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Tom Snyder

Why Is Calling a Chinese Person a “Hanjian” Such an Insult?

Hanjian, a troubling word

An elderly man criticizes Mao Zedong. A professor blasts the man as a traitor to his ethno-cultural identity and slaps him twice in the face. After playing out on September 18, this strange scene has drawn strong reactions from Chinese netizens and official media alike. 

During a series of protests near the Japanese embassy in Beijing, Han Deqiang, an economics professor at the Beijing Aeronautical Institute and founder of the leftist website Utopia, came across two youths carrying a bed sheet emblazoned with the words “Chairman Mao, we miss you!” While Han talked with them about their plans to march on the Japanese embassy to protest the Japanese government’s nationalization of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, an elderly man came to air opinions on the youth’s banner and slogan. According to some reports, the old man told the youth that “placing hopes for the protection of the dignity of the nation and the righteousness of the people in the hands of Mao Zedong is a mistake and totally impractical.” {{1}}[[1]] 将这种维护国家尊严和民族大义的愿望集寄托在毛泽东身上是错误的,也是不可能实现的[[1]] Han himself claims the old man was considerably less erudite and instead simply barked “You think like an ass,” prompting Han to slap the man in the face, apparently out of shock at the man’s disrespect of Mao. Han called the man a “hanjian,” (汉奸) a traitor to China.

The term hanjian is a particularly aggressive way to describe a traitor (as opposed to, say, “maiguozei,” (卖国贼) which means someone who “sells out” their country). Han (汉) originally referred to the Han Chinese ethnic group–the vast majority of Chinese citizens are ethnic Han–but today is more broadly applied to any citizen of the multiethnic polity that is the People’s Republic of China. Jian (奸) can mean evil, treacherous, self-serving–or more simply, a traitor.

The term can therefore be translated as “a traitor to the Chinese”–both politically and culturally, with the implicit connotation of being a race traitor. It is commonly associated with Chinese collaborators who worked with the Japanese military during the latter’s brutal occupation of China, and was subsequently applied to a wide array of individuals who were persecuted and often killed during the anti-rightist campaigns of the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution. As a result, the term carries with it deeply negative connotations, stemming not only from lingering resentment of the Japanese occupation but from the traumatic experiences of the political purges of the Mao period.

In a letter written on Han’s Weibo account a few days after the incident, he made clear he felt fully justified in his actions. He wrote:

First, I have always been opposed to violence, and have always advocated peacefully arguing one’s position. But, if I come across a person who cannot be reasoned with, come across a ‘hanjian’ Japanese collaborator [that is] rumor-starting, libelous, slanderous of the father of our country, [and] destructive of the unity of the Chinese people, I will not be able to restrain myself! For this reason it would be better to be detained, and not allow these kinds of hanjian to run amok!

Second, if it was at a conference or a symposium type of situation, and the parties verify their good intentions, even if there are disrespectful opinions of Chairman Mao being aired, I will tolerate it so long as there is a factual basis for it, and in the future will continue to do so. But, amidst a group of protesters passionately condemning Little Japan and memorializing Chairman Mao, this kind of brazen speech from a hanjian cannot be tolerated. Henceforth, if anybody encounters this kind of hanjian in the middle of a protest, they should raise their hands against him as I have done! I’ve broken the law, I plead guilty and you can execute me, but I will never admit fault.

Third, these are my words and actions, and I take full responsibility for them. I do not encourage others to imitate me.

Amongst the hundreds of initial comments to Han’s open letter and the several thousand comments posted on a link to the story by the Southern Metropolis newspaper, most netizens expressed shock and outrage at Han’s striking of an elderly person for voicing his views.

This image calls for killing off all "traitors" and "sell outs"

Many equated Han’s actions with the senseless violence of the Cultural Revolution. @__小地主__ declared that “Hitting an old person just shows you are shameless.” @纸典迷金 rhetorically inquired of Han, “If someone were to determine, right now, that you were hanjian, what would you do? You’d just be hanjian then right? If you use your fists to block other’s expressions, then there will definitely be people who will do the same to you.” {{2}}[[2]] 你认定他是汉奸?他就是汉奸?你凭什么?谁赋予你这个权力?如果现在有人认定你是汉奸,怎么办?是不是你就是汉奸了?用拳头阻止他人的表达,那么肯定也会有人这么对你的[[2]] @张家宁_早上好 called him a “remnant of the Cultural Revolution” and @沈侃锋power equated his “revolting behavior” to that of Japanese rightists, dismissing both Chinese ultra-leftists and Japanese ultra-rightists as “human trash.” “Before, everyone was brainwashed by Mao Zedong, now they’ve been brainwashed by ignorance. Can you have just a little bit of IQ? The old man just said what is in everyone’s heart!” 

