Feigning strength: Why we use derogatory terms on peoples and countries

Hua Language Centre director Chew Wee Kai points out that throughout history, people have come up with various terms to refer to “others”. Such forms of discrimination, while not physically harmful, can still be perpetuated and lead to discord and resentment. It is up to present generations to end the cycle.
The boorish behaviour of illegal mainland Chinese immigrant Ah Chan in Hong Kong TV drama The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (《网中人》) made his name a trendy insult. (SPH Media)
The boorish behaviour of illegal mainland Chinese immigrant Ah Chan in Hong Kong TV drama The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (《网中人》) made his name a trendy insult. (SPH Media)

Ostracism and discrimination are brothers in arms. In a litter of piglets, the big one dominates the sow’s teats, while the runt scrambles around in vain.

Endless seeds of discrimination

From a young age, we pick up derogatory terms such as “shorty” or “midget”, showing the mentality of the strong scorning the weak. As children, stories teach us to use “pig” to insult people as stupid, but it is not as biting as the Hokkien term kiauthoo (撬土, lit. soil digger), which simply means bad or rotten. Fortunately, generations of teachers have guided most children through education, so that people have gone from open insults to gradually restraining themselves and only making comments in private.

Historically, contempt for others began with the word yi (夷, barbarian), which was actively used in ancient literature. There are faithful textual records of the true face of discrimination: dongyi (东夷, barbarians from the east), siyi (四夷, lit. four barbarian groups, meaning barbarians from the northern, southern, eastern and western borders of China), haiyi (海夷, barbarians of the sea), fanyi (番夷, foreign barbarians) and manyi (蛮夷, uncivilised barbarians).

These appellations belie a condescending attitude, and “barbarian” is a concrete manifestation of the Central Plains mentality that has spanned thousands of years.

In the past, when walking around Hong Kong’s streetside stalls or Temple Street at night, vendors often called Westerners gweilo (鬼佬, devil man) to their face and they wouldn’t even bat an eyelid.

Searching through the Chinese vocabulary, in unofficial histories and anecdotes one can easily find terms such as nanman (南蛮, barbarian from the south), huan’a (番仔, a Taiwanese Hokkien term for barbarian), bakgu (北姑, Cantonese term, lit. a woman from the north, i.e. mainland China, meaning prostitute), heigui (黑鬼, lit. black devil, referring to black people), huren (胡人, barbarian), dazi (鞑子, a derogatory term for Tartars), wokou (倭寇, originally used to refer to Japanese pirates but later became a derogatory term referring to Japanese people), angmo sai (红毛屎, lit. red-haired shit, a Hokkien term for an ethnic Chinese who does not know how to read Chinese), dhebazi (台巴子, a derogatory Shanghainese term referring to Taiwanese), subei gou (苏北狗, northern Jiangsu dog, a derogatory term for people from poorer Jiangsu areas), Nanyang husun (南洋猢狲, Nanyang monkey, referring to Southeast Asians), and gaoli bangzi (高丽棒子, lit. Goryeo stick, a slang term for Koreans).

dazi
An image depicting the killing of so-called "barbarians" by imperial troops in ancient China. (Internet)

But those who shave others’ heads will meet the same fate; that is in line with human nature for mutual harm and revenge. In return for calling others manyi, there are also insults such as “cheena”, “sick man of Asia” and “Yellow Peril”, while terms such as “Chinky” and “yellow monkey” drip with contempt.

In the past, when walking around Hong Kong’s streetside stalls or Temple Street at night, vendors often called Westerners gweilo (鬼佬, devil man) to their face and they wouldn’t even bat an eyelid. In the Cantonese-speaking world, expressions such as Ah Cha (阿差) or Ah Chan (阿灿) slip out easily. Over 40 years ago, the television drama The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (《网中人》) swept Hong Kong; the boorish behaviour of illegal mainland Chinese immigrant Ah Chan while eating at a buffet made his name popular overnight. It became a trendy insult among Hong Kongers, showing the power of film and television.

