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Chinaman is a term that refers to a Chinese man. It was not defined as offensive by older dictionaries. Today, Asian American organizations and others have objected to the use of the term as offensive, and it has been defined as such by current dictionaries. The term has been used without stated offensive intent, and has also been used as a self-referential archetype by authors and artists of Asian descent.

Historic usage

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 1800s North America recorded Chinese men by names such as "John Chinaman", "Jake Chinaman", or simply as "Chinaman". In a notable 1852 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.

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". In addition to legal documents, the term "Chinaman" was also used in court. Roy Bean, appointed as a judge in the state of Texas in the late 1800s, used the term in one of his rulings. Commenting on the case of an Irishman killing a Chinese worker, after browsing through a law book, he said, "Gentlemen, I find the law very explicit on murdering your fellow man, but there's nothing here about killing a Chinaman. Case dismissed.

The term has also been used to refer to Japanese men, despite the fact that they are not Chinese. 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". The Japanese admiral Tōgō Heihachirō, during his training in England in the 1870s, was called "Johnny Chinaman" by his British comrades.

Literary and musical works have used the term as well. In Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy, an 1870 essay written by Mark Twain about the circumstances of Chinese people in 1800s 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 remained in use in literary works, for example, it appears in the title of Chinese American writer Frank Chin's first play, The Chickencoop Chinaman, written in 1972, and also the translated English title of Bo Yang's political and cultural criticism, The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture. In musical works, the term appears in Mort Shuman's 1967 translation of Jacques Brel's song, Jacky: "Locked up inside my opium den/Surrounded by some Chinamen". In Brel's original, the French term vieux Chinois, meaning "old Chinese", was translated as "Chinamen" in English. It was also used in the hit 1974 song, Kung Fu Fighting, by Carl Douglas; a line of lyrics from the song reads, "they were funky Chinamen from funky Chinatown.


The use of the term Chinaman in public platforms and as names of geographical locations has caused 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.

On July 7, 1998, Canada's province of Alberta renamed 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 railroad labourer who scaled the peak's 2,408 metre-high summit in 1896 to win a $50 bet to commemorate all his fellow Chinese railway labourers.

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 marginalises 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 apologised for having used the term, stating that he was unaware that the term was derogatory. Vincent Pan, director of the organisation 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 Wen-Chong Liang 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.

See also


Dictionary definitions

  • Chinaman. Retrieved on 2007-03-20..
  • Chinaman. The Free Dictionary. Retrieved on 2007-03-20..
  • Chinaman. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved on 2007-03-20..
  • Chinaman. Encarta. Retrieved on 2007-03-20..
  • Chinaman. Compact Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved on 2007-03-20..
  • Chinaman. RhymeZone. Retrieved on 2007-03-20..
  • Chinaman. Retrieved on 2007-03-20..
  • Chinaman. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. (2000). Retrieved on 2007-03-20..

External links

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