An article by Dan Bloom reports on a controversy over the way ‘Jew’ is written in Chinese:

There are many Chinese characters for ‘you-tai,’ or Jew, but the combination that is currently being used refers to an animal of the monkey species, and has the connotation of parsimoniousness,” Chien Hsi-chieh, director of the Peacetime Foundation of Taiwan, said recently…
Chien said the biased Chinese characters were devised by Christian missionaries in China around 1830, when they were translating the Old Testament and New Testament into Chinese and needed a term for Jews.
“A better choice for the word ‘Jews’ in Chinese writing would be one that is pronounced the same, but written with a more neutral character,” he said.

You can see the characters themselves in the Taipei Times story on the dustup. At first glance the complaint looks plausible, but Bloom quotes a correspondent, MK Shum of Hong Kong, who says:

The well-intended new translation is more likely end up with a blunder. To name just two of the many pitfalls:
1. The old translation of you-tai (here Y1); although this “you” means a rare species of monkey (not always a bad thing, compare the monkey king as a hero in old fairy tales), it is also used as a conjunction, like “as” or “similar to”. The second meaning is by far the more common one.
2. The newly suggested you-tai (let’s call it Y2) has also a “you” of double meaning. It is a surname. Since “tai” is same in both translations and means Mrs.(in modern Chinese) or “very, too much”, so in this case Y2 becomes “Mrs. YOU”. More seriously, it means sin, or transgression, or complain, or something like that. I don’t think Jews have sinned more than any other people, even they may have complained more, which is necessarily when the world is far from desirable.
Neither Y1 nor Y2 are first-hand translations. They are translations of (perhaps English) translation. Any new initiative must respect both the Hebrew and the Chinese language. I welcome the discussion, but don’t see any easy outcome.

So what do my Chinese-speaking readers think? Genuine problem, or a tempest in a teapot?
(Thanks for the link, Nick!)


  1. As a Jewish Sinologist, let me take this one on. It is a fallacy (but a very common one in contemporary Chinese culture) to locate the source of a word’s connotation in the “root meanings” of the characters used for a particular binome. This is where we get the spurious Chinese etymology “crisis = danger + opportunity,” which has been discussed here previously. (LH, maybe you can link to that post, as Victor Mair is particularly clear about the way Chinese binomes work, a useful point here too.) Connotation comes from current usage, not from some unchanging ur-meaning inherent in characters from their earliest existence.
    It’s true AFAIK that “youtai,” a transliteration of the word “Judah,” was invented by Western missionaries, but to ascribe to them some insidious intent because of their choice of the character for “you” overlooks the conventionalization of characters used in transliteration. I think we’ve talked about this before too, haven’t we? There is a subset of relatively uncommon characters that get pressed into service for transliteration because they are uncommon enough to make it unlikely that readers will erroneously read the meanings of the characters instead of simply their sound. In other words, the “you” of the current “Youtai” was probably chosen precisely because the rarity of the character made it easier to separate sound from meaning. The meaning of the “you” character is deliberately negated here. So to read meaning back into the combination (which is grammatically and semantically meaningless) is to look for offense where none exists.
    Dan Bloom quotes Chien Hsi-chieh as saying that the character in question has a connotation of parsimoniousness. This should send up spurious-etymology warning flags for everyone, since parsimony is one of the qualities ascribed to the Jews by conventional European antisemitism. How likely is it that the same stereotypes of Jews should have evolved in China, where a small but vital community of Jews had lived (under the indigenous term “jiejin jiao,” and without encountering significant antisemitism) since the Song dynasty? Not very likely.
    Rather, it appears that the connotation of parsimoniousness has become attached to the word “youtai” (perhaps more than simply “you”) through its use in translations of Western-language sources that used the word “Jew” in the same casually derogatory way. It’s certainly only recently that we speakers of American English have tried to purge our language of phrases like “That’s awfully white of you,” where the metaphor (white=good) is inherently racist even if the statement itself isn’t. I have an English-Chinese dictionary published in 1973 (the “Continental’s Concise English-Chinese Dictionary”) which defines the English word “Jew” as (and now I am retranslating the Chinese definition into English): “Noun: a Jewish person, a Hebrew person, a follower of the Jewish religion; (colloquial) a high-interest lender, a predatory merchant, a miser. Verb: (colloquial) to cheat, to overcharge; (American colloquial, ‘jew down’) to bargain.” I’m not suggesting that the dictionary itself is racist, rather that it reflected an existing usage of the word in English, and in fairly recent English at that.
    A recent example of the usage of “youtai ren” to mean “parsimonious person” is found in this link from Antisemitism or pure idiocy in New Weekly? I suspect it comes from a dim editor using a dated dictionary, but it shows that the usage isn’t dead in China. The editor’s comments are also useful.

  2. You-tai is presumably not an adaptation of English “Jew”, but of Latin Iudaeus and its Romance reflexes.
    But the idea of Missionaries bringing their own ideas about Jews into their translations does not strike me as at all implausible. Compare, for instance, this sentence from Diego Collado’s Ars Grammaticae Iaponicae Linguae, a grammar of Japanese written in Latin (yum!) in 1632:

    Particula, ra, facit pluralia nomina significantia res vilissimas, vel quæ despectui habentur: v.g. Iudeora, Iudæi
    The particle ra makes plural nouns which signify very disgusting things, or things which are held in contempt, e.g. Yudeo-ra, Jews.

    Granted, this was a book intended for European, not Japanese readers. But the fact that “Jew” was chosen as the sample word does seem a little suspicious to me.
    That said, I do not feel I know enough about Chiense to judge the orthographical issue one way or another.
    BTW, somewhere around here I have a little book of stories from Chinese mythology. One of them involves an Emperor marrying a Youtairen woman. Of course, I’m pretty sure this is a different Youtairen: she comes from a city (in the west, granted) called Youtai, and this takes place during the Shang or Xia era.

