The trouble with Chinese…

Following the 1946 release of The Wild Flag (a collection of essays previously published in The New Yorker) author E. B. White – now best known for his novels Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little – was contacted and questioned by a Mr. Wells with regard to his usage of the word ‘Chinaman’. White responded with the letter seen below.

Transcript follows.



BRYANT 9-5200

3 November 1946

Dear Mr. Wells:

I don’t want to change Chinaman to Chinese in that sentence. When I wrote the piece, I first wrote Chinese and then changed it to Chinaman, at the risk of offending the people who find something derogatory in the word. I’m not sure I recall my reason for making that change, but I think I wanted (in that particular spot) a word that had no more than one meaning, and could only refer to an individual. The trouble with the word Chinese is, it is an adjective as well as a noun, and it not only is both singular and plural, but it always sounds plural because of the “s”. A Chinaman is a man, beyond any doubt. A Chinese sounds somewhere between a tapestry and a couple of Chinamen.

I shall not try to defend further my use of the word. When I’m writing something I almost always give way to my ear, when I get in some sort of diction trouble or grammar trouble. A Chinaman is a man of China, just as a Frenchman is a man of France. (Of course, to people along the coast of Maine a Chinaman is still a ship.) I guess Chinaman came to have a vaguely derogatory connotation because virtually every mention of the Chinese people, a generation ago, was patronizing. You took your Pop’s detachable cuffs to the Chinaman’s to be laundered, and the yellowness of the proprietor’s skin (like the yellowness of the dirty cuffs) proved that there was something wrong with him. Nobody ever referred to a Chinaman in any but a derogatory tone; and this must have smelled up the word itself. I think the odor will disappear from the word when the mist rises from our state of mind. (Somebody better get in and block that metaphor.)

At any rate, I am quite sure that “The Wild Flag” contains nothing derogatory to the Chinese. Any Chinaman who finds anything derogatory in that sentence will have to come straight to me.

Many thanks for pointing out the word. I hadn’t forgotten that it was there.


EB White