First, it’s worth remembering how Chinaman became a slur in the first place. As Benjamin Bergen notes in his recent book, What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves, Chinaman falls into a class of slurs that originally had a more-or-less neutral tone. “Chinaman was as benign as Englishman or Frenchman, which are still used without negative connotation,” Bergen writes.
That changed in the latter half of the 19th century thanks to how the word was weaponized against people of Chinese origin in the United States and elsewhere. In California, Chinaman became a commonly used epithet soon after Chinese immigrants attracted by the Gold Rush began flocking to the state, though they tended to be excluded from mining operations and had to pursue menial tasks elsewhere. (“A report came in that an Indian had murdered and robbed a chinaman, whereupon the celestials turned out in full force,” reads one local-newspaper story in 1852.)
Soon, a stock caricature named John Chinaman emerged within the culture, and the word took on a special kind of racial ugliness. A song under that name, published in 1855, exploited the usual racist tropes of the day, portraying its subject as a lying, stealing eater of rats and puppies. (“Oh, John, I’ve been deceived in you, and all your thieving clan, for our gold is all you’re after, John, to get it as you can.”) The character also caught on in Great Britain during the Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars. An 1857 cartoon titled “A Lesson to John Chinaman,” published in the British humor magazine Punch, shows the prime minister whipping a Chinese man while holding onto his hair. The man is labeled “the destroyer of women and children.”
By the early 20th century, Chinaman was thoroughly entwined with anti-Chinese racial animus. It appeared in expressions like “a Chinaman’s chance,” which suggests something has only the slightest chance of succeeding. In use since at least 1893, the expression seemingly alludes to the endless social barriers that were thrown up against Chinese immigrants seeking opportunities to advance.
The writing of George Orwell shows how deeply pejorative Chinaman became—not just in the U.S., but also abroad. In a 1943 article in the democratic-socialist magazine The Tribune, for which Orwell served as literary editor, he noted that one small step could be taken “to mitigate the horrors of the colour war” worldwide—namely, “to avoid using insulting nicknames.” At the time, Orwell was working on a revised edition of his 1934 novel Burmese Days, based on his experiences working in Burma as part of the British colonial force. One change he made was to replace the word Chinaman with Chinese. “The book was written less than a dozen years ago,” he explained, “but in the intervening time ‘Chinaman’ has become a deadly insult.”