  3. Btw, the text of Ars Grammaticae… is available online. If you’re interested in reading it, go to;sessionSeq=11045;sessionLang=eng;sessionCode=utf8;bibid=698061 and click on one of the orangey bookshelf icons.

  4. I don’t have time at the moment to go into any detail, but my intuition is that if Christian missionaries were trying to stigmatise Jews, they were only following the Chinese example.
    It was the practice in Imperial times to use derogatory characters (with the dog radical) for ‘barbarians’ on China’s borders. This was only discontinued in modern times. This is not an imaginary phenomenon that can be ascribed to an attempt to find unambiguous characters.

  5. Justin, that’s fascinating. I had no evidence that would lead me to question the assertion that “youtai” was a construction of the 19th century, but in fact, the first Chinese translations of Biblical material are from the 17th century, and were performed by Jesuits at the Chinese court — probably some of Collado’s colleagues. As a result, other Chinese transliterations of Biblical names clearly come from the Latin: viz. Yuehan (約翰) for John (from Iohan or Iohannes). I would love to know if the source for “Youtai” in fact goes back to such a translation. Anybody have a reference? Or a sense for how that would affect the potentially deliberate antisemitism of the transliteration? I don’t know much about the policies of the Catholic Church at that time with respect to Jews, though I can’t imagine they were very favorable.
    Bathrobe, the phenomenon you’re referring to is largely pre-imperial, not imperial: it’s true that ethnonyms like “man” (蠻), referring to non-Chinese people on the southern frontiers, include radicals for animals or other creatures (in this case, the radical is the one used for insects and snakes, which were associated with the south). This is a coinage dating back to at least to the Western Zhou if not to the Shang. At the same time, it is hard to assess the extent to which the presence of the “insect” radical indicated that the people in question were thought of as inhuman. Just because it is there doesn’t tell us much about how the “barbarians” were understood over 3,000 years ago.
    There are a number of derogatory ethnonyms coined in the imperial period, and among the most well-known are Xiongnu (匈奴), literally “Hunnish slaves” and Xianbei (鮮卑), literally “low-born people from the Korean peninsula.” These terms aren’t derogatory because they question the humanity of the people in question; rather, they indicate that these people are of low class or position. At the same time, it’s worth pointing out that the Xianbei (for example) were emperors of northern China for close to 150 years in the fifth and sixth centuries, and continued to refer to themselves in their own court documents as “Xianbei.” Why would they do that if the term were still seen as derogatory in meaning? That’s what I mean by pointing out that usage trumps orthography when we’re trying to think about what the “connotations” of a word actually are.
    It’s also worth pointing out that the Jews were never one of the border peoples, as far as the Chinese polity was concerned. For close to 1000 years, Judaism had been described in quite neutral terms including jiejin jiao (揭筋教), meaning “the faith that removes the tendons” (a reference to practices of kashrut), and another term for which I don’t have the characters but which translates as “blue-hat Muslims,” indicating that the Chinese quite accurately observed the similarities between many Jewish and Muslim religious practices. The Chinese, in other words, had notably non-racist ethnonyms for the Jews long before the coinage of “Youtai.” If your point is that the Chinese have been just as prone to racism as Westerners or any other people on earth, then you’re probably right; at the same time, it isn’t necessary to look to Chinese tradition to explain institutional antisemitism in early modern Christianity.

  6. Can any Sinologists comment on the idea that ?? has a “pagan connotation”? I thought that ? was originally just a hanzi representation of the first part of “Uyghur”. (So, if anything, the complaint would be that “we aren’t all Uyghur” rather than “that character connotates paganism”.)
    P.S. Justin, I think I love you.

  7. Gah! That was supposed to be the square-inside-a-square character that in other contexts usually means “turn” (at least in Japanese)

  8. 回教, Matt? (I don’t know how it is that other people sometimes have difficulty doing non-Latin stuff in LH comments – for me it even automatically translates Unicode to HTML entities, which I think is pretty neat.)

  9. Re: use of Xianbei; arguing because it was used by an ethnic group to refer to themselves that it can have no negative connotations seems a little naive. One might as well argue that because some wealthy, powerful black Americans use the word “nigger” to refer to themselves the word has no negative connotations.

  10. I’d say that this is a very, very grey area. While it is true that some transliterations are pretty random (e.g. “sandwich”, done differently in Taiwan and Hongkong), during the imperial period transliterations were very deliberately done; the Chinese were devout textualists for who written forms had an essentially sacred function.
    [The Taiwan word for “sandwich” san-ming-zhi is roughly cognate with the word for their official ideology san-min-zhu-yi. A joke I made in 1983 about the ideology of “Sandwichism” was not appreciated. Dissidents described the ideology as “toothbrushism” ya-shua-zhu-yi, as I remember].
    At various points, emperors (and Empress Wu) altered graphs of one sort or another for politico-religious reasons, and individuals and groups could be assigned more-prestigious or less-prestigious graphs as part of the politico-historical process. Many of the tribal names have been redone during the Communist era. Russia, a traditional enemy, still has a less-honorific designation than France, Germany, or the US.
    That said, what was specifically said about yu-tai seems somewhat doubtful. In the Chinese system the Jews were regarded as a variety of Muslim, just as the Manichaeans were regarded a variety of Buddhism. The Chinese have a delightfully casual and humorous attitude toward niceties of theology and sect, which I basically share.
    Buddhists evaded the problems here by using nonsense syllables, so that “Nirvana” = ni-ban = “mud plate”. There’s quite a story here, because the phoneticists of India were very competent and Buddhism gave the Koreans, Japanese, Tibetans, and Mongols pretty good phonetic writing systems, but the Chinese rejected “the arbitrariness of the sign”. (The people of India DID give mystic meanings to the phonemes /letters of the alphabet, e.g. the “om” of chanting, which is “o”. The writing of India was analytic, just as Abidharmist metaphysics was, whereas Chinese philosophy is holistic.)
    The Chinese transcription of the Secret History of the Mongols is very carefully done, using diacriticals to indicate Mongol distinctions not found in Chinese. I expected a barbarous hodgepodge, but when I saw it I was quite impressed.

