Chinaman: as offensive as "Chink"

Mitchell Nakano

Member
Japanese - Japan
Hi teachers,

I am aware that terms such as "chink" and "chinaman" are controversial terms but I hear them often in movies. My question is if one can use the term "Chinaman" instead of saying "the Chinese guy" without estentially sounding rude. Or is it as offensive as "chink"?
 
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  • RickyFreeman

    Member
    English - US
    A Chinaman to me is the same as a Frenchman or an Englishman. A tad old-fashioned, but certainly not offensive.
    Although the term has no negative connotations in older dictionaries,[1][2] and the usage of such parallel compound terms asEnglishman, Frenchman and Irishman[3] remain unobjectionable,[4] the termChinaman is noted as offensive by modern dictionaries.

    It is from wikipedia, london calling. Please check the following link:
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinaman_(term)
     

    natkretep

    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    No straightforward answer for me. (I'm ethnic Chinese.) If an older English person said Chinaman in a matter-of-fact way, I'd think of it as being a bit quaint. If it's spat out at me, I'd understand it as an attempt to be offensive.

    And over here, there are Chinese people and Chinese people. Chinaman could refer to recent Chinese immigrants as opposed to those who have been around a few generations. Again, this can be matter-of-fact as well as derogatory.
     

    london calling

    Senior Member
    UK English
    An update, from a BE viewpoint. From the Oxford Dictionaries, I quote:

    1. dated or , offensive A native of China.
    FRASI DI ESEMPIO
    • He arrived to co-host an impressive reception for Chinese Conservatives: Chinamen living in Britain who supported the Tory Party.
    • He plays Lau Xing, a Chinaman who robs the Bank of England of a jade Buddha and gives the bumbling London peelers the slip by accepting the post of eccentric inventor Fogg's valet.
    • When the diminutive Chinaman takes on an entire judo class, armed with staves, his hard won victory carries no conviction.

    Dated (my view) offensive (not in my view, but I'm not Chinese and I still find it far less offensive than coolie, which is how my grandparents, who lived in China in the 1930s, referred to the locals).
     

    natkretep

    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    Dated (my view) offensive (not in my view, but I'm not Chinese and I still find it far less offensive than coolie, which is how my grandparents, who lived in China in the 1930s, referred to the locals).
    I've never heard coolie being used to refer to the Chinese in general. We use it still in historical contexts, but only to refer to manual labourers.
     

    pob14

    Senior Member
    American English
    Will the white father of two Chinese daughters do?

    While certainly not as offensive as the other word used in the thread title (which I put on a par with the N-word, so I'm not repeating it here), "Chinaman" puts me in mind of the jump rope song that was still used in my youth ("Ching Ching Chinaman, sittin' on a fence, trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents"). I do find it offensive.
     

    pob14

    Senior Member
    American English
    I've never heard coolie being used to refer to the Chinese in general. We use it still in historical contexts, but only to refer to manual labourers.
    Well, I can assure you that my grandparents used it to mean Chinese servants, be they manual labourers or not.;)
    Despite hearing it any number of times as a child, I never knew "coolie" had a more specific meaning than "Chinese person" until long after I became an adult. :)
     

    natkretep

    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    I've just looked up the OED. Interesting usage note there.
    A person (esp. a man) of Chinese birth or origin. Now derogatory and offensive.
    1872 Medhurst Foreigner in Far Cathay xi, John Chinaman is a most temperate creature.
    1876 R. W. Emerson Resources in Lett. & Social Aims 126 The disgust of California has not been able to drive nor kick the Chinaman back to his home.
    1907 E. J. Hardy John Chinaman at Home viii. 95 A Chinaman always appears to be looking round the corner of his eyes at you.
    2004 O. Starn Ishi's Brain ii. 43 His vocabulary grew to about three hundred words (among them colloquialisms,..and also less benign terms like ‘nigger’ and ‘Chinaman’).
    And here's coolie:
    1 a. In India and (later also) China: a hired labourer (esp. one employed by a European); a porter (now esp. in a railway station). Hence also: an Asian labourer working abroad (now chiefly hist.).
    ...
    b. offensive (chiefly derogatory). An Asian person, a person of Asian descent; spec. (a) U.S. a Chinese person; an East Asian; (b) S. Afr. and Caribbean an Indian; a South Asian.
    ...
    2. slang. A person of low (social) status. Also: a soldier. Obs.
    I suppose I was thinking of sense 1a, which we will read about in texts written here (Singapore) about the past - port coolies, coolies at the godowns (= warehouses). I wasn't familiar with 1b, so many thanks to London Calling for drawing my attention to this.
     

