In a radio interview earlier this week, Don Blankenship, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in West Virginia, accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of having foreign-policy conflicts of interest, based on McConnell’s marriage to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. But Blankenship’s comments attracted attention not just for what he had to say—intimating that McConnell’s wife and her family has some insidious influence on him—but how he said it.
“I have an issue when the father-in-law is a wealthy Chinaperson and there’s a lot of connections to some of the brass, if you will, in China,” Blankenship said.
Chinaperson? Blankenship’s characterization of Chao’s Chinese American father, the businessman James S.C. Chao, was something of a linguistic feat: simultaneously evoking the old slur of Chinaman and ham-handedly attempting to sanitize it. One can almost hear Blankenship hit the edit button halfway through the word, thinking he’d avoid a political faux pas by switching to the gender-neutral–person.
Of course, the problem with Chinaman was never that it was gendered—the word was, and is, a racial epithet. But Blankenship’s on-the-fly coinage, as tone-deaf and inept as it may be, reveals something about where the country is these days when it comes to language and expressions of identity.
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.”
While the use of Chinaman has steadily declined over the course of the past century, it has lingered in some quarters—sometimes used by those seemingly unaware of its history as a harmful slur. In 2004, basketball coach Steve Kerr called the NBA star Yao Ming a “Chinaman” during a TNT broadcast, but Kerr swiftly apologized. “I had no idea it was used as a demeaning term in any way,” Kerr said at the time. Twelve years later, when Yao was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, The Washington Post recalled the Kerr incident with a headline that read, “Hall of Famer Yao Ming redefined ‘Chinaman’ for the NBA and brought the game to millions.” Facing backlash, the Post changed the headline.
Which brings us back to Blankenship. Slapping “person” at the end of the epithet may have seemed like a safe move to him, since that suffix has become associated with linguistic norms of gender neutrality since the 1970s. (Think chairperson, clergyperson, or congressperson.) But all it managed to do was make Blankenship sound more out of touch, awkwardly applying a bit of P.C. paint to decidedly un-P.C. language. Still, in one word he managed to encapsulate a tension between competing forces in Americans’ ongoing use of language to label groups. In Chinaperson, one can hear echoes of societal injustices of the past, as well as current attempts to make amends through linguistic hygiene.