  11. Well, the discussion seems to have progressed quite some way since I threw my stone into the pond, and with the usual depth of erudition that marks visitors to this blog.
    My point was simply:
    (1) The Chinese already had a tradition of assigning derogatory characters to barbarians, which might have acted as a precedent for the Jesuits (pure speculation, of course, but plausible — one can imagine the good Jesuit fathers discussing with their Chinese friends and advisors, ‘Look, these Jews are a bit of an abomination, old chap, we can’t go calling them [youtai]*, it paints them in altogether too-glowing colours; don’t you have something better?’ ‘Well actually, we Chinese have a nice, time-honoured tradition of naming less savoury races that you might be interested in. It goes like this…’)
    (2) The choice of characters was obviously deliberate. That radical meant something to the people who assigned the characters, that’s why they were chosen. I don’t think it is possible to prevaricate on this one and pretend that the radical doesn’t actually mean anything.
    * Sorry, three times and I can’t get the characters ?? to show. I chose the character ‘you’ meaning excellent (with the danrenpang radical) and ‘tai’ meaning ‘peaceful’, as in ‘Taiguo’.

  12. Seeing as I can’t edit!
    Even if the word youtai was coined in the 1830s, there would have been literate Chinese who could have put the Christian devils on the right path. I’m not blaming the Chinese; I’m merely pointing out there was a precedent.

  13. 優泰
    Well, isn’t that amazing! I can post the characters with Firefox but not with Safari.

  14. That was the one, Tim. I’m on Safari, too, so that must be the root of the problem. (I think that the discussion is over, now, though. D’oh!)

  15. Mr. Donaldson wrote:

    One might as well argue that because some wealthy, powerful black Americans use the word “nigger” to refer to themselves the word has no negative connotations.

    Well, what Xiaolongnu said was that they continued to refer to themselves as Xianbei in their own court documents. Something tells me that in his official communiqués, Colon Powell does not call himself a nigger.
    A better argument might be that people have become more aware of and/or sensitive to choices of ethnonyms in recent decades.
    And Matt, thanks for the sentiments. I like you too. But let’s just be friends 😉

  16. What a great discussion — I’m glad I asked!

  17. And I’m frustrated my work load does not allow me to participate. A lot of stimulating elements, indeed.

  18. I’d be curious to hear about Sidney Shapiro’s opinion on this, though (not only is he a Chinese citizen, but he did write a book about Jews in China).

  19. And of course, it is too bad Israel Epstein passed away just this year (that Wikipedia entry omits his “other” Chinese name: Ai Pei 艾培). He was always referred to as a “Youtai zu” 犹太族 from Poland.

  20. Slightly OT but I just finished reading “Genghis Khan” by Jack Weatherford, based on the previously mentioned Secret Histories. He mentions Jewish Rabbis in the court of Khubilai Khan.

  21. John Emerson says

    Note that bathrobe and Jimmy Ho give different graphs. This may be a simplified/traditional difference, though substititions of that type were found traditionally too. I believe that both forms of both graphs had similiar meanings.

  22. Hi,
    What an interesting discussion, way over my head, I am just a mere reporter, based here in Taiwan, where the story first surfaced in the pages of the Taipei Times. The JTA later ran my story with some pics of the characters, the current ones and the proposed new ones. You guys here are all geniuses! WOW! Who knew?
    Feel free to email me for more info on this issue. The JTA story has gone all over the blogoshere, I had no idea. I think the story, in the end, is just a tempest in a Taiwan tea-brewing pot. Interesting. But nothing will change. I wonder if the news has reached Communist CHina yet and if anyone there has commented on this.

  23. Can I second Matt’s call for somebody’s learned take on the idea that the character 回 has a “pagan” connotation? I’m just trying to figure out what that would mean. I personally can’t imagine a context in which “pagan” has a meaningful application to the religious history of China, but of course this could be a failure of imagination on my part.
    “Pagan” has a number of different meanings (according to the OED) but it seems to me that the overwhelming meaning of “not Christian” would trump other usages in this case. OED does give the more ecumenical “A person not subscribing to any major or recognized religion, esp. the dominant religion of a particular society.” But between the Big Three of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism, it’s hard to say which is the “dominant religion” at any particular point in China. Similarly, “pagan” can mean “A follower of a pantheistic or nature-worshipping religion; esp. a neopagan;” but it’s hard to see how these associations could fit into the picture.
    Perhaps it would be more useful to ask whether 回 has any connotation of heterodoxy, or of non-normative status. If so, it would be interesting, given that there have been Chinese Muslims almost as long as there have been Muslims. Can the Hui really be considered non-normative either as Chinese *or* as Muslims?
    Heh. Now we’re *really* off-topic.

  24. Well, the characters I gave should be different — I picked them myself (as an example of how ‘youtai’ might have been written)! They are not the characters actually used to write ‘youtai’.

  25. Hi, Dan! Glad you dropped by, and I envy you your time in Taiwan — have a platter of steamed dumplings for me!
    Now we’re *really* off-topic.
    As long as the topic has anything to do with language, it’s not off-topic around here.

  26. hello,小龙女, you mentioned Jew are called in ancient china as 揭筋教, but afaik right hanzi are 挑筋教 tiaojinjiao not 揭筋教 jiejinjiao named after the practice for not to eat tendon. and at ancient city kaifeng Jew called themselve as 一赐乐业yicileye which provably came from israel and blue-hat Muslims is written as 蓝帽回回.

  27. hello,dan, you mentioned url and only that make me confused because that character 犹太 and 猶太 is simply *same* and also posess same meaning, difference is simplifed hanzi or not.