    PaulQ

    Banned
    UK
    English - England
    I see "coolie", used as a racial/ethnic epithet as offensive, of a coolie, I would not (crosspost). However, back to "Chinaman": I agree with natkretep at #12 above.

    I disagree with RickyFreeman at #5 as this seem to be a vicarious response.
     

    london calling

    Senior Member
    UK English

    I suppose I was thinking of sense 1a, which we will read about in texts written here (Singapore) about the past - port coolies, coolies at the godowns (= warehouses). I wasn't familiar with 1b, so many thanks to London Calling for drawing my attention to this.
    My grandparents lived in Malaya and Singapore too (my grandfather was a British Army Officer who was captured when Singapore fell and sent to Changi). I'm not saying that 'coolie' isn't offensive these days: I would never use it. However, back in the 30s it was considered normal.
     

    Sparky Malarky

    Moderator
    English - US
    Chinaman is an antiquated term that is no longer considered correct, though it started out as a polite description. Chink was always intended as a slur.
     

    Myridon

    Senior Member
    English - US
    I think calling someone by a dated term can be taken as somewhat offensive even if the term itself isn't intrinsically offensive. It has a sense of "aren't you quaint?" ;)
     

    Copperknickers

    Senior Member
    Scotland - Scots and English
    Why some racial terms are offensive and some aren't is never very logical. To call someone an 'oriental' might seem very dated if not offensive, but to say they had 'oriental appearance' would be unusual but not at all offensive in many contexts. 'Chinaman' shouldn't be offensive in itself, but it does sound like the kind of word only used by your racist granddad when he's had a few too many brandies. < ---->


    < ---- > Topic drift removed. Cagey, moderator.
     
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    sorry66

    Senior Member
    English, England
    I wouldn't say 'Chinaman' but like LondonCalling I don't see that it's particularly offensive.
    < Topic drift. >
     
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    Hermione Golightly

    Senior Member
    British English
    I haven't read the whole thread. I would never ever, not in a million years, dream of referring to somebody of Chinese origin as a 'Chinaman'. Nor, if the person was a woman, would I say a 'Chinawoman'?
    If I were Sherlock Holmes or Sir Arthur, I might.
     

    tonyspeed

    Senior Member
    English & Creole - Jamaica
    If someone uses Chinaman he either 1) doesn't know modern English or 2) intends to be slyly offensive. Chinaman will only conjure up images of days gone by and the treatment they received from Westerners.
     

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    If someone uses Chinaman he either 1) doesn't know modern English or 2) intends to be slyly offensive.
    or 3) is describing a left arm spin bowler delivering an off break. Nothing to do with race or offensiveness, but a perfectly valid use of the word. Context is all.
     
    Oxford as already quoted says 'dated or offensive'; that's true both sides of the Atlantic.

    I disagree with london calling that there is a parallel between Chinaman and Frenchman. "Chinese man" is the obvious
    and non offensive parallel. "Chinaman" now is no better, in my opinion, than Paki if one wants an equally offensive term.


    I haven't read the whole thread. I would never ever, not in a million years, dream of referring to somebody of Chinese origin as a 'Chinaman'. Nor, if the person was a woman, would I say a 'Chinawoman'?
    If I were Sherlock Holmes or Sir Arthur, I might.
     
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    london calling

    Senior Member
    UK English
    Although the term has no negative connotations in older dictionaries,[1][2] and the usage of such parallel compound terms asEnglishman, Frenchman and Irishman[3] remain unobjectionable,[4] the termChinaman is noted as offensive by modern dictionaries.

    It is from wikipedia, london calling. Please check the following link:
    Chinaman (term) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    I checked the link. It also says:

    While usage of the term Chinaman is nowadays strongly discouraged by Asian American organizations, the term has been used by English speakers of Chinese descent and others, without offensive intent, and has also been used as a self-referential archetype by authors and artists of Asian descent.
     

    Copyright

    Senior Member
    American English
    I checked the link. It also says:

    While usage of the term Chinaman is nowadays strongly discouraged by Asian American organizations, the term has been used by English speakers of Chinese descent and others, without offensive intent, and has also been used as a self-referential archetype by authors and artists of Asian descent.
    This is a typical pattern: those inside a particular group can call themselves whatever they like, including terms they would consider offensive if used by someone outside their group.
     

    Skatinginbc

    Senior Member
    Mandarin 國語
    <Added to this thread. Nat, Moderator>

    The term Chinaman is considered an offensive word (e.g., Urban dictionary, Wikipedea, Free Dictionary, Dictionary.com, etc.), especially as a reference to an American of Chinese descent (e.g., I didn't know that Chinaman was born in the U.S.). My question: Is the word Chinaman intrinsically prejudicial? (I mean: Does its morphology automatically imply a derogatory sense when it is used to refer to a person of Chinese descent?)

