Graphic pejoratives in written Chinese

Some historical Chinese characters for non-Chinese peoples were graphically pejorative ethnic slurs, where the racial insult derived not from the Chinese word but from the character used to write it. For instance, Written Chinese first transcribed the name Yao "the Yao people (in southwest China and Vietnam)" with the character for yao "jackal", but 20th-century language reforms replaced this graphic pejorative with yao "precious jade". In alphabetically written languages like English, orthography does not change ethnic slurs, and there is no difference in spelling Spic, spic, spik, or spick—but in logographically written languages like Chinese, it makes a difference whether one writes Yao as 猺 "jackal" or 瑤 "jade".

Linguistic background

Disparaging characters for certain ethnic groups depend upon a subtle semantic aspect of transcription into Chinese characters. The Chinese language writes exonyms, like other foreign loanwords, in characters chosen to approximate the foreign pronunciation – but characters represent meaningful Chinese words. The sinologist Endymion Wilkinson says,

At the same time as finding characters to fit the sounds of a foreign word or name it is also possible to choose ones with a particular meaning, in the case of non-Han peoples and foreigners, usually a pejorative meaning. It was the practice, for example, to choose characters with an animal or reptile signific for southern non-Han peoples, and many northern peoples were given characters for their names with the dog or leather hides signific. In origin this practice may have derived from the animal totems or tribal emblems typical of these peoples. This is not to deny that in later Chinese history such graphlc pejoratives fitted neatly with Han convictions of the superiority of their own culture as compared to the uncultivated, hence animal-like, savages and barbarians. Characters with animal hides, or other such significs were generally not used in formal correspondence. On and off they were banned by non-Han rulers in China culminating with the Qing. Many were systematically altered during the script reforms of the 1950s (Dada 韃靼, Tartar, is one of the few, to have survived). (2000: 712)

Wilkinson (2000: 38) compared these "graphic pejoratives selected for aborigines and barbarians" with the "flattering characters chosen for transcribing the names of the Western powers in the nineteenth century", for instance, Meiguo 美國 "United States".

Almost all logographically pejorative Chinese characters are classified as "phono-semantic compounds", characters that combine a phonetic element approximately or exactly suggesting pronunciation and a radical or determinative approximately indicating meaning.

The most common radical among graphic pejoratives is Radical 94 犬 or 犭, called the "dog" or "beast" radical, which is ordinarily used in characters for animal names (e.g., mao 猫 "cat", gou 狗 "dog", zhu 猪 "pig"). The Dutch historian Frank Dikötter explains the significance.

Physical composition and cultural disposition were confused in Chinese antiquity. The border between man and animal was blurred. 'The Rong are birds and beasts' [Zuozhuan]. This was not simply a derogatory description: it was part of a mentality that integrated the concept of civilization with the idea of humanity, picturing the alien groups living outside the pale of Chinese society as distant savages hovering on the edge of bestiality. The names of the outgroups were written in characters with an animal radical, a habit that persisted until the 1930s: the Di, a northern tribe, were thus assimilated with the dog, whereas the Man and the Min, people from the south, shared the attributes of the reptiles. The Qiang had a sheep radical. (1992: 3–4)

Graphic pejoratives, or orthographic pejoratives, are a unique aspect of Chinese characters. The American linguist James A. Matisoff coined the term "graphic pejoratives" in 1986, describing autonym and exonym usages in East Asian languages.

Human nature being what it is, exonyms are liable to be pejorative rather than complimentary, especially where there is a real or fancied difference in cultural level between the ingroup and outgroup. Sometimes the same pejorative exonym is applied to different peoples, providing clues to the inter-ethnic pecking-order in a certain region. … the former Chinese name for the Jinghpaw, [Yeren] 野人 lit. 'wild men', was used by both the Jinghpaw and the Burmese to refer to the Lisu. … The Chinese writing system provided unique opportunities for graphic pejoratives. The 'beast-radical' 犭 used to appear in the characters for the names of lesser peoples (e.g., 猺 'Yao'), though now the 'person-radical' 亻 has been substituted (傜). (1986: 6)