  28. Xiaolongnu: Pagan normally means “polytheistic.” Jews, for instance, are not called Pagans, even in the most bile-filled Christian writings.
    I would think this description does apply to Chinese religion, and certainly those Jesuits I’ve been reading lately do use the term.

  29. I was going to post this, but Huixing beat me to it:
    Yisileye jiao 一赐乐业教 (the 赐 is probably best read the “literate” way, ‘si’ instead of the current ‘ci’) is one of the most common “indigenous” terms for Chinese Judaism (I don’t think there is any doubt that Yisileye transcribes “Israel”) since the Song dynasty. It is used in Ming texts (as far as I can recall). if you ask me, that‘s one fun word to translate.
    John, as Huixing said, 犹 and 猶 are respectevely the simplified and “traditional” form of the one and same character ‘you’. Bathrobe wrote different characters, but unlike me, he used the traditional script (優 is 优 in jianti; the second character is the same).

  30. Language Hat, hi:
    You wrote: “Hi, Dan! Glad you dropped by, and I envy you your time in Taiwan — have a platter of steamed dumplings for me!”
    Funny story about that: when I first arrived here from Japan (five years there) in 1996, I couldnt speak much Chinese, so when I went to a steamed dumpling shop to nosh on some good food there, the waitress kept calling the dish “shiao lom pao” or that is what I thought I was hearing, so in my own mind I began thinking of them as SHALOM POW! (my shorthand way to remember). I still think of them as SHALOM POW too!
    Note to Huixing:
    Here is a better place to see the characters that are being debated:
    “There are many Chinese characters for you tai (猶太), or Jew, but they pick the you with the `dog radical’ (犬)” said Chien Hsi-chieh, executive director of the Peacetime Foundation of Taiwan. “In Chinese, [the character] refers to an animal of the monkey species, and has the connotation of `parsimoniousness.'”
    A better choice for the word, Chien said, would be you (尤), which is more neutral.
    By the way, not just here, but in several blogs around the world, this topic is being discussed by hundreds of people. It’s amazing how a small story can get so much attention worldwide. The Taipei Times, of course, was the first newspaper to report this story, and I picked the topic up from there and sent it to the JTA, which sent it on its news wire to over 500 newspapers worldwide.
    Still curious to know if any media in CHINA CHINA picked up the topic. Maybe they are not interested there, because it is a Taiwan-based story and CHINA CHINA does not care much about Taiwan, other than to buly it internationally whnever possible. Shame on them!

  31. John Emerson says

    The “yu” with the dog radical was actually most commonly used in classical Chinese as a grammatical particle; I think that it means a kind of animal only in the most archaic texts. The “tai” graph is also a common adjective with an intensifying function; in modern Chinese it probably mostly means “excessive”, but classically it also meant “great” or “primary”. IMHO, the common rather abstract uses of these graphs tend to neutralize the more concrete uses in this case.
    The Chinese have a long tradition of various sorts of word-games based on written forms and puns, and sometimes these games are taken very seriously, as revealing esoteric meanings; Fenellosa (who influenced Pound and especially Amy Lowell) brought a Japanese version of this into English translations of Chinese poetry. I think that that’s what we’re looking at here; not a Western misunderstanding of China, but an indigenous Chinese eccentricity bent to a good (philosemitic) purpose.

  32. Um, I have a question about the way “you-tai” is used in Chinese:
    I once wrote a song based on the fact that when people speaking English with the usual Korean accent say the word “Zoo,” they pronounce it in a way that sounds like “Jew”. (And since there was a zoo in a nearby town called Jeonju, I would get asked, “Have you visited the Jeonju Jew?” Hence the song; for the curious, here’s the doggerel I originally wrote, and the song can be heard here. Just in case you brainiacs want a little break from language-crunching to enjoy a silly little song which I suppose, being about an imaginary Jew in Asia, is on-topic.)
    Anyway, when my band was performing it, the bassist (the only Korean native in the band) explained that thing about the accent, the central pun of the song. And the word for “Jew” in Korean was “Yu-Tae-In”.
    (The things you learn playing in a rock band abroad… I tell you.)
    I’ve heard people use the phrase “Is-Rah-yael Saram” as well (literally: Israel-person, or, more naturally, “Israeli”) but whenever they say it using “Yu-Tae” there’s always an “-in” tacked on the end. “In”, of course, is the Korean (hanja) name for the Chinese character “ren”.
    So I’m wondering, since the Korean form is obviously derived from the Chinese, whether or not in Chinese it’s conventional to include the “ren” on the end. Not that this would necessarily change the connotation, but, I am curious, if anyone knows.
    And I think Xiaolongu’s probably right that “heterodoxy” would likely be a more appropriate term than “paganism”, because of the specific historical weight of “paganism” as an epithet used from within Christianity. It all but means non-Christian or pre-Christian religion or believers in the same, as far as I know… and the reasons why Jews were never included in that category probably have less to do with their monotheism and more to do with their Biblical linkage to Christianity and of course their special status. After all, it’s not like people didn’t have a whole host of over nasty terms for Jews all over Christendom.
    I have a hard time imagining that “pagan-as-polytheist” would translate directly into Chinese, where poolytheistic religions weren’t necessarily considered “heterodox”, at least not all the time. Meanwhile, would the Manicheans who supposedly hid out in South China be called “pagans”? How about the Buddhists and folk-religions in which polytheism was just normal? Would the Taipings have been “pagans” or “heterodox”? They certainly were considered heterodox, though, and it seems that scholars I’ve read would use that would without hesitation, but they were monotheists (who horrified the west with their take on Christianity, but nonetheless they were, sort-of, monotheists, and if I remember my readings correctly, they were labeled “heterodox”, or that’s what the word has usually been translated as).