Criticism wasn’t limited to netizen commentary. In a news segment about the dispute broadcasted on China Central Television, news anchor Bai Yansong took Han to task: 

This word, ‘hanjian,’ is thrown around everywhere. It seems like it has become the most powerful weapon of those who wish to attack others–in actuality, it is also a form of linguistic violence. Who is a hanjian? When someone who is a university professor goes to strike an 80-plus year old man twice in the face, this is also a type of hanjian, because it makes everyone feel ashamed, and will make a great many Chinese university professors feel ashamed.{{3}}[[3]]“汉奸”这个词满天飞,似乎成了想要拿出来攻击别人最有力的武器,其实这也是一种语言上的暴力。谁是汉奸呢?当你作为一个大学的教授去打80多岁老人两记耳光的时候,其实是另外的一种汉奸,你让所有的人感到蒙羞,你也让很多的中国教授会感到蒙羞。[[3]]

In the face of criticism, Han doubled down, declaring: “I’ve always respected the elderly, the people around me all know this. But hanjian are not among them. What I hit was a hanjian.” {{4}}[[4]]我一向尊敬老人周围人都知道。但汉奸不在其中。我打的是汉奸。[[4]]

Despite the pervasive criticism, Han’s own Weibo account still managed to attract a smattering of support. @未觉– claimed to “like [Han’s] sense of justice.” @hy192 opined, “It looks like you struck correctly!” @朕在上书房批折子 chimed in: “So it’s like this then. I support you! Those who criticize you, they’re just traitors or children who don’t don’t understand anything.”

The People’s Daily’s official Weibo account eventually weighed in, encouraging avoidance of the term given the social schisms it could generate:

Recently the term ‘hanjian’ has been thrown around on the Internet. It would seem as if all around us there are concealed supplicants and hidden monsters. This kind of ‘with us or against us’ philosophy can tear apart society and runs counter to prevailing trends. Yet, any phenomenon has its roots. When making biased and narrow-minded representations of different eras and viewpoints, it also ignites resentment against the gap between rich and poor and passive corruption. This word ‘hanjian’ should be abolished, [let’s] turn instead towards the imperative reforms of justice and fairness. {{5}}[[5]]最近,“汉奸”帽子网上横飞,似乎我们身边还潜伏着许多奸佞和鬼神。这种非友即敌的斗争哲学,与社会脱节,与潮流相悖。然而,任何现象都有生长土壤,对不同时代和观点符号化解读的偏颇狭隘中,也寄寓着对贫富差距、消极腐化的愤懑。汉奸一词可以废止,指向公平正义的改革势在必行。安。[[5]]

The use of such a loaded term, especially by a staunch Maoist, appeared to remind many netizens of the violent political witch hunts of the Cultural Revolution, a dark period of modern Chinese history that has still not been fully dealt with in the historical and cultural memory of Chinese society. The use of the term in combination with violence against an old person in a culture that places a premium on respect for the elderly led to the circulation of a post drawing some disturbing (and inflammatory) parallels, in a post entitled “The Logic of the Violent:”

The Slaveowner: What I kill aren’t people, they’re tools that can talk. 

The Gestapo: What I process aren’t people, they’re Jewish dogs.

 The KKK: What I kill aren’t people, they’re just black ghosts [derogatory term for people of African descent.] 

Han Deqiang: What I hit wasn’t an old person, it was a hanjian!  {{6}}[[6]]我杀的不是人,而是会说话的工具;盖世太保:我处理的不是人,而是犹太狗;三K党:我干掉的不是人,而是黑鬼;红卫 兵小将:我踏倒的不是人,而是牛鬼蛇神,是叛徒内奸工贼反革命臭老九;性变态连环杀手:我清除的不是女人,而是垃圾;韩德强:我打的不是老人,而是汉奸![[6]]

23 Comments
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Tom Snyder

Tom Snyder lived in northeast China for two years researching economic revitalization programs and teaching. He currently lives in Taipei, Taiwan.
  • Chris Zheng

    As someone who was recently called a hanjian for expressing my views on the anti-Japanese protests, I can definitely relate. Perhaps one should follow in the steps and Li Chengpeng, and just declare outright “I am a traitor!” because that’s what you’re going to get called anyway. Might as well just concede it in the first place.