The late American anthropologist and linguist Paul K. Benedict (1987: 188) described covert ethnic slurs as the "pejorativization of exonymized names." In a discussion of autonyms, Benedict said,

…a leading Chinese linguist has remarked that the name 'Lolo' is offensive only when written with the 'dog' radical. There is undoubtedly here some reflection of the underlying Chinese equation of 'word' with 'written character,' providing a clue to the 'pejorativization' of 'exonymized' names of this kind: by writing my name with a 'dog' alongside it you are calling me a 'dog' (and in Chinese this is a unisex epithet). The modern Chinese practice is to write these tribal names with the 'human being' radical, thereby raising their level of acceptance. (1987: 188)

Radical 9 人 or 亻, the "person" or "human" radical, is considered a semantically unprejudiced graphic element. It was used in a few early exonyms, such as Bo (depicting a person in 棘 "thorns") "Bo people" in southern China (especially Sichuan).

In addition to having linguistically unique graphic pejoratives, Chinese, like all human languages, has typical disparaging terms for foreign peoples or "ethnophaulisms". Wilkinson (2000: 725-726) lists three commonly used words: nu 奴 "slave" (e.g., Xiongnu 匈奴 "fierce slaves; Xiongnu people"), gui 鬼 "deviI; ghost" (guilao or Cantonese Gweilo 鬼佬 "devil men; Western barbarians"), and lu 虜"captive; caitiff" (Suolu 索虜 "unkempt caitiffs; Tuoba people", now officially written 拓拔 "develop pull"). Unlike official Chinese language reforms, Wilkinson (2000: 730) notes, "Unofficially and not infrequently graphic pejoratives were added or substituted" in loanword transcriptions, as when Falanxi 法蘭西 (with lan "orchid; moral excellence") "France" was written Falangxi 法狼西 (with lang "wolf").


Wa was the earliest written name of Japan, and the first graphic pejorative to be replaced by another character. Han Dynasty (206 BCE–24 CE) scribes initially wrote the exonym "Japan" as Chinese Wo or Japanese Wa meaning "submissive; dwarf barbarian". The Japanese adopted this kanji as their autonym, but replaced it with Wa "harmony; peace" circa 756, and convinced the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE) Chinese to adopt the new autonym, Japanese Nihon or Chinese Riben 日本 (lit. "root of the sun").

The American sinologist Herrlee Glessner Creel (1970: 197–8) said some early exonyms "may have been given by the Chinese as terms of contempt—this is hard to determine—but it is unlikely that all of them were." Pejorative Chinese characters, especially semantically negative ones replaced with semantically positive characters, are unmistakably determine ethnic contempt.

Zhou Dynasty cosmography of Huaxia and the Siyi: Dongyi in the east, Nanman in the south, Xirong in the west, and Beidi in the north.

Despite Creel's warning about the complications of determining which early Chinese exonyms were derogatory, the first character dictionary, Xu Shen's (121 CE) Shuowen Jiezi (cited from Wikisource's 說文解字), provides invaluable data about Han Dynasty usage. Take for example, definitions of the "Siyi" "Four Barbarians" surrounding ancient China – the Dongyi 東夷 "Eastern Barbarians", Nanman 南蠻 "Southern Barbarians", Xirong 西戎 "Western Barbarians", and Beidi 北狄 "Northern Barbarians" – where two are defined militarily and two bestially.

While graphic pejoratives originated in Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BCE), they continued to be used into the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912 CE). The anti-Manchu revolutionary Zhang Binglin (1868–1936) blended traditional Chinese imagery with fashionable Western racial theory (tr. Dikötter 1992: 122): "Barbarian tribes, unlike the civilized yellow and white races, were the biological descendants of lower species: the Di had been generated by dogs, and the Jiang could trace their ancestry back to sheep." Historian John K. Fairbank (1992: 158–159) says this type of imagery was not officially endorsed by the central authorities in China at that time: in fact the kǎozhèng movement of the Qing scholars (consisting of "Song Learning" and "Han Learning") as supported by the government was opposed to this to the point that out of some 2,320 resultingly suppressed works many were banned for having a perceived critical, "antibarbarian tone".