  33. John Emerson says

    During the crusades both Muslims and Christians called their enemies “pagans”. So it could be a contentless slur even in the West. For the missionaries, “pagan” meant “most Chinese” — I doubt they used the word outside a church context. “Pagan” isn’t an indigenous Chinese concept at all. “Heterodox” religions were those which challenged the Emperor’s supremacy (claiming a political role, and usually settig up a new emperor). Other previously-accepted religions were repressed when they became too wealthy and powerful (Islam and Buddhism especially).

  34. So I’m wondering, since the Korean form is obviously derived from the Chinese, whether or not in Chinese it’s conventional to include the “ren” on the end. Not that this would necessarily change the connotation, but, I am curious, if anyone knows.
    Yes, if you mean to say “a Jewish person” (or “Jews” etc.), you have to use the ‘ren’: ‘Youtai ren’. ‘Youtai’ or ‘Youtai de’ is “Jewish”, the epithet.
    As John Emerson points out, ‘you’ is one of the most common grammatical words in classical or even simply literary Chinese, just like ‘ru’ 如, ruo’ 若, etc. personally, that is the first meaning I think of when I see the character, before the monkey or the first part of the common verb youyu 犹豫. I actually wanted to say this in my first comment but decided not to, because I haven’t read the linked articles (yet?).

  35. Also, to avoid any confusion, “Yisileye”, quoted above, is a transcription of the name “Israel”, but has nothing to do with the current name of the state of Israel, whose official transcription (at least in Dalu) is Yiselie 以色列.
    I for one don’t get that ‘hui’ = “pagan” thing at all.

  36. Regarding the term “pagan,” my problem was that I somehow missed the second article and didn’t know how that word had come up. I have no idea what it would mean in the context it’s used in.
    In other contexts “polytheist” tends to be what the word means. Certainly that’s what it means to classicists.
    As for whom the Jesuits considered “pagans,” Buddhists definitely counted. I would assume most Chiense religions would too. Not sure about Islam, but I suspect it would not be. Note also this quote from :

    What intrigued the Jesuits most was the manner in which the Kaifeng Jews had integrated certain Confucian customs into their own monotheistic religion. They felt it necessary, in addition, to find out which Chinese terms the Jews used to identify the Divinity (the Terms Question)–terms, they concluded, that if used by the Jews could be trusted to be entirely free from the taint of idolatry or polytheistic thought.

    So yes there were plenty of reasons for Jesuits to hate Jews, but paganism wasn’t one of them.
    I have no idea what that article means abotu hui though.
    And I love your song, Gordsellar.

  37. BTW, on a totally tangential note: there’s that famous story of how Mateo Ricci, the noted Jesuit, met Ai Tian, a Kaifeng Jew, where both of them assum the other one is from the same religion, and manage to have a long conversation, including prayers, before they realize their error.
    Does anybody know where this story was originally recounted?

  38. Justin, there are a lot of sources, but one I know of is Jonathan Spence’s book “The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci.” pp. 120-121 in the Penguin paperback edition.

  39. The meaning of a word depends on how it is used, not how it sounds or is written. Thus it only becomes insulting when it is used to insult someone. The kind of people who go around looking for a chance to feel insulted or to take delight in someone else being insulted are sure to find one. Usually, however, the insult is only in the eye of the person looking for it, not in the eye of the person who acutally used it in spoken or written form. So the way a person condified a word several centuries ago is highly unlikely to have any bearing on the supposed insult we can attribute that usage today. The user then probably had something entirely different in mind.

  40. Jimmy Ho: I’ve met Mr. Shapiro. We actually hosted his granddaughter at our house as an exchange student for a year. Although he is not an obscure person, but nevertheless your mention of him bowled me over (which I neglected to mention before).
    Xiaolongnu: I’m looking for a PRIMARY source. I would like to read this story in its original language (whatever that happens to be (but I’m hoping for Latin 😉 )).
    I wonder if what the Taipei article meant was not “has a connotation of paganism” but “has pagan connotations,” i.e. the symbol is meaningful to a polytheistic Chinese religion. Does it?

  41. Justin,
    I wonder how Sidney Shapiro is in person. Even people who only have a superficial interest in China may remember his name from his prolific activity as a translator for Beijing’s Foreign Languages Press, from Defend Yan’an to Outlaws of the Marsh (the Shuihu zhuan 水滸傳).
    Back in the days, I posted about him and other famous “foreign friends” at my now-seppukued blog Zhengming 正名. Among other links, there was this article [PDF file] by Anne-Marie Brady, whichs reviews Sydney Rittenberg and Sydney Shapiro’s (“the two Sids”) autobiographies.
    The modern version of that Byronesque figure would be Dashan 大山, aka Mark Rowswell. I never met him, but we have common friends who say he’s “hen haowan”. Right on topic, I seem to recall that he played the role of a Jesuit missionary in a TV series. I had already left the country at that time and didn’t really care, so I have no idea about his performance. When I went back last summer, he was advertising an electronic pocket dictionary for English.

  42. “The kind of people who go around looking for a chance to feel insulted or to take delight in someone else being insulted are sure to find one. Usually, however, the insult is only in the eye of the person looking for it, not in the eye of the person who acutally used it in spoken or written form.”
    Well said. This reminds me of the to-do a few years back (late 20th-early 21st century) when someone Chinese decided that the suffix ‘-ese’ had a derogatory meaning in English (as in ‘journalese’). With their highly-tuned sensitivity to slights, many Chinese believed this nonsense and it seems to have passed into Chinese folklore that ‘Chinese’ is a derogatory term. Some will even suggest that English should come up with a new, more respectful adjective.