    • dd

      Word.

      Lemme guess, you told people the Diaoyu islands were a bunch of tiny rocks not worth rioting over, and people went apeshit. I know that feel. Happened to me just yesterday. Not a single fuck was given.

  • Chris Zheng

    As someone who was recently called a hanjian for expressing my views on the anti-Japanese protests, I can definitely relate. Perhaps one should follow in the steps and Li Chengpeng, and just declare outright “I am a traitor!” because that’s what you’re going to get called anyway. Might as well just concede it in the first place.

    • dd

      Word.

      Lemme guess, you told people the Diaoyu islands were a bunch of tiny rocks not worth rioting over, and people went apeshit. I know that feel. Happened to me just yesterday. Not a single fuck was given.

  • http://twitter.com/illuminantceo Simon @ Illuminant

    Such a dangerous development in the societal powder keg of today’s China.

    • Xie Zeren

      Don’t worry, Simon, Chinese people struggle with each other since beginning of time. They’ll manage this new old threat in a more or less *modern* manner!

  • http://twitter.com/illuminantceo Simon @ Illuminant

    Such a dangerous development in the societal powder keg of today’s China.

    • Xie Zeren

      Don’t worry, Simon, Chinese people struggle with each other since beginning of time. They’ll manage this new old threat in a more or less *modern* manner!

  • Matthew Cooper

    Incredibly sad, as it always is when political discussion turns to fisticuffs instead of reasoned debate. This strikes me as very similar to the beating of Wu Danhong by Zhou Yan back in July. Wu Danhong said something that went contrary to popular opinion on heavy-metal pollution in Sichuan, and a young hothead ‘journalist’ smacked him in the face for it. An old man said something that went contrary to the opinions of the protesters on the topic of Chinese history, and a young hothead ‘professor’ smacked him in the face for it.

    The coverage and reported reaction to each of these cases is quite different, though. In the first case, the younger attacker met primarily with sympathy. In the second case, the younger attacker met with opprobrium (and rightly so). But why the discrepancy? Is it because of ideology? Is it because when it comes to violence, It’s OK When Women Do It? Or do Chinese netizens just really hate professors?

    • dd

      See how he avoids saying what was actually said? This is how you ferret out a white liberal – by his sympathies.

      Oh no, some lady slapped Wu Danhong for claiming pollution isn’t a problem because the human body contains traces amounts of toxic elements. Not only is that retarded and unscientific, it’s outright dangerous. Wu Danhong is a professor in his 30s, a public face, and possibly the biggest government shill on the planet. This is really comparable to some random old guy saying Mao sucks shit, which a ton of Chinese would probably agree with in private. People don’t sympathize with Wu… because he’s a fucking idiot.

      But the real question is why some foreigner would apply false equivalency (again) to these two cases, except to apologise for Wu? And why would he want to do that in the first place? Is it the search for leftism in China? The poster of Chomsky on his wall?

      Mods, please get the sand out of your vaginas and stop deleting my posts, you have few enough posters as it is. Thanx.

      • Matthew Cooper

        Quite frankly, I’m flattered that you find my opinions worth paying attention to, even when you don’t read them clearly. The fact that I have my own troll on TLN who attacks me primarily on the basis of my race rather speaks volumes.

        As it is, though, someone being ‘a fucking idiot’ or not is no reason to strike him in the face in public; that’s the principle here. It really doesn’t matter what he said, what matters is the reaction to it. If netizens really value ‘freedom of speech’ in China as much as they say they do, they have to realise that it applies to everyone, even professors who agree with the government on safety standards, or to people who might dislike Mao. There is no false equivalency, because BOTH PEOPLE DID THE EXACT SAME THING, for the SAME REASONS. If you claim that one was more justified than the other, you are exactly as bad as Han Deqiang claiming that whom he hit wasn’t an old man, but a 漢奸. Worse, actually, since you would be a hypocrite on top of that.

  • Matthew Cooper

    Incredibly sad, as it always is when political discussion turns to fisticuffs instead of reasoned debate. This strikes me as very similar to the beating of Wu Danhong by Zhou Yan back in July. Wu Danhong said something that went contrary to popular opinion on heavy-metal pollution in Sichuan, and a young hothead ‘journalist’ smacked him in the face for it. An old man said something that went contrary to the opinions of the protesters on the topic of Chinese history, and a young hothead ‘professor’ smacked him in the face for it.

