Chinese Corner

Don’t You Call Me That4 min read

How an ancient name for China became a modern epithet – Eveline Chao

For a few years of my life, the bane of my existence was having to liaise with the government censor at the Chinese-registered, English-language business magazine I edited in Beijing. However, it must be said that, aside from the minor detail that her very existence was a primary source of all frustration in my life and a potential affront to everything I believed in, my censor was pretty chill. I was always questioning the changes she made to our work, and though she didn’t have to, she went to great lengths to explain them. (Though of course, it was in her best interest to bring me round to her view on things.) And the side bonus was that through her explanations, I always learned something fascinating about China.

One of her more minor but surprising changes had to do with the Chinese web portal Sina.com. Every time we mentioned the company in a headline as simply “Sina,” the censor would tell us to add “.com” onto the name. When I asked why on the phone one day, she said that “Sina” sounded like a derogatory term that Japanese people used to refer to Chinese during the war. She claimed that for this reason, many patriotic Chinese wouldn’t use Sina and stuck to other portals like Sohu.com instead.

I started asking around among both Chinese and Japanese friends, and it turned out that the word in question was Zhīnà 支那, pronounced Shina in Japanese and Zi1naa5 in Cantonese. Victor Mair of Language Log, writing about a romanization that renders it Chee-na, explains:

As for “Chee-na”, that is an idiosyncratic romanization of the Cantonese pronunciation, Zi1naa5, of the Sinitic transcription 支那 (MSM Zhīnà) of Sanskrit Cīna चीन, which is ultimately derived from the same name as English “China” (most likely referring to the Qin Dynasty [Qín 秦; Old Sinitic *dzin]).  

Until WWII, “Shina” was a fairly neutral Japanese term for China, and some Chinese used it themselves. During the Sino-Japanese wars, however, it began to take on derogatory undertones and was seen by many Chinese as a slur. In 1946, the Republic of China demanded that Japan stop using “Shina,” and eventually, Japan adopted “Chugoku.”

Chinese today differ in their feelings about how strong of a slur “Shina” remains. Some would say it’s comparable to a white American saying “colored” or “Negro” instead of African-American. Others say it’s much worse, like using the n-word for blacks, or the c-word (the one that rhymes with “ink”) for Asians. Suffice to say that an 80-year-old who had to flee China during WWII probably has a different take than a 20-year-old whose knowledge about that period is purely academic. (Within Japan, “Shina” seems mostly perceived as outdated, and people seem generally unaware of the offense that many Chinese take to it.)

In both Taiwan and Hong Kong, Shina has been adopted by some as a slur for mainland Chinese. In 2016, the term triggered a new wave of anger and emotion when then-25-year-old Yau Wai-Ching, a pro-independence member of Hong Kong’s Youngspiration party who had been elected to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, deployed it during her swearing-in. As Yau recited the oath of office, she referred to the PRC several times as the “People’s Re-fucking of Chee-na,” and unfurled a banner that read, “Hong Kong is not China.”

Amid the ensuing uproar, Yau and another party colleague, Baggio Leung, who also appeared to call the PRC “Shina” or “Chee-na” (both have said claimed that the pronunciation was merely a result of their accents) were disqualified from joining the legislature. And regardless of their stance on Hong Kong independence, many Chinese diaspora across the globe were angered by Yau and Leung. Some also argued that using it made no sense, and equated to Yau calling herself a racial slur.

I knew none of this back in 2007 or 2008, when my government censor was constantly flagging “Sina” – along with, as it happens, any mention of Hong Kong or Taiwan that implied they were not a part of mainland China. And personally, I never encountered anyone else in Beijing who thought that the company name Sina might conjure the fraught term Shina. My takeaway, though, is that words are alive, powerful, and beyond our control, no matter how much we try to censor them. ∎

Mandarin terms are transliterated in pinyin, Cantonese in Jyutping. Featured image courtesy Anne Henochowicz.

Eveline Chao

Eveline Chao is a freelance writer and the author of NIUBI! The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School. She lived in Beijing from 2006 to 2011. She's now based in Brooklyn, New York, where she continues to write about China, as well as the history of Manhattan Chinatown.