  43. QUOTE ABOVE: “This reminds me of the to-do a few years back (late 20th-early 21st century) when someone Chinese decided that the suffix ‘-ese’ had a derogatory meaning in English (as in ‘journalese’). With their highly-tuned sensitivity to slights, many Chinese believed this nonsense and it seems to have passed into Chinese folklore that ‘Chinese’ is a derogatory term. Some will even suggest that English should come up with a new, more respectful adjective.”
    This urban legend is still alive and well in Taiwan, where thousands of emails continue to relay this very same message, that Westerners show their prejudice against Taiwan people by using the ESE ending, which is a negative grammatical construct, according to a learned professor with a PHD from Taipei. He says notice that French are not called Francese or Germans, Germanese, but just Asian people are called by the negative ESE ending, Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc…..
    This chain letter email will not die and even the local newspapers here have written about it. Urban legends have a long shelf life in a gullible uneducated world!

  44. “The kind of people who go around looking for a chance to feel insulted or to take delight in someone else being insulted are sure to find one. Usually, however, the insult is only in the eye of the person looking for it, not in the eye of the person who acutally used it in spoken or written form.”
    I’ll try to remember that next time someone tells me that “kill Whitey!” is a racist appeal to mass murder. Next thing you know, “Jap” is insulting only in the eyes of a few paranoid Asian American activists. “Japanese people in Japan have no problem with it, so there”. “Once a Jap, always a Jap” was a hommage to the Japanese’s strong cultural identity. Internment, what internment?
    Next time the Mongolian friend who came to live in France is annoyed that so many people say “mongolien” (the correct word is “trisomique”) instead of “Mongol” or giggle whenever he tells them his nationality (“mongol” and “gogol” mean “retard” in primary school language), I will tell him that “the insult is only in [his] eye” and that he’s just “looking for it”.
    I’ve had numerous discussions with progressive, inclusive, but older Greek people, who claimed the right to keep using the word “négros” for Black people. “But it means ‘black’, and they are black, so where’s the problem?”
    – How d’you say “black” in Greek? – “Mavros“, why you asking me? – ’cause ‘negros’ comes from Latin, and you never use it to for anything else. Is is so difficult to say “Mavros”?
    Those are real examples. Urban legends such as the Chin-ese thing (which I’d never heard before) or (I suspect) that “Youtai” thing are publicized to distract the attention from real racism, which is never only about words.
    When someone clearly treats me as an inferior who should “know his place”, I sure as hell want to have a close look at the language he’s using.

  45. As a pendant to “negros/mavros”, I’ll remind the legend that “‘Greek’ comes from a Latin word (Graecus) that implies that we’ll always be under someone someone’s domination and have no ties to Ancient Greece, I mean Ancient Hellas”. I mentionned it in the “Eskimo” thread.

  46. I heard from a man named Adam Birnbaum, in Palo Alto, California, who writes: “As a Jew who does speak and read Chinese, the problem here isn’t connected to the Jews specifically. Chinese has a very small set of sounds to choose from compared to other languages, and thus even though Chinese incorporates foreign loan words like every other language, it does so using “nonsense” syllables that sound a little like the original language word. The Chinese words for “grape” or “butterfly” are both ancient examples of this process in action.
    More recently, almost every foreign name or placename that has needed a Chinese equivalent has had the same fate – most Chinese people understand that these characters are just placeholders for sounds, and don’t really “mean” anything. ”

  47. Slightly off message, but about the ESE ending.
    One poster writes: “Strangely I think I have at last worked it out. Looking up the -ese ending in Webster’s and you get this:
    1) Native or resident of a specified place or country (Chinese)
    2) Speech literary style or diction peculiar to a specified place, person or group, usually in words applied in dislike or contempt (Pentagonese, journalese)”
    “This whole “Taiwanese is derogatory” thing is obviously a straight confusion between the two by someone not versed in the subtleties of English, almost certainly a non-native speaker, and disseminated , as is much other stupidity, via the internet. A question for language mavens: Which definition is being used in “Brooklynese?””
    here is an URL for the discussion about Taiwaner or Taiwanese: in Chinese:
    A teacher in Taipei wrote:
    “A local primary school English teacher here in Taiwan recently asked my company (EFL publishing) to help her solve a problem. It seems, one of her student’s parents complained that teaching the word “Taiwanese” is old fashioned, and that she should be teaching “Taiwaner” instead, to the students. Reason being, “-ese” is a derogatory suffix, denoting an inferior race.
    Needless to say, the teacher was baffled by this accusation and found it difficult to respond. When the question was presented to me, I also found it difficult to answer, except to say that “Taiwaner” is not a word, and how could a suffix be classified as having such implications?
    I remember the original email circulating in Taiwan about two years ago, but I didn’t think it was taken to heart so people would demand to be called Taiwaners, and deem the term Taiwanese out-of-date. See the Chinese text below:
    I’m a Taiwaner
    Personally, I do not understand why the Taiwanese have jumped on this idea, and not the Japanese, or Chinese, as well.”
    Looks like the Chinese have jumped on this too, in China that is. Maybe Japanese know better!

  48. Just one more note:
    Professor Geoffrey Sampson of the School of Cognitive & Computing Sciences at the University of Sussex explains the use of the ese suffix as not being tied to languages in particular; but rather as it merely being an adjectival suffix. He explains further that the Japanese language
    is called “Japanese” because the adjective from Japan is Japanese —
    “Japanese people”, “Japanese geography”, so also “Japanese language”, or
    just “Japanese” in a context where it is obvious that it’s the language
    being discussed.
    He further explains why, in his opinion, nationality adjectives relating to
    Asian nations in particular favour the -ese suffix. It may be because
    of the historical sequence in which English-speaking people became
    familiar with different distant parts of the world. He states, that for the nearby European nations, English formed adjectives very early, before
    the English language was influenced by French, had words
    like French, Dutch, Spanish; or in cases like Italian, we adapted the nation’s own self-description (italiano) to our language.
    However, in cases like Japanese and Chinese, which came much later, but still early relative to smaller distant nations or for instance African names; English used mangled forms of the natives’ name for their country, and stuck on a suffix which happened to be popular at that particular period (he believes that the adjectives may have come to English under French influence, and that -ese is an Anglicization of the suffix which in modern French appears as -ois).
    Further, he explains, we were more aware of the native languages’ own
    structure, so for instance many nationality-adjectives relating to South
    or Southwest Asia end in -i (e.g. Hindi), which is not an English or a
    French suffix but the native suffix. Or, he continues, we use a general classical adjective suffix — the language of the Sioux is called Siouxan (I believe) not because -an is an adjective suffix from the native English rootstock, nor because it is how the Sioux describe themselves, but because it is a Latin adjective suffix which was natural for scholars to use.
    Then, he suggests, if this kind of history has happened to throw up several -ese words for major nations in one particular world region, such as East Asia, that would have been influential when people were coining adjectives for smaller groups in the same region — i.e., “Madurese”, because it is in the same general region where people had become accustomed to the adjectives “Chinese”/”Japanese”.
    The Professor concludes that if his suspicion is anywhere near correct, it means that the apparent regularity of use of the ese suffix with East Asian nations is more a question of the fluctuations of fashion or
    habit than anything else.