    Why do I suspect it might be morphologically prejudicial:
    Noun (place name) + suffix -man = demonym (i.e., an inhabitant of a place; a man from a place, e.g., Yorkshireman, Kerryman, Ulsterman; cf. caveman "a man who lives in the cave", bushman "a man who lives in the bush"). The word Chinaman, by morphology, means "an inhabitant of China, or a man from China" and is therefore a misnomer to call a Chinese American who was born and grew up in the U.S. It reflects a preconceived judgment: "You look like someone from China. You don't seem to belong here."

    Compare:
    Adjective (nation/people) + suffix -man = ethnonym (i.e., a native of a place, a person of a certain nationality or ethnic background; e.g., Englishman, Frenchman, Scotsman, Dutchman, Irishman)

    So, am I correct to conclude that Chinaman is morphologically a demonym and, as a consequence, its use as an enthonym (a person of Chinese descent) sounds "weird" and therefore offensive?
     
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    (I mean: Does its morphology automatically imply a derogatory sense when it is used to refer to a person of Chinese descent?)

    You cannot use morphology, phonology, descriptive grammar, etc. to tell of a word or phrase is derogatory. It's a matter of usage, who the utterer is and her intention, common perception and context ( time and place), etc. If lots of Chinese men (and others) are not happy with 'Chinaman', then it's derogatory, even if Yorkshireman is not.

    If you saw the movie Hidden Figures, you see, for example, that the Black people in the 1950s, US, do not seem to mind being called Negroes. Now they mostly do, so the rest of us generally, out of respect, avoid the term.
     
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    Myridon

    Senior Member
    English - US
    Compare:
    Adjective (nation/people) + suffix -man = ethnonym (i.e., a native of a place, a person of a certain nationality or ethnic background; e.g., Englishman, Frenchman, Scotsman, Dutchman, Irishman)
    Note that "China" is not the adjective ("Chinese") so these are not comparable. I can't think of a case where "X-ese" is combined as a single word with "man".
    Onelook allows you to search for patterns.
    Searching for *eseman finds no nationalities (mostly hits for cheeseman). Words that match the pattern "*eseman" - OneLook Dictionary Search
    Searching for *chman and *shman only finds the ones already mentioned plus Welshman and Cornishman. It's not really that common a pattern.
     
    Good points, Myr. But would you agree that the unusualness of the type of construction in 'Chinaman' cannot be the basis for inferring that the word is derogatory? That is my view.

    Note that "China" is not the adjective ("Chinese") so these are not comparable. I can't think of a case where "X-ese" is combined as a single word with "man".
    Onelook allows you to search for patterns.
    Searching for *eseman finds no nationalities (mostly hits for cheeseman). Words that match the pattern "*eseman" - OneLook Dictionary Search
    Searching for *chman and *shman only finds the ones already mentioned plus Welshman and Cornishman. It's not really that common a pattern.
     

    dojibear

    Senior Member
    English - Northeast US
    A large number of words (almost anything defining a group of people) are slurs if you "call someone that" while speaking to them in anger:

    "You lousy, no-good <word>!"
    "You're nothing but a two-bit <word>!"

    Those same words are inoffensive in normal conversation, speaking about people in general who are not present:

    "I don't know many <word> but the ones I've met were nice."

    Yes, there are exceptions. But not many.

    I think "chinaman" is archaic in AE. I think it was in common use before the 1950s. When it was in common use, it was used both ways: as an insult word in anger (directed at someone, combined with a negative or profane word), and as a neutral word in conversation.
     

    GreenWhiteBlue

    Senior Member
    USA - English
    Good points, Myr. But would you agree that the unusualness of the type of construction in 'Chinaman' cannot be the basis for inferring that the word is derogatory?
    I would agree, and I would also point out that the same construction is found in, for example, a number of terms that describe the natives of various parts of Ireland, including Kerryman, Ulsterman, Connaughtman, and Leinsterman.

    I will also mention that I remember that, in his 1951 novel The Foundling, Cardinal Spellman (born 1889, Archbishop of New York from 1939 to 1967) created a scene in which a Sister of Charity at the New York Foundling Hospital is talking about how the institution takes care of parentless children of all races and religions. She points to a crib containing an infant of Chinese parentage (which would have been rare in the New York of 1918, when the scene takes place) and says "We even have a little Chinaboy." I remember being startled by the term when I read it some 40 years ago; I had certainly heard the term "Chinaman" before, but never the juvenile form. It was also clear that it never occurred either to the archepiscopal author or to his fictional character that the term could ever be regarded as anything remotely derogatory.
     