    The coverage and reported reaction to each of these cases is quite different, though. In the first case, the younger attacker met primarily with sympathy. In the second case, the younger attacker met with opprobrium (and rightly so). But why the discrepancy? Is it because of ideology? Is it because when it comes to violence, It’s OK When Women Do It? Or do Chinese netizens just really hate professors?

    • dd

      See how he avoids saying what was actually said? This is how you ferret out a white liberal – by his sympathies.

      Oh no, some lady slapped Wu Danhong for claiming pollution isn’t a problem because the human body contains traces amounts of toxic elements. Not only is that retarded and unscientific, it’s outright dangerous. Wu Danhong is a professor in his 30s, a public face, and possibly the biggest government shill on the planet. This is really comparable to some random old guy saying Mao sucks shit, which a ton of Chinese would probably agree with in private. People don’t sympathize with Wu… because he’s a fucking idiot.

      But the real question is why some foreigner would apply false equivalency (again) to these two cases, except to apologise for Wu? And why would he want to do that in the first place? Is it the search for leftism in China? The poster of Chomsky on his wall?

      Mods, please get the sand out of your vaginas and stop deleting my posts, you have few enough posters as it is. Thanx.

      • Matthew Cooper

        Quite frankly, I’m flattered that you find my opinions worth paying attention to, even when you don’t read them clearly. The fact that I have my own troll on TLN who attacks me primarily on the basis of my race rather speaks volumes: obviously I must be making good points if this is the best response you can come up with.

        As it is, though, someone being ‘a fucking idiot’ or not is no reason to strike him in the face in public; that’s the principle here. It really doesn’t matter what he said, what matters is the reaction to it. If netizens really value ‘freedom of speech’ in China as much as they say they do, they have to realise that it applies to everyone, even professors who agree with the government on safety standards, or to people who might dislike Mao. There is no false equivalency, because BOTH PEOPLE DID THE EXACT SAME THING, for the SAME REASONS. If you claim that one was more justified than the other, you are exactly as bad as Han Deqiang claiming that whom he hit wasn’t an old man, but a 漢奸. Worse, actually, since you would be a hypocrite on top of that.

  • Matthew Cooper

    Incredibly sad, as it always is when political discussion turns to
    fisticuffs instead of reasoned debate. This strikes me as very similar
    to the beating of Wu Danhong by Zhou Yan back in July. Wu Danhong said
    something that went contrary to popular opinion on heavy-metal pollution
    in Sichuan, and a young hothead ‘journalist’ smacked him in the face
    for it. An old man said something that went contrary to the opinions of
    the protesters on the topic of Chinese history, and a young hothead
    ‘professor’ smacked him in the face for it.

    The coverage and
    reported reaction to each of these cases is quite different, though. In
    the first case, the younger attacker met primarily with sympathy. In
    the second case, the younger attacker met with opprobrium (and rightly
    so). But why the discrepancy? Is it because of ideology? Is it
    because when it comes to violence, It’s OK When Women Do It? Or do
    Chinese netizens just really hate professors?

  • Matthew Cooper

    Apologies for the double post.

  • dd

    Why do countries grow shittier and more liberal over time? Because self-named “patriots” think bullshit like this Mao shit is important enough to throw a fit about.

    Real patriots uphold ethnic nationalism by rejecting western liberal democratic ideals so it doesn’t infect our future generations, and prevent them from turning into self hating, “compassionate” pieces of shit. Every fenqing should think about this the next time they think something like this is worth throwing ‘hanjian’ around.

    • tealeafnation

      Hi dd, we’re very glad that you’re reading TLN and commenting so actively! Please remember to keep the language clean, though. We want a vibrant but respectful forum in the comment section.

  • dd

    Why do countries grow shittier and more liberal over time? Because self-named “patriots” think bullshit like this Mao shit is important enough to throw a fit about.

    Real patriots uphold ethnic nationalism by rejecting western liberal democratic ideals so it doesn’t infect our future generations, and prevent them from turning into self hating, “compassionate” pieces of shit. Every fenqing should think about this the next time they think something like this is worth throwing ‘hanjian’ around.

    • tealeafnation

      Hi dd, we’re very glad that you’re reading TLN and commenting so actively! Please remember to keep the language clean, though. We want a vibrant but respectful forum in the comment section.

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  • Ashamed to Say

    Slight correction, which I feel ashamed to have noticed and knowing the difference. The racist term for black folks isn’t “ghost”, it’s “spook”. I’m not sure where this error got in, from translating the English term to Chinese, or in retranslating to English.