  49. Makes sense to me. The ease with which ideas like “-ese is racist!” spread is profoundly depressing to me. Don’t people have real problems to worry about?

  50. I finally had a look at the articles. That Peacetime Foundation sure knows about “buzzing”.
    For those who read Chinese, here is a draft of the press release about the “Gai you wei you” 改猶為尤 campaign. I am still puzzled: how could anyone seriously propose to replace 回教徒 (“follower of the Hui religion”) with 伊斯蘭 (Islam), while apparently ignoring the existence of the word Musilin 穆斯林 (Muslim)?
    What makes me highly skeptical is that they don’t mention any actual Chinese-learned Jewish personality supporting them, they only say that they have been encouraged by the official Israeli representant, whose name they apparently forgot to write.
    Another point of the release that seems to matter a lot: “Vice-President Lü Xiulian is bad!”
    (“Zhengming” was really the right name, after all.)

  51. Also, I got the explanation for “paganism”: simply a bad translation for yijiao 異教 (heterodoxy).
    Of course, they didn’t sollicit any Chinese Muslim (Hui or otherwise, there are in Taiwan, too) either. I’m all for peace in the world and stopping hate, but this is not very serious.

  52. Justin: Does anybody know where this story was originally recounted?
    It is probably in Ricci and Trigault’s account of their adventures, first published in French in 1617:
    Histoire de l’expédition chrétienne au royaume de la Chine, Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1978.
    This is embarassing: I have a good Chinese book about Kaifeng Jews somewhere, but it is buried under other stuff and I don’t have the courage to go dig it out now.

  53. OK, but does hui have connotations of heterodoxy beyond the fact that it means Islam? And if not, is it possible to avoid such connotations regardless of what name you choose?

  54. Why, no, it doesn’t. Before meaning Muslim, it means one of the Muslim nations China was in contact with, namely the Uyghurs; ‘hui’ is short for ‘Huihui’, ‘Huihu’, ‘Huigu’, etc. In a sense, it has become a metonymy for “Muslims around us”.
    Hence the constant confusion, nowadays, when people talk about the “Muslim minority” in China: some people mean the Uyghurs (which would be right under the Song dynasty, but isn’t now, the official denomination being ‘Weiwuer’), others mean the Hui minority or Huizu (but, among the 55 official ethnicities, Hui are only one of the eleven or so who are predominantly Muslim), and finally the third group, stricto sensu the only right one, will include every Chinese citizen who embraces Islam into that group.
    The Hui denomination is a victim of the old Ottoman puzzle: once you start identifying religions with ethnicities, things become really messed up for the following generations.
    While probably very mixed ethnically, “Hui” is the only group indentified only by religion (well, and a geographical entity, the Ningxia autonomous region, but there are Hui everywhere in China).
    I guess something similar may have been at play with the Jewish “nationality” in the former Soviet Union.

  55. Just a note: the Hui of Hainan have nothing to do with the Hui of Mainland China. They are believed to have come from modern Vietnam. They have been lumped with the Hui nationality on account of their religion.

  56. This is interesting, and it illustrates what I said: if they are Huizu, then they are Huizu (assuming that by “the Hui of Hainan“, you mean the people officially registered as Huizu in Hainan). They may be very different from Hui of other provinces of mixed Uyghur, Tatar, Mongolian, etc. descent, or who come from converted Han families; they do not share a “Huiyu” that would be the unifying language of the nation (and Ningxia Chinese dialects don’t count). None the less, they all belong to (or: have been classified in) the same group based on a cultural and religious community.
    Hence the parallel with Jews: trying to “recognise” the Hui in a crowd where nobody wears distinctive attire or symbols (the famous white hat, an Arabic inscribed medallion, etc.) is a very futile task. Xie Bingxin has a joke about it (and her admitted ignorance of all things Hui, excepts the “qingzhen” restaurants) in her preface to Huo Da’s Musilin de zangli.

  57. By the way, during a short break today, I found something I don’t remember hearing about before: the Huihui bi 回回鼻 or “Huihui nose”, which is a kind of mask made remarkable by, I quote the Hanyu Da Cidian, its “very long nose”, and is of course supposed to represent the typical “Western Regions” Muslim.
    Finding out about the current use of similar objects would have been much more worth than fighting to replace “Huijiao tu” with “Yisilan”.

  58. This thread is getting picked up all around the Blogosphere. here is a new post from September 18, 2005
    “a jew in china is not a parsimonious monkey”
    china – culture – taiwan
    Some uppity group called with a bad name, Peacetime Foundation of Taiwan have decided the world would be a better place if the characters for ‘Jew’ were not 猶太, you tai, which they’ve taken the liberty of extracting the radicals from and coming up with something like ‘parsimonious monkey’.
    The whole thing blew up in the Taipei Times almost a month ago (still keeping to my strict regime of blogging long after anything is old news), and got covered in The Jerusalem Post also. It got really interesting though when Language Hat, a blog for linguistic geeks got hold of it, and the comments are still going strong.
    Absolutely worth an hour reading if you get all wet and slippery over etymology and sinology, and enjoy laughing your arse off at the kind of people like Peacetime (sounds like decaffeinated coffee substitute) who don’t quite get that tearing a character back to its roots doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about it. The same kind of people who bludgeon 危机 crisis into its components and get “crisis = danger + opportunity’. Which Language Hat also have fun with.

