Westerners Never Called Chinese ‘Sick Men of Asia’, Reactions

People during the Chinese Qing Dynasty smoking opium.
晚清鸦片吸食者。“洋人用鸦片毒害国人身体”和“洋人嘲讽国人是东亚病夫”,近当代历史教科书中一直视二者为因果关系。但该逻辑忽略了近代以来中国境内绝大多数鸦片其实是自产而非进口。">Late Qing Dynasty opium addicts. "Westerners used opium to poison our countrymen's bodies" and "Westerners ridiculed our countrymen as the sick men of Asia". Contemporary textbooks have regarded both as cause and effect. However, this logic ignores the fact that the vast majority of opium within the country in modern times is domestically produced and not imported.

Bruce Lee and the cracked tablet that says: Sick Men of East Asia.

From QQ:

Westerners Didn’t Say Chinese People are the Sick Men of East Asia

Every time during the Olympic Games, when our compatriots win medals, words like “Sick Men of East Asia” would definitely be wildly used by the domestic media, especially in 2008, when headlines like “From Sick Men of East Asia to Olympic Sports Power” and “Beijing Olympic Games Forever Ends Discriminative Label ‘Sick Men of East Asia’” could be seen everywhere. This time at the London Olympic Games, the Chinese delegation is shining with exploits, and there are many similar news reports as well.

This is actually a misunderstanding——the West used “Sick Man” to describe the Chinese government of the late Qing Dynasty for its terribly stagnated political reforms, but our compatriots strangely interpreted it as a certain “discrimination of physique” that the West had towards Chinese people.

Sick Men of East Asia: A National Shame of Our Own Imagination

During the rule of late Qing Dynasty, the Western media called China a “Sick Man”, it never had any intention to discriminate Chinese people’s physical quality. In fact, it was we Chinese who associated “Sick Man” with our physical quality.


In fact, up till today, “Sick Man” is still a very popular phrase in the Western world, similar headlines can be seen everywhere: “Germany: The Sick Man of Europe?” (1997), “The Sick Man of Asia” (2002), “Nigeria’s Sick Man Democracy” (2008)… in all of these uses, not a single one is targeted at people’s physical quality.


When the West called China a “Sick Man” during the rule of the late Qing Dynasty, not only did it have nothing to do with Chinese people’s physical quality, the suggestions of “satire” or “mockery” were also never in it.


But around the years of 1903, Chinese intellectuals, represented by Liang Qichao, suddenly forcibly twisted the meaning of the West’s “Sick Man Theory”. In The Theory of New People he published that year, Liang Qichao used “Sick Men” for the first time to describe all Chinese–“the people nationwide are lifeless as sick men”.

In the press circles of the late Qing Dynasty, when talking about influence, almost no one could compete with Liang Qichao. Therefore, as soon as The Theory of New People was published, it was widely spread. Using “Sick Man” to describe compatriots‘s weak physical quality had also became a fashion. In An Alarm to Awaken the Age that Chen Tianhua wrote in 1903 he said: “When the foreigners don’t call (Chinese) Sick Men of the East, they call us a barbaric lowly race”. In 1905, a novel called The Flower in the Vicious Sea was published, its author publicly signed as “Sick Man of East Asia” (real name Zeng Pu). The Flower in the Vicious Sea was very popular, a top best-seller of the time, and the name/expression “Sick Man of East Asia” also spread quickly.



1. The West did, once up a time, use “Sick Man” to describe China, but the description was limited to the Chinese government’s decline in power and its political reform failures, and not Chinese people’s physical quality. Quite to the contrary, it’s we Chinese who associated “Sick Men of East Asia” with our physical quality. In other words, it’s a “national shame” of our own imagination.