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    Esca

    Senior Member
    ATX
    USA - English
    I think "chinaman" is archaic in AE. I think it was in common use before the 1950s. When it was in common use, it was used both ways: as an insult word in anger (directed at someone, combined with a negative or profane word), and as a neutral word in conversation.
    I agree. I'd put it in the same category as calling an African-American person "negro" or "colored" today. At the time of the words' common use, they were not primarily intended to be insulting. However, continuing to use those archaic words when we know the population in question does not prefer it, and finds them offensive, is -- well -- offensive.
     

    Skatinginbc

    Senior Member
    Mandarin 國語
    Note that "China" is not the adjective ("Chinese") so these are not comparable.
    Compare: to note the similarities or differences of
    Obviously, I was comparing the dissimilarity between Noun + -man and Adjective + -man.
    (1) Noun + -man: For example, Yorkshireman, Kerryman, Ulsterman, Connaughtman, and Leinsterman, etc. Note that Yorkshire, Kerry, Ulster, Connaught, and Leinster are all administrative divisions (e.g., district, county, province, region, etc.) of a greater nation. None of them are names of a nation or ethnic group. This makes "Chinaman" an exception (if you consider China a nation).
    (2) Adjective + -man: For example, Englishman, Frenchman, Scotsman, Dutchman, Irishman, Welshman, and Cornishman. Note that English, French, Scots, Dutch, Irish, Welsh, and Cornish are all adjective forms of a nation or ethnic group. For instance, the Cornish people are an ethnic group associated with Cornwall and a recognized national minority in the United Kingdom. The Welsh are a nation and ethnic group native to or associated with Wales and the Welsh language.
    My point: Chinaman, which is morphologically a demonym, seems odd when used as an ethnonym.
    would you agree that the unusualness of the type of construction in 'Chinaman' cannot be the basis for inferring that the word is derogatory?
    I think it is exactly the oddity of the type of construction in "Chinaman" (when used as an ethnonym) that brings forth derogatory overtones. Its morphology implies that the person's place of origin is China. It of course sounds offensive to Chinese Americans who were born in the US.
     
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    DonnyB

    Sixties Mod
    English UK Southern Standard English
    "Chinaman" is not used much anymore in BE, not these days. I think that outside of a purely historical context it would just sound quaintly old-fashioned.

    Going back to the OP's question, "Chink" would generally come across as as offensive, but "a Chinky" is quite widely and innocuously used over here as a slang synonym for a Chinese takeaway meal.
     

    Skatinginbc

    Senior Member
    Mandarin 國語
    Some forum members have mentioned "historical contexts", but what exactly are the contexts in those antiquated texts where the word "Chinaman" was used? Norman Asing, a leader in San Francisco's Chinese community, wrote in a 1852 letter to Governor of California John Bigler: "Sir: I am a Chinaman, a republican, and a lover of free institutions." Who was that Norman Asing? He came to US in 1820. China was his place of origin. Chinaman, as a demonym (i.e., a man from China, a native of China), makes sense in that context. It is when Chinaman is used as an ethnonym (a person of Chinese descent) that makes it morphologically "weird".

    I suspect Chinaman was originally a literal translation of the Chinese word zhong-guo-ren "a Chinese national" (zhong-guo "China", ren "human"). In Chinese minds, it is different from hua-yi "a person of Chinese descent" (hua "Chinese", yi "descent") or hua-ren "Chinese person" (hua "Chinese", ren "human"). The use of Chinaman as an ethnonym (a person of Chinese descent, a Chinese person) is clearly a misnomer.
     
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    Esca

    Senior Member
    ATX
    USA - English
    The use of Chinaman as an ethnonym (a person of Chinese descent, a Chinese person) is clearly a misnomer.
    Yes -- I would also add that one of the things that makes the use of this word more offensive is how frequently it is used to apply universally, and derogatorily, to ANY person who appears to have East Asian heritage -- regardless of their personal nation of origin AND regardless of where their ancestors are actually from (China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, etc).
     

    GreenWhiteBlue

    Senior Member
    USA - English
    (1) Noun + -man: For example, Yorkshireman, Kerryman, Ulsterman, Connaughtman, and Leinsterman, etc. Note that Yorkshire, Kerry, Ulster, Connaught, and Leinster are all administrative divisions (e.g., district, county, province, region, etc.) of a greater nation. None of them are names of a nation or ethnic group. This makes "Chinaman" an exception (if you consider China a nation).
    One might also note "Indiaman", which is a word built the same way -- but which refers to a ship involved in trade with India and the East Indies, and not a human being.
     