As they crossed paths, the boy would shout in Hokkien, “Hai lam kia, chiak tau sa bia” (Hainanese kid, eating red bean cakes).

Today, the internet — more influential than film and television — has subverted people’s lives. The term “chain of contempt” (鄙视链) has emerged, linking the deep-rooted contempt accumulated over thousands of years into a coherent structure, revealing its true face. People in the mountains dislike those along the coast; those from the southeast sniff at those from the northwest; city mice scorn mountain rats; engineering majors belittle liberal arts students; opera actors are derogatorily called “entertainers” (戏子); monks are called “bald donkeys” (秃驴); and cross-dressing or transgender men are called “ladyboys”. These endless seeds of discrimination in human nature pop up every few hours.

Deep-seated desires to compare and belittle

Discrimination starts with one family’s disdain for another of lower status; it ripples out to include one’s birthplace, skin colour, language and religion. It escalates from individuals to collective disdain of communities, from provinces and cities to countries and regions, and from between east and west, to the northern and southern hemispheres.

In the 1950s and 1960s, there was discrimination between the dialect groups in Singapore. The Hokkiens, Teochews and Cantonese often clashed over territory, and their languages were filled with discriminatory terms.

Whenever my friend walked along the village gravel path during primary school, he would often encounter a boy of about the same age. As they crossed paths, the boy would shout in Hokkien, “Hai lam kia, chiak tau sa bia” (Hainanese kid, eating red bean cakes). He would then run away in fits of laughter while looking over his shoulder.

chinatown
An old photo of a crowd at Pagoda Street in Chinatown. (SPH Media)

One day after exams ended, my friend heard that mocking voice again and was spurred to teach the brat a lesson. He chased the fellow down and shoved him to the ground — thus ended the ridicule. But while my friend was satisfied at that moment, as an adult, he felt that there was no need to take a joke so seriously.

It looks like strength but is in fact weakness.

The contempt that is prominent in society stems from the deep-seated desire to compare and belittle. Scorn arises from feelings of inferiority, superiority or jealousy. It looks like strength but is in fact weakness. Prejudice is inherent in human nature; fortunately, those with vision have worked tirelessly to make society more civilised. Most people can restrain themselves, but there remain a few stubborn ones who continue to bark irrationally.

Belittling a country

The highest level of discrimination is that of mocking and humiliating other countries. There is an example from over two centuries ago, when the short-statured envoy Yanzi from the state of Qi visited the state of Chu. The people of Chu tried to make him use the entrance for dogs, but he refused and responded to Chu’s arrogance with wit, saying: "Only those who go on a mission to a country of dogs would enter through a door for dogs (使狗国者从狗门入)."

Singapore is mini-sized and moderately affluent, and has all along been looked down on. Former Indonesian President BJ Habibie bluntly said that Singapore is just a “little red dot” on the map, while former Taiwanese Foreign Minister Mark Chen insulted the republic as being the size of a “booger”. When one is constantly bombarded by nasty comments, one doesn’t take them seriously anymore. Keeping one’s head down is a way to get by.

At some point, netizens coined the discriminatory term “Singapore county” (坡县).

arab street
People walk on a small street in Singapore, 9 June 2023. (SPH Media)

At some point, netizens coined the discriminatory term “Singapore county” (坡县). Initially, there was no strong reaction from Singaporeans, but it has recently gained traction for some reason, stirring up a wave of discussion.

When a country is degraded several levels to a county, along with a sense of lost sovereignty, it would be within reason to see emotional comments against this injustice, especially if the issue was raised to the level of principle or even the meaning of territory.

Whether intentional or unintentional, mockery or jokes, while it is satisfying in the moment, it is the rat’s dropping that ultimately ruins the pot of porridge called Harmony.

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as "鄙夷何时了".

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