The headline “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia” published by The Wall Street Journal on February 3rd inflamed public rage in China. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs required an official apology from the Journal but received little response. Steps taken by both governments to restrict the other’s media caused continued escalation, and the rising tension has aroused extensive concern.
In my perspective, behind this media and diplomatic event is in fact a cultural misconception. Let’s walk in each other’s shoes to examine the origin of the phrase “Sick Man” and its connotations in China and the West respectively.
In the Chinese’s minds, “the Sick Man of Asia” is directly related to the Opium Wars and China’s shameful hundred-year history of being colonized. During that time, many Chinese suffered from weak physical and mental conditions due to opium addiction.
However, most Chinese don’t know that “Sick Man” is far from an exclusive epithet for China. In fact, the term “Sick Man” originated in 1853 when Tsar Nicholas I of Russia first described the declining Ottoman Empire as “the Sick Man of Europe”, mainly referring to its economic issues. Later in 1896, “Sick Man” was used to describe the Chinese Qing Empire that faced social, economic, and political upheavals.
Interestingly, the first one who fixed a direct connection between “Sick Man” and opium addiction was Qichao Liang, an advocate of domestic reformation around the end of 19th Century. He translated “Sick Man” into “bingfu” in Mandarin with elegant accuracy in his work Xinminshuo, a book that called for change in China. Liang is highly respected in Chinese history for his patriotism and influence, and “Sick Man” is still considered as a nasty national insult in China today.
In contrast, “Sick Man” has been used in the West throughout history to describe many countries without any direct connection to the Chinese Opium Wars. Recently, the phrase has been used regularly by media to discuss economic issues in countries such as Germany, Britain, Philippine, and Singapore. Even The United States was once called “the Sick Man of the Developed World” by Bloomberg News in 2017.
The Wall Street Journal itself published an article titled “The Sick Man of Europe Is Europe” in May 2019. As a result of the pandemic COVID-19, perhaps the Sick Man of the World is the World now. Global collaboration is crucially needed to deal with this extremely challenging global issue.
To sum up, we’d better reexamine the “Sick Man” event by analyzing meanings of “Sick Man” under different historical and cultural contexts. Personally, I believe it might not only be a historic event in the area of media and diplomacy, but also become a typical case cited by cultural anthropologists. In this age of globalization, the issue of cultural differences requires from both sides mutual understanding as well as respect.