    Skatinginbc

    Senior Member
    Mandarin 國語
    You cannot use morphology, phonology, descriptive grammar, etc. to tell of a word or phrase is derogatory.
    Take Chink "a Chinese person" as an example. The root Chin- (or spelled as qin in Mandarin Pinyin as in "Qin Dynasty") in itself is not offensive. What makes it terribly offensive to my ear is the extra -k, which does not make linguistic sense to Chinese speakers, and which makes it a homophone of chink "a crack, a weak or vulnerable spot"--a word with negative connotations (cf., dink, gink, kink, stink, etc.).
     

    london calling

    Senior Member
    UK English
    Take Chink "a Chinese person" as an example. The root Chin- (or spelled as qin in Mandarin Pinyin as in "Qin Dynasty") in itself is not offensive. What makes it terribly offensive to my ear is the extra -k, which does not make linguistic sense to Chinese speakers, and which makes it a homophone of chink "a crack, a weak or vulnerable spot"--a word with negative connotations (cf., dink, gink, kink, stink, etc.).
    Interesting.:) I'm not Chinese but, as I said in my post 2, 'chink' to me is offensive (and belittling) but obviously not for the reasons you state, as I don't speak Chinese.
     

    Orble

    Senior Member
    Australian English
    I can’t see any Australian English speakers commenting here and so I will add my bit.

    There are a great many Australians of Chinese origin, and many Chinese tourists here too. The use of “Chinaman” would be taken in any context at all as either downright racially offensive or, at best, woefully culturally insensitive. As would “chink” or “a takeaway chinky “. It would be taken this way if a white Australian used it when talking to other white Australians, it would not have to be used to a person of Chinese heritage to attract offence.

    Australians have a dark racist past to distance ourselves from, based in the myth of the superiority of the “British race”. The very strong cultural distaste now felt for words like “Chinaman” is one of the ways we achieve that distance and support our now valued national diversity.

    For example, I recently saw an Australian episode of the Family History documentary series “Who do you think you are?” where the (otherwise white) movie star subject of the program discovered his ancestor was a Chinese man working the 19th century goldfields. He was appalled by the racist opinions expressed by the white colonists. As he read one newspaper clipping aloud he read, “Chinese person” where the old document clearly said “Chinaman”.
     

    natkretep

    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    Thanks, Orble. I just wanted to ask if you think there is any tension between between the ethnic Chinese population who have been around for a few generations and newer Chinese immigrants, and how do they refer to each other? There is some resentment here, and I hear Chinaman and chink use by the established ethnic Chinese people to refer to other Chinese people. As I said in post 9, Chinaman (as used by an ethnic Chinese person) is not necessarily a slur, but it could well be.
     

    Orble

    Senior Member
    Australian English
    I’m not sure, but I haven’t heard that anything like that happens here.

    Yes, I read (and was surprised by) your post 9. It’s one of the reasons I posted. It is quite strange that the Australian distaste for the term is actually greater than in a nation like Singapore and my post is somewhat of an attempt to explain why that might be.
     

    Pertinax

    Senior Member
    BrE->AuE
    I just wanted to ask if you think there is any tension between between the ethnic Chinese population who have been around for a few generations and newer Chinese immigrants, and how do they refer to each other? There is some resentment here, and I hear Chinaman and chink use by the established ethnic Chinese people to refer to other Chinese people.
    My wife has enough Chinese (and other) blood in her to be taken as a non-white Australian; she shops in Chinatown, and has many Chinese friends. Neither of us has heard the term "Chinaman" used here for at least 30 years, and its use would come across as droll rather than derogatory (though of course any expression can be used in a derogatory way).

    There can be tension between the older Chinese immigrants (especially those who arrived shortly after 1989) and the more recent, much more nationalistic arrivals. A senior tutor at the University of Sydney (Wu Wei) felt obliged to reign after he was "outed" for blogging about his Chinese students in scathing terms under a pseudonym. But I cannot imagine the terms "Chinaman" or "Chink" being bandied around here in this kind of internecine conflict.
     
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    natkretep

    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    Thanks, Pertinax. Ah, there is some tension, but the terms are not used.

    Chinaman is partly kept alive here because 'Mad Chinaman' is the stage name of singer composer Dick Lee:
    Dick Lee to bring back The Adventures of the Mad Chinaman

    Here is an example of current (2018) use in an online forum:
    His looks stupid with the socks so high plus tattoo ...
    So what did the chinaman do? ...
    Maybe the chinaman did some lj thing first leh
    [lj = penis, here just a negative label; leh = you see]
    commotion in the bus...local vs chinaman
     
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