delivery, and connotation that make a term like that derogatory.

    “Faggot” is not “innately” offensive. “Nigger” is not “innately” offensive. “Dirty nigger” is “innately” offensive because the word “dirty” is unlikely to be understood as anything other than derogatory, no matter the tone in which it’s said.

    Personally, I find it far more offensive (and, quite frankly, obnoxious) when minority groups attempt to “reclaim” pejorative terms like “Yellow” or “Queer” to describe the groups to which they belong. The same people who talk about the “otherness” they feel has been imposed upon them often turn around and use terms like those to assert and “celebrate” that very “otherness”. The fact that a non-Asian would most likely be very uncomfortable using the term “yellowness” (or even just hearing it used) is not a coincidence. Those kinds of terms are “reclaimed” with an intentional “I can say this because I’m part of the group, but you can’t because you’re not” mentality that I find much more offensive than the mere existence of words like “chinaman”.

  • moose

    In their Language, they don’t have equivalence to “Chinese” as an adjective; they use “China.” So, saying “Chinaman” is actually keeping it original, respecting their culture, and the way they say it.

  • winn sutanto

    Let us be fair and balanced.
    I am a Chinese-American. I care a great deal of racial justice.
    But at the same time I try to avoid blind political correctness as much as I possibly can.
    There are degrees of racism.
    The words “Chinks”, “Gooks’, or “Japs” are absolutely cruel and completely cruelly racist.
    The word “Orientals” could be racist. but it might be not.
    Even if it is racist, I do not believe the word “Orientals” as cruel as “Chinks” or “Japs” or “Gooks”.
    The word “Chinaman” falls somewhere in between.
    More unkind than the word “Orientals”. But not as cruel as the word “Chinks” or “Gooks” or “Japs”

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  • hernan cortez

    I struggle to see how the term chinaman is racist. I am a white man born in the carribean. There, there exist no other term for chinese (or east asians) except chinaman. A french person is called a frenchman, a germanic person is called a german, a dutch person is called a dutchman, a welsh person is called a welshman. I am trying to see your point of view, but I will re-read the article. And calling an east asian person a chinaman is considered polite because -ese is an insult.

    “By analogy with such language names, –
    ese, occurs incoinages denoting in a disparaging, often facetious way a characteristicjargon, style, or accent: Brooklynese; bureaucratese; journalese;computerese.” Dictionary. -Ese is derogatoring or disparaging in and of itself, it denotes a incomprehensible style of speech or jargon. I’m not sure why anyone Asian would want to be called chinese, when it is IMO clearly an insult to their language, but maybe I just don’t get it and need to read the article.

  • RizingZan

    You’re taking it way too literally. You have to look into a social and historical context. In America, what does “Chinaman” imply? Where did it come from and how was it formed? Look at the John Chinaman picture as an example. Let us just say that there is something underlying with the term, or what we call racial overtones, that is involved here.

  • Myra Esoteric

    dude you come from a different culture with different terminology. it’s like the term negro is considered more offensive in english than spanish afaik.

    btw. i see that you diss black people on predominantly-black sites. as a self-identified white man, should you really be doing this? i hang out on predominantly black sites too but I don’t make policy recommendations like “black people should operate as a group”

    come on. if it’s not your culture, don’t barge in and call people out.

  • hernan cortez

    Stop changing the topic. And what are you doing here, are you white?

  • Myra Esoteric

    No I am Chinese

  • Dude, the fuck? Don’t discuss people’s racial identities. It’s literally the FIRST rule of the community guidelines (scroll down and read them).

    This is your only warning, hernan. If you can’t abide by the rules, you don’t have to be here.

  • Myra Esoteric

    Well to be fair, I called him out first for self identifying as a white man and making a certain comment on a predominantly-black blog so he had the right to call me out.

    What he was doing was tit-for-tat and in response to something I said to him on another website.

  • I saw that too but thought you were asking more ‘are you here in good faith?’, not ‘you don’t get to be here because you self-ID as White.’

  • Myra Esoteric

    Yeah I was calling out that d00d for comments on bossip.com which is a troll site in general.

  • hernan cortez

    Sorry, I never read them before but you are correct. I only said it because he started it. look at the comment he made about my race first so I assumed it didn’t matter, that is why I asked him what his identity was.

  • Dr. Whom

    I think you are misinterpreting Wu’s viewpoint. He says
    “For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t advocate tampering with the script. It presents an opportunity to notice the asymmetry of race and an anachronism that shows progress.”

    That seems to me to fit quite well with your
    “I think the more reasonable approach to the debate is to encourage education and awareness over the history of racial slurs, and to discourage their casual and light-hearted usage, but to not ban them outright. We must emphasize that archaic words like “Chinaman” and others carry the weight of racial pain and hatred, regardless of context.”

  • Jaisa

    I am not Asian but I can see this as offensive as it only serves to promote stereotypes that are demeaning… I long for the day when Americans are excepted for just that and not branded as sub-classes of people. ” It’s Just Plain Insensitive” to any group of people who happen to be at the butt end of the joke. HaHaHa!, not so funny.

  • Skeet Duran

    Brooklynese; bureaucratese; journalese;computerese.” Dictionary. -Ese is derogatoring or disparaging in and of itself, it denotes a incomprehensible style of speech or jargon. I’m not sure why anyone Asian would want to be called chinese, when it is IMO clearly an insult to their language

    Well, racists are ignorant and they don’t know the true meanings of these lexicons, it’s how they denigrated the jargons and revolved these terminologies into slurs. For instance the terms “g00k” or “ch!nk” don’t have the -ese at the end, but racists used them in a derogatory way to disparage them into slurs. Meanwhile terms like “Taiwanese”, “Burmese”, “Japanese”, “Vietnamese” are not offensive because these terms were never used/intended in negative calumniate ways.

    A french person is called a frenchman, a germanic person is called a german, a dutch person is called a dutchman, a welsh person is called a welshman.

    The equivalent to Frenchman, German, Dutchman, Welshman is Chineseman.

    The equivalent to “Chinaman” would be Franceman, Germanyman, Netherlandsman, Walesman, and these were never used.

    Englishman and Irishman are equivalent to Chineseman.

    Englandman and Irelandman are equivalent to “Chinaman”, and these were never used.

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