Media & Gaming

Sick of it

A short history of the ‘sick man of Asia’ slur


Bruce Lee: made it more emotive

In an article published in 2008, Reuters described the Beijing Olympics as “a cure for the sick man of Asia”. The news agency went on to explain how success in international sport would help China to leave behind its “century of humiliation” – a phrase that laments the nation’s mid-19th century exploitation at the hands of foreign powers.

Perhaps the positive spin of the article saved it from criticism for mentioning the “sick man of Asia” – a heavily-loaded term in Chinese eyes. But that was not the case this month when the Wall Street Journal put out an op-ed headlined “China is the real sick man of Asia”.

The titling of the piece – which argues that China’s financial markets could pose as much threat to the global economy as the coronavirus – was risky, with China already on edge fighting desperately to contain the outbreak. The article triggered a furious response, with Chinese netizens decrying the headline as racist. This soon led to the expulsion of three Wall Street Journal reporters from the country. “The Chinese people do not welcome media that publish racist statements and smear China with malicious attacks,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs fumed.

So why is the phrase deemed unacceptable by the Chinese?

Its origins derive from the ‘sick man of Europe’ label, coined for an Ottoman Empire in decline. That concept was borrowed by European journalists to describe imperial China, then on the brink of being partitioned by foreign powers.

One of the earliest references to the phrase can be traced back to 1896 in the North China Daily News, an English language newspaper in Shanghai. A British columnist use the “sick man of Asia” term in his article attacking the Qing government’s corruption – claiming that it was poor governance and graft that led to China’s disastrous defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War.

In fact, many Chinese political thinkers were saying similar things, although the label became more widely known after Liang Qichao, a prominent scholar, translated the Briton’s article into Chinese. Liang would become a key figure in the ill-fated Hundred Days of Reform (see R for Reform in our recent book An A-Z of Chinese History; available on our website) and he used the term to urge his compatriots to embrace political and social change.

Others began to promote the idea of modern physical education as well, encouraging the Chinese to improve their fitness and repel the ‘sick man’ image. Folklore around kung-fu heroes such as Huo Yuanjia in Shanghai and Guangdong’s Wong Fei-hung were carried forward on the rising tide of patriotism, challenging the stereotype that the Chinese people were physically weak. (As a further example of the slight, the Beijing Review recalled how in 1936 China sent 69 athletes to compete in the Berlin Olympics – all of whom returned without a medal – and were thus described by a Singapore newspaper as the “sick men of East Asia”.)

However, the racist connotations of the phrase were enduring ones and later became amplified by Chinese pop culture. Here a line can be traced from the early ‘self-strengthening’ heroes like Huo Juan-jia to the probably most famous martial artist of all time: Bruce Lee.

In his 1972 movie Fist of Fury, Lee plays Chen Zhen, an adherent of Huo. After Huo is poisoned by his Japanese nemesis, Chen sets out for revenge. His final victory is a telling one as he overpowers a large group of Japanese. He not only screams “Chinese are not the sick man of East Asia” as he battles his foes, he even forces them to eat their own banner bearing the same epithet.

Thanks to this film many Chinese believe that the phrase must have been invented by the Japanese. Because of Japan’s wartime atrocities in China this has added an even deeper dimension to the offence that the slur can cause. Certainly, the editorial staff in the Wall Street Journal’s China bureau understand its power to antagonise. At the weekend 53 journalists signed a letter to their own head office asking it to “consider correcting the headline and apologising to our readers, sources, colleagues and anyone else who was offended by it.” As of today, the article remained on the newspaper’s website with its headline unchanged.

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