2. Can the Olympic Games end the “Sick Men of East Asia” self-imagined shame? Whether it is from the angle of the original meaning of “Sick Man” (political reforms), or from our fellow countrymen’s self-imagination (the problem of people’s physical quality), the answer I’m afraid is not optimistic. The former, the Nationwide Sports System [a government policy for the development of China’s international athletic competitiveness] itself is an outdated system that needs to be reformed. The latter, as a country that wins a lot of gold medals, our people’s physical quality can’t even compare with Japan and South Korean people, never mind Europe and North America. In this sense, the label of “Sick Men of East Asia” probably won’t be very easily removed.

People during the Chinese Qing Dynasty smoking opium.
Late Qing Dynasty opium addicts. “Westerners used opium to poison our countrymen’s bodies” and “Westerners ridiculed our countrymen as the sick men of Asia”. Contemporary textbooks have regarded both as cause and effect. However, this logic ignores the fact that the vast majority of opium within the country in modern times is domestically produced and not imported.

Comments from QQ:

腾讯南通市网友 轻功云上睡:

If [the foreigners] didn’t, I’d call myself a “Sick Man of Asia” now, not only to remind myself, but also to alert/warn my fellow countrymen, especially those public servants [government officials] who only sing praises of the country!!!

腾讯武汉市网友 嘎吧子王国:

In this harmonious age of blaming everything on Mao Zedong, the Chinese people have been identified by these people as a race that pours shit on themselves, haha…
Next, they’ll write an article and say the “No dogs and Chinese allowed sign” sign was placed by the Chinese themselves?

腾讯温州市网友 剑:

Just what is Tencent‘s “History” column trying to say? I think years later when the post-80s generation has died off, you’ll be saying the Nanjing Massacre was something our countrymen completely imagined, because the future nao can will just like the majority of the frightening post-00s generation today and say this is historical fact. Wake up, those nao can who want to know about the truth in history, would you rather not believe the words of our own ancestors and instead go believe in this so-called historical fact? I’m really suspicious of the truth of this “History” column [suspicious of its motives or who is behind it]!!!

腾讯北京市网友 天☆之☆骄☆:

The writer of this article and those who support him should be called Chinese traitors! Complete nonsense, confusing black with white, blaspheming our countrymen! Have you ever thought of [China’s] history of humiliation [at the hands of foreign powers]? You so-called scholars! Shame on you!

腾讯黑龙江省网友 蛋疼的活着:

Chinese always have this victim mentality, which is the mentality of the weak, blaming everyone and everything but oneself, pathetic behavior. The line in that Hong Kong movie has it right: “A man needs to be strong himself”.

腾讯南京市网友 锐:

The dog brains of certain extreme patriots/nationalists are turning and about to start spouting invectives.

腾讯菏泽市网友 李:

Another Shi Ping [a Chinese scholar who changed his nationality to Japanese], why don’t these fucking Chinese traitors just die out?

腾讯网友 永远是朋友:

Since you are so smart and understand English, why didn’t you tell Chinese people 100 years ago that they misunderstood? We Chinese people must be so stupid, after so many years, we still haven’t learned foreign languages.

腾讯北京市网友 上凡:

This column is intentionally inverting black and white [distorting the truth, inverting right and wrong, misrepresenting the facts].

腾讯网友 放羊小子:

Yet another traitor appears.

Poll results for an article on Tencent's QQ web portal investigating the history of "sick man of Asia".
Two polls were included on this column. Below is a translation of the the results seen on the left:

Have our countrymen gotten rid of the “Sick Man of Asia” label?

1,195 votes
Not yet
15,035 votes

What do you think of the quality of this week’s special topic?

  • Very good, will continue reading the History column.
    2,895 votes (36.49%)

  • Not bad, after reading I learned something new.
    979 votes (12.34%)

  • Boring, waste of my time.
    718 votes (9.05%)

  • Crap, after reading I just want to beat the shit out of the editor.
    3,342 votes (42.12%)

What do you think?


Written by Peter Barefoot

Peter is a born and raised Chengdunese who enjoys drinking with all his friends.


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