Although most characters for modern ethnic groups have been bowdlerized, some historical terms, such as Di 狄 "northern barbarians", remain in written Chinese.

Dog radical

As described above, the "dog", "beast", or "quadruped" radical 犭 is especially common among graphic pejoratives for Chinese exonyms. The Dutch sinologist Robert Van Gulik (1967:29) describes this practice as "the unkind Chinese habit of writing the names of the "barbarians" surrounding their territory with the classifier "quadruped"". The German anthropologist Karl Jettmar (1983: 229) explains that calling outsiders "wild beasts, jackals, and wolves" linguistically justified using brutality against them.

Language reforms initiated in the Republic of China in the late 1930s and continued in the People's Republic of China in the 1950s replaced "dog" radical ethnonyms of minority peoples with more positive characters.

The Yao people's exonym changed twice from (犭"dog radical" and yao 䍃 phonetic) yao "jackal; the Yao", to (亻"human radical") yao "the Yao", and then to (玉 "jade radical") yao "precious jade; green jasper; the Yao." Chinese dictionaries first defined yao 猺 as the "name of a wild animal" (11th-century Jiyun: 獸名), and later as the "tribe of southern barbarians" (17th-century Zhengzitong: 蠻屬). The Chinese-English dictionary of Robert Henry Mathews (1931, no. 7287) records traditional Chinese prejudice about the Yao, "the books describe them as being very wild; they are said to have a short tail; and the skin on the soles of their feet is spoken of as being more than one inch in thickness".

The Zhuang people (an ethnic minority primarily living in Guangxi) are currently written with the character for zhuang "strong; robust", but Zhuang was initially transcribed with the character for tong 獞 "a dog name", and then with tong 僮 ("human" radical) "child; boy servant". The late American sinologist and lexicographer John DeFrancis described how the People's Republic of China removed the graphic pejoration.

Sometimes the use of one radical or another can have a special significance, as in the case of removing an ethnic slur from the name of the Zhuang minority in southwest China, which used to be written with the dog radical but after 1949 was first written with the human radical and was later changed to a completely different character with the respectable meaning "sturdy":

 Zhuàng (with the dog radical)
 Zhuàng (with the human radical)

 Zhuàng ("sturdy") (1984: 17)

This 1949 change to Zhuang 僮 was made after the Chinese civil war, and the change to Zhuang 壮 was made during the 1965 standardization of simplified Chinese characters.

The Yi people or Lolo, whose current Chinese exonym is yi "sacrificial wine vessel; Yi peoples", used to be condescendingly called the Luoluo 猓猓, giving a new luo reading to ("dog" radical and guo 果 phonetic) guo "Proboscis monkey". The first replacement was ("human" radical) luo , already used as a graphic variant character for ("clothing radical") luo "naked"; the second was luo "bird net; gauze".

The Lahu people were written Luohei, with this same simian luo 猓 and 黑 "black". Their modern exonym is Lahu 拉祜, transcribing with la "pull; drag" and hu "favor or protection from heaven".

The Bouyei people in southern China and Vietnam are called Zhongjia 仲家, written with the "human radical" term zhong "second; middle (of three months or brothers)". The earlier ethnonym Zhongjia 狆家 used the "dog radical" term zhong "lap dog; pug", which now usually refers to the Japanese Chin (from Japanese language chin 狆).

The modern Chinese transcription for the Gelao people is Gelaozu 仡佬族 with the "human radical", and Gelao was previously written 犵狫 with the "dog radical" and the same phonetic elements. The word liao originally meant "night hunting; long, protruding teeth", and beginning during Wei-Jin period (265-420) was also pronounced lao 獠 meaning "an aboriginal tribe in southwest China (= lao ); ugly". This Laoren 僚人, from earlier 狫人 or 獠人, is the modern name for the Rau peoples (including Zhuang, Buyei, and TayNùng).

