The recent saga in which two young lawmakers used the term “Shina” during their oath-taking has created a huge controversy. I have received a lot of e-mails from readers asking for my views.
From an academic point of view, I believe it is often difficult to determine whether a particular term is offensive, discriminatory or derogatory in its own right.
Many terms that originated as neutral terms a few centuries ago often end up being highly offensive against a particular ethnic group or race in modern society or disappear from popular usage.
One striking example is the term “nigger”, which is now widely regarded as an ethnic slur against blacks and its usage has been banned from contemporary mainstream society, particularly in the US.
However, the term “nigger” actually originated from the Latin adjective “niger” as a neutral term at the beginning and was often seen in 19th century literature.
It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the term became a racial slur.
The situation with the term “Shina” is quite similar.
Starting as a neutral term used by ancient Indians and Japanese to refer to the Chinese people, “Shina” became widely regarded as a derogatory and offensive term by Chinese people after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War.
After Japan’s surrender in 1945, at the formal request of the Kuomintang government, the term “Shina” was banned in official Japanese government documents and in all public occasions.
So, I think to decide whether a term is racially or ethnically offensive, one has to look at the historical and cultural context.
On the other hand, even if some terms originated as neutral terms centuries ago, they should also be considered offensive and inappropriate if they are perceived by the majority of contemporary society to be so.
The term “Shina” should be regarded as derogatory because most Chinese people today think so, just like “nigger” should be seen as a racial slur because almost all black people today consider it highly offensive, even though the two terms might not have been intended to be derogatory when they first came out.
As far as the two young lawmakers who used the term “Shina” are concerned, if it was just a matter of poor pronunciation as they claimed, I suggest they spend more time practising their spoken English.
However, if they used it on purpose to show defiance, then I think they simply need not find any excuse for doing so. Because if they want to be seen as mature politicians by the public, the first thing they must do is stand by what they did.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct. 18.
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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