    Father Daniel Bauer, a Jesuit priest who has been teaching in Taiwan for over 30 years, writes about this controversy in his column in the CHINA POST, an English newspaper, in Taipei.
    [Father Daniel J. Bauer SVD is a priest and associate professor at Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan, where he is chair of the English Department in the School of Continuing Education.]
    “Although I did not say so, I immediately thought of the Chinese terms for “Jewish person” (“you tai jen,” the first character of which relies on the radical for “dog,”) which seems a nasty swipe at Jews, and “comatose patient,” (“chih wu jen,” or “vegetable person”) which offends human dignity in my book.”
    ….”Like “you tai jen” and “chih wu jen,” “glass dolls” is neither accurate nor respectful. ”
    BAuer was talking about the use of the term glass doll for adults in Taiwan who suffer from a rare bone disease that makes their bones extremely brittle, and they are nicknamed in Taiwan’s media, both English and Chinese media, as glass dolls. The good father was asking that that term by deleted, and in passing he mentioned the controversy being discussed on this very thread. Maybe he read it here too?

  60. Danny, thanks for the update. I sympathize with Bauer’s concern about “zhiwu ren” and “boli wawa”. Both are metaphors that convey a vivid imagery and are indeed potentially offensive and could easily be replaced with neutral terms, but “youtai”, which he just drops in passing, clearly does in no way belong to the same category, as it is primarily a phonetic transcription.
    I note that Bauer does not even mention the “monkey” meaning, he is only bothered by the “dog” radical (which in fact indicates any animal with claws). At least the P Foundation is not named this time.

  61. (I’ve tried to imagine a joke playing on van Gulik’s crime novels’ hero, Judge Dee [Di] 狄, whose surname has the same radical, but I’ll let that to someone more talented.)

  62. I remember mentioning wenziyu (“literary inquisition”) at least once here: this organization is using the very same logic adapting it to the modern media (that said with the little information available to me right now).

  63. Perhaps the Peacetime Foundation of Taiwan has paid attention — but not enough attention — to this thread, because the organization is expanding its drive to cover “Mùsīlín,” according to a short article in today’s Taipei Times:

    A civic group yesterday resurrected its call for the government and media to support a campaign to change what they say are discriminatory Chinese translations for terms related to Islam and Judaism. The Peacetime Foundation of Taiwan yesterday requested the government and media replace the commonly-used Chinese translation for the religion of Islam, hui chiao (回教), with yisilan chiao (伊斯蘭教) and Muslim, hui chiao tu (回教徒), with muslin [sic] (穆斯林) because hui has a connotation of paganism. The foundation also called for substituting the Chinese characters 尤太 (you tai) for the currently used characters for “Jew”, 猶太 (also you tai). The foundation said that you (猶) with the “dog” radical refers to a type of monkey and has the connotation of stinginess.

  64. Mark, that article is a summary of the press release I linked to earlier.
    I don’t want to assume anything about their intentions (having not fully researched what they are about; I assumed I knew them, but many “peace” organisations have similar names), but I am not pleased to see such trivialisation going on, when real racism is quietly going in the Chinese-speaking world (I have to say, though, that the worst instances I’ve seen where not in Dalu, but in Taiwan and overseas Chinese booklets: all of them repeated tired stereotypes of Western antisemitism).

  65. To give you a tangible example, there is this popular almanach published in Manilla, where the physiognomony (xiangshu) section includes a comparison between “Greek”, “Roman” and “Jewish” noses (with pictures): the first two are indicative of aesthetic spirit, order, harmony, whereas the latter shows that its bearer is greedy, prone to treason, etc.
    Let me assure you that this has nothing to do with any Chinese “tradition”, and is much more disturbing than the fact that ‘youtai de you’ has a ‘dog’ side-element.
    Next: “Why ‘Jolly Nigger Banks’ are now Made in Taiwan (and other Asian countries)”.

  66. Mark and Dan Bloom, both of you are in Taiwan: what does this Foundation represents? Is it safe to say that the ridiculous ‘huijiao’ and ‘youtai’ business is a pretext to affirm a political position?

  67. Jimmy, I have no idea what the political agenda of the foundation is, but you might be right, that there IS some kind of political agenda. You can write to them and ask. It would be enlightening to know exactly what the political take on all this…

  68. This would probably be a waste of time (after seeing their Website, I can imagine the response), but it could be interesting if a Muslim sinologist (or simply a Muslim Chinese) and a Jewish sinologist wrote a common letter (preferably “open”).

    Cay Marchal was on his way from Germany to Japan in 2001 when his plane touched down in Taipei for a stopover, but he ended up staying in the city for two days because Typhoon Nara was keeping planes grounded.
    That was his initial taste of Taiwan, and later, after a year working as a German teacher in Japan, Marchal decided he wanted to come here to live and work on a Ph.D. dissertation. He was accepted as a visiting scholar at Academia Sinica, in Nankang, and the 31-year-old German national has been here ever since.
    Marchal, who writes under a Chinese pen name, has also done something few Westerners here have done. In September, he published a book of essays that he wrote in Chinese, and the book was released by a major publisher in Taipei, with several Chinese-language newspapers taking note of the unusual way the book found its way to publication in Taiwan.
    Titled ”A Guide to My Foreign Soul in Taiwan”, Marchal’s book was published by Aquarius Books in Taipei. The first printing was 3,000 copies and a second printing has been released as well. In addition, Marchal has appeared on a few TV and radio shows and sat for several newspaper interviews, to promote the book.

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