Additional "dog" radical examples of exonyms include the ancient Quanrong 犬戎 "dog barbarians" or "dog belligerents" and Xianyun 獫狁 (written with xian 獫 or 玁 "long-snouted dog; black dog with a yellow face"). Feng Li, a Columbia University historian of early China, suggests a close semantic relation (2006:346), "It is very probable that when the term Xianyun came to be written with the two characters 獫狁, the notion of 'dog' associated with the character xian thus gave rise to the term Quanrong 犬戎, or the 'Dog Barbarians'."

The Chinese name for Jews, 犹太人 Yóutàirén, contains a "dog" radical, but has not as yet been revised.

Other radicals

Some graphic pejoratives used significs besides the "dog" radical.

Radical 123 羊, the "sheep" radical, is seen in the ancient Jie "castrated sheep; Jie people" and the modern Qiang "shepherd; Qiang people."

Radical 153 豸, the "cat" or "beast" radical, appears in the ancient Mo or "panther; northeastern barbarians", who are associated with the ancient Huimo 濊貊 "Yemaek people" (in Manchuria and Korea).

Radical 177 革, the "animal hide" or "leather" radical, is used in character names for two northern barbarians. Dada 韃靼 "Tartar people" is written with da 韃 "red-dyed leather" and da 靼 "pliable leather; tanned hide". The (c. 1609) Shanhai Yudi Quantu "Complete Terrestrial Map" uses Dada for "Tartary". Mohe 靺鞨 "Mohe people; Tungusic peoples" is written with mo 靺 "socks; stockings" and he 鞨 "shoes".

Radical 142 虫, the "insect" or "reptile" radical, is used for the early Man "southern barbarians" and modern-day Min 閩 people (see Fujian#History). Xu Shen's Shuowen defines both words as 蛇種 "a type of snake". The American philologist and linguist Victor H. Mair explains the modern significance of these two ancient graphic pejoratives.

The debasement of local languages and cultures in China (whether they are Sinitic or non-Sinitic) is so ubiquitous that people become inured to it. They internalize the negative stereotypes associated with peripherality and sheer difference (from the orthodox language and culture of the center). This subtle (but sometimes also brutal) psychological conditioning extends even to the names people call themselves and the totemic myths with which they identify. For instance, the people of Fujian and Taiwan are proud to identify themselves as being from Min, but seldom do they consider that the character adopted to write this name over two millennia ago (it did not yet exist among the oracle bone and bronze inscriptions) includes the infamous chóng ("insect; serpent") radical. There it is staring you right in the face every time you look at the character: a bug inside of a door, but people do not see the insect / snake, perhaps because they do not want to see it or cannot bear to see it. Here is how Xu Shen explained the character used to write mín around the year 100 CE: "Southeastern Yue [i.e., Viet]; snake race. [The character is formed] from [the] insect / serpent [radical and takes its pronunciation from] mén." 東南越蛇穜从虫門聲 … Southern Min speakers refer to themselves as bân-lâm-lâng, which is usually written with sinographs meaning "Southern Min person" 閩南人, but should actually be written with sinographs meaning "Southern barbarian fellow" 蠻南儂. … The graph pronounced lâm in Taiwanese is the notorious mán ("barbarians [of the south]") as pronounced in MSM. Here is how Xu Shen explains the graph used to write lâm / mán: "Southern barbarians [who are a] snake race. [The character is formed] from [the] insect / serpent [radical and takes its pronunciation from] luàn 南蠻蛇種从虫" … The Mán inhabitants of Mǐn are thus doubly southern, doubly barbarian, and doubly serpentine. Since these explanations have been enshrined in the most authoritative, foundational dictionary of the sinographs, a dictionary which is still invoked with reverence today, there is no denying them. The impact that such designations have had on the consciousness of those who are on both the receiving end and the giving-end is enormous. (2010: n.p.)

See also


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