The first time someone directed the word “chink” at me, I had a visceral and almost violent reaction to it. Excited to have arrived for my freshman year of college, I took the “T” to visit Boston for the first time and having just exited the Green line station on the Boston Common, a young woman approached me to give me a leaflet. I wasn’t interested, so I said “no thank you” and continued walking when I heard her call after me, “f**king chink.” Without thinking, I turned around wanting to yell something equally offensive in response and raised my hand back wanting to slap her for the offense. Fortunately, I had walked a few paces and the distance allowed me enough time to realize and reconsider what I was about to do. I turned around again and walked away, mad as hell, fuming in frustration, but also determined not to let the situation, rather than my considered intentions, get the best of me.
I’ve recalled the incident many times since, most recently during the brouhaha in February over ESPN’s brief and temporary use of the phrase, “chink in the armor,” in a headline about Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks basketball player. While I thought its use was inappropriate and ill-considered, I also found much of the reaction to the headline unnecessarily uninformed and hyperbolic, and more importantly, misdirected.
In their rush to express their outrage and condemnation at the ESPN headline, Asian American public officials, organizations, writers, and commentators declared that “chink” has been a racially offensive term for centuries. Some also drew historical parallels between what they referred to as “the c-word” to the use of “the n-word” toward African Americans. I would argue, however, against both the declaration and the parallel.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “chink” in English dates from the 16th century while references to a synonym, chine—both also could be spelled with a “y” as in “chynke” or “chyne”—for which it was later substituted in manuscript re-editions date back even further historically. Meaning a crack or cleft, or more specifically a fissure caused by splitting, it also suggests a point of weakness in a surface, as in the phrase, “chink in the armor,” whose double-entendre was at play in the EPSN headline. Another meaning for the word, of a sharp shrill sound, that also dates to the 16th century is an onomatopoeia, a word whose origin comes from its sound, and has led to suggestion that the two meanings are related, the sound deriving from the fissure’s creation, such as when a tool or weapon strikes a metal surface.
The word’s racial and derogatory meaning arose much later. The OED observes its use in 1901 in Munsey’s Magazine while Wikipedia dates it to 1890 and both trace its etymology to its connection to China, whose own etymology is complicated historically. The word “China” comes from the name of the dynasty, Chin (Qin), that first ruled a unified Chinese empire—Qin previously being one of several regional warring states—but the empire, country, and nation has also been referred to as Cathay, the Celestial Kingdom, and the Middle Kingdom (which exists between heaven and earth). Today, a person from China is commonly referred to as “Chinese,” but “Chinian/Chinean” (16th c), “Chinesian” (17th c), and “Chinaman” (18th-19th c) have also been used historically. Significantly, if more confusingly, such derivations have also used more broadly as a term for people from Asia. In the logs of the Spanish galleons that plied the Manila to Acapulco trade route in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, “los chinos” referred to cabin boys, cooks, and other crewmen who came from the Philippines—who may have had Chinese roots given the history of Manila’s establishment.
In contemporary use, “Chinese” refers to people who live in or whose ancestry traces to China, but retains a sense of nativity, ethnicity, and race rather than nationality. Stephon Marbury, the New York City playground basketball legend and former NBA player, lives in Beijing, playing for its professional team the Ducks, and has embraced and been embraced by many people in China to the point of declaring he wants to remain there after his playing days, but few people will think of him as Chinese should he follow through on the declaration. Lin, who was born in and is a citizen of the United States and whose family on his father’s side considers themselves Taiwanese—full disclaimer, I also think of myself Taiwanese American—is still considered Chinese.
In the 19th century, “Chinaman” was the more commonly used term in English, one often also used derisively. The British popular press, whose historical rise coincided with Britain’s neocolonial First and Second Opium wars with China, used it to caption illustrations of emerging nation figures and caricatures such as John Bull (Englishman) and John Chinaman. During the construction of the first transcontinental American railroad in the late 1860s, the dangerous and usually fatal task of igniting dynamite to blast through rock terrain of the Sierra Nevadas mountains, which was usually carried out by a Chinese worker, led to the gambling expression, “Chinaman’s chance,” for extremely long odds. In the United States, the alternative term, “chinee,” became popular after 1870 as an ironic consequence of Bret Harte’s poem, “Plain Language from Truthful James.“ Intended to satirize Western anti-Chinese sentiment, the poem was adopted by proponents for Chinese exclusion, becoming better known as “The Heathen Chinee,” and made Harte the most celebrated literary figure in America.
These alternative antecedents point to a long legacy of derision toward Chinese, but also argue against the claim that the word “chink” has long been used. While shorter-lived, its emergence in the turn-of-the-twentieth-century United States was neither accidental nor coincidental. The OED’s 1901 citation to Munsey’s Magazine, for instance, observed both the use of “chink” and a Chinese laundry. E. A. Smith’s mechanical canning apparatus, invented in 1904, was nicknamed the “Iron Chink“ after the Chinese salmon-butchering crews in the Pacific Northwest it replaced and whose difficult work Rudyard Kipling recounted, with grudging dispassionate, a decade earlier writing about “American Salmon” in his 1891 book American Notes. The “chink” of the one was the updated machine sound of the other’s “Chinamen.” “Chink” was a new derogatory term, but involving both anti-Chinese and anti-labor sentiments, it was also specifically American and racial, contributing to broader anti-Asian attitudes that coalesced in the period.
In this sense, while “chink” is an ethnically derogatory term, it was also the cultural expression of the social and political differences codified in the Chinese Exclusion Act. Passed in 1882, the act was proposed earlier during Reconstruction and its proponents linked the United States’ experience and division over one group of racial labor to argue against importing another. While the Exclusion Act’s provisions targeted Chinese labor, they also established the precedent for an emerging political category, “aliens ineligible for citizenship.” Despite the equal rights framework of the 14th Amendment established after the Civil War—which provided not only African Americans, freedmen and previously free, but all Americans access to the rights of citizenship—its peculiar legal status validated formal and institutional discrimination against Asian immigrants in America. Already denied a path to citizenship to naturalization, Asian Americans also faced “alien” laws passed by many states denying them, among other things, the right to own land or businesses and effectively assigning them second-class status within American society.
To be narrowly specific, given its longer history and use, “Chinaman” is perhaps a better historical analogue to “nigger” for African Americans, but while also offensive and derogatory, the word does not carry the same racial associations. Such comparisons, while they rightly raise issues of contemporary social propriety, also distract from broader and more progressive conversations. Rather than comparing parallel historical examples of racism, we should recognize and appreciate that Asian Americans and African Americans, other racial groups, and indeed, all Americans share a single, common history of race and racism. W.E.B DuBois’ often-cited declaration that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line” continued with his explanation of the concern: “the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” Its particular details and differences speak to the wide-ranging scope of this history and the need to engage it fully and with considered intentions.