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The C-word: why Hong Kong localists have offended all Chinese

A few days after Hong Kong localists Sixtus “Baggio” Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching called China “Chee-na” during their swearing-in ceremony as the city’s newly elected legislators, Leung went on radio to defend himself.

First, he tried to pin it to his “accent”. When the radio host pointed out that he seemed to have no problem pronouncing China properly on other occasions, Leung admitted that he did use the word “Chee-na”. But he shrugged it off as nothing important or offensive.

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“In the oath, it doesn’t mention any specific person… I don’t know how we could have offended anyone,” Leung said. He then went on to say that even Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of modern China, used the term at some point in his writing.

To understand why so many people, including those who don’t like the central government in Beijing, feel offended by Leung and Yau’s antics, some historical perspective is needed.

The Chinese word 支那 [Chee-na] first appeared in the Buddhist scriptures of the Tang dynasty (6th century). It is believed to be the phonetic translation of the ancient Sanskrit word “cina”. Some see this as the origin of the English word “China”, but there is no conclusive evidence to support that.

For most of its history, the term has had no derogatory meaning. Some scholars even argue that it is actually not the name of any particular country, but a loose expression for “land of the east”.

The Chinese themselves almost never use it. In fact, even Zhongguo – the Middle Kingdom – was not often used in ancient times. Before the 1911 revolution, China existed not as a nation state in the Westphalian sense. It was a civilisation with an unbroken line of imperial dynasties. People referred to themselves as “people of the great Qing” or “people of the great Tang”. Few would call themselves “people of Zhongguo”, even fewer would use “Chinese”.

The word “Chee-na” was introduced to Japan – whose writing system borrowed heavily from Chinese – in the Tang dynasty. But it was used only as a geographic term rather than the name of any particular country or people.

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For centuries, Japan followed its neighbour’s tradition and addressed China by its dynasty name. This changed after the outbreak of the Opium War in 1839 between China and Britain. The humiliating defeat of the Qing empire and the loss of Hong Kong shattered China’s millennia-old worldview and its sense of cultural superiority. The Chinese civilisation entered a century of sharp and painful decline.

Japan, on the other hand, quickly reinvented itself after the Meiji Restoration. It was the most successful, in fact the only, Asian country that transformed peacefully from an ancient regime into a modern nation state. Japan gradually lost its respect for the giant across the sea and started to look at China with contempt and a predatory interest.

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The first Sino-Japanese war in 1894 ended in total disaster for the Qing court. The Chinese elite were shocked to their core. Within two decades, the Qing dynasty was overthrown and China was declared a modern republic.

Initially, China and Japan enjoyed a decade-long “golden relationship” shortly after the war. Many Japanese intellectuals were genuinely sympathetic towards China and hoped to get their Asian brethren back up on their feet.

Many Chinese revolutionary leaders – from Sun Yat-sen to Chiang Kai-shek and Zhou Enlai (周恩來) – lived or studied in Japan. The modern Chinese language, in turn, borrowed extensively from Japanese. “Chee-na”, together with many other words like “economy”, “democracy” and “police”, was reintroduced back to China.

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At that time, the word had no obvious derogatory implication. In the run-up to the collapse of the Qing empire, people increasingly stopped seeing the Manchurian court as the legitimate representation of the Chinese civilisation. Japanese scholars ceased to refer to China as “the great Qing”. More and more of them started to use the word “Chee-na” as a neutral geographical expression.

Sun and some early Chinese national revolution leaders did use the word in their writing at that time as they refused to see themselves as the subject of the Qing and the modern Chinese state had yet to come into being.

But then the meaning of the word started to undergo a dramatic transformation. It was increasingly used in Japan as a demeaning way to address China and its people, implying that they were a sub-class. Japanese scholar Sato Nobuhiro, founder of the “Greater Asia” concept, used the term in his influential book, A Secret Strategy for Expansion, to suggest that China existed not as a political entity but a mere geographic expression. His work became the intellectual inspiration of Japanese imperialism towards China.

“Chee-na” quickly became a taboo word in China. While in Japan, it was used more and more as an insult. The Chinese government banned the use of the word shortly after the establishment of the republic. In 1930, the Nanjing (南京) government formally requested Japan to stop using it to address China. The Tokyo civilian government complied but the imperialist advocates continued to use the word. It implied that China was not worthy to be recognised as a sovereign state and it existed only as a geographical expression. This was used to justify Japan’s aggression.

The psychological association of “Chee-na” with Japanese aggression and invasion became inseparable following the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War. It was widely used in the propaganda materials of the Japanese military.

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Today, using the word will inevitably bring back that painful history to Chinese people everywhere, particularly those who had witnessed and endured all the horrors of the war.

When Leung and Yau used the word in their “oaths”, they perhaps intended to insult the government in Beijing. But by picking a word so emotionally associated with the memory of foreign aggression, they succeeded in offending all Chinese.

Chow Chung-yan is executive editor of the South China Morning Post, overseeing daily print and digital operations