The rhetoric of anti-Japanese invective

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A commenter on this post, "'All Japanese must be killed'", stated that he thought that the sentiments expressed were "a little extreme".

How seriously should we take what appear to be calls for genocide against the Japanese people?

From a Language Log reader who wishes to remain anonymous:

Thanks for your recent post about the anti-Japanese poem.

Speaking as someone that lives in Japan, what I wonder about this sort of rhetoric is how "normal" it is. For example, are hyperbolic calls for genocide fairly common around Chinese political disputes? (Or around disputes with Japan, etc. — I know that the context of "China vs Japan" is quite different to that of "China vs the Philippines".) Or does this represent a new level of extremism that should be viewed with alarm?

I mean, I don't think that all those people at the Audi dealership *literally* want to murder all of my friends and family. But they obviously mean *something* unfriendly by it. I wonder if the history of Chinese rhetoric can provide any pointers towards a sensible interpretation here.

I asked some China specialists how they would respond to these issues.

From Perry Link:

Since Mao, words like xiāomiiè 消灭 ("eliminate; extirpate") have crept further into daily-life Chinese than they had ever been before, and in that sense they are not literal.  But the very "normalization" of bloodthirsty language probably makes violence more possible, too.   Sapir-Whorf had a point, I think.

From Rudolf Wagner:

I believe indeed that this is a rhetorical pattern going back deep in time. Take official XX in Qing China. He is up there, and the language used to refer to him is humble and painfully flattering. He is under criticism and demoted, and suddenly the language package opened for people of that type is of the most vulgar slander. This practice was continued in the PRC (take Lin Biao, Liu Shaoqi, Jiang Qing as examples) with the same sudden switch. Chinese foreign self-presentation has time and again suffered from the same pattern. In the midst of xixi haha long-time friends comes an incident or statement the government considers damaging to its core interests, and the same spokesman uses a language that is so hilariously out of tune with diplomatic habits that years of confidence building measures go down the drain in a minute. Hyperbolic language (in both directions) is a standard feature of Chinese rhetoric and the difference between long live and kill all is only in the color shown by the time and occasion frame with its simplistic black and white alternatives. I always wanted to get a student write a PhD about this rhetoric, but no success as yet.

From a professional China-watcher who wishes to remain anonymous:

Well, PRC-era rhetoric has a well-established reputation for dehumanization and licensing all manner of mass savagery.  So I think the sensible interpretation would be to take this seriously (even though, I wholeheartedly agree, it is probably being whipped up to conceal intra-Party struggle).  That said, this anti-Japanese "genocide" rhetoric seems new, with no real historical analogue, and it strikes me as more or less the way Chinese "nationalism" expresses its desire to avenge what Imperial Japan once did to China.

Sadly, and this is a point that has been made to me with great distress by sensible Chinese friends, the extreme rhetoric of the government sanctioned anti-Japanese slogans bears unmistakable resemblance to those of the Boxers toward the end of the Qing Dynasty in the late 19th century, e.g., fú Qīng miè yáng 扶清灭洋 ("Support the Qing, destroy / annihilate the foreigners")

Lexical notes:

Xīyángrén 西洋人 ("Westerners; Occidentals"; lit., "people from the western ocean")

Yángguǐzi 洋鬼子 ("Foreign Devils", i.e., "ocean devils / demons"; includes both Westerners and Japanese)

Rìběn guǐzi 日本鬼子 ("Japanese devils")

Dōngyáng rén 东洋人 ("Japanese"; lit., "people from the eastern ocean")

jiǎ yángguǐzi 假洋鬼子 ("fake Foreign Devils", i.e., Chinese people who ape Western ways)


  1. Jongseong said,

    September 23, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

    As a South Korean, I am never sure how seriously to take the habitual violent rhetoric of North Korean official media. For those who read Korean, the following transcribed TV report by a South Korean channel describes this language situation.

    The examples given in the report taken from the North Korean state news broadcaster, Korean Central Television (KCTV), and my quick translations:
    "친미보수세력의 야합과 정권탈취 음모를 짓부셔버리고 민족반역세력들을 완전히 매장해 버림으로써… … by smashing apart the collusion and conspiracy to seize power by pro-American conservative forces and completely burying the forces of traitors to the nation"
    "친미보수세력의 동족대결 소동을 단호히 짓뭉개버리자. Let us decisively crush the agitation by the pro-American conservative forces to intra-ethnic confrontation."

    It's hard to convey in a literal translation, but 짓부셔버리다(짓부숴버리다 in South Korean) and 짓뭉개버리다, deriving from 부시다('break', 부수다 in South Korean) and 뭉개다('crush') by the addition of 짓-, a prefix suggesting careless abuse, and 버리다, an auxiliary verb suggesting completion of the action (버리다 by itself means 'throw away'), are rather strong action verbs and don't really represent the kind of language that South Koreans are accustomed to hearing in a news broadcast.

    These are tame examples, by the way, and I'm sure you can find examples of more bloodcurdling rhetoric by North Korean official media.

    The same report points however that this type of violent rhetoric is reserved for political topics and that you can see from North Korean movies and TV series that this is not part of the speech of North Koreans in their everyday lives (lest South Koreans assume that this is how North Koreans normally talk).

  2. joanne salton said,

    September 23, 2012 @ 2:33 pm

    This is perhaps the most important question in the world – is the constant obsession of the East Asians in general with verbally attacking each other a sign that they will actually engage in a horrific future war. Or as I believe political science often puts it – does the USA "hold the ring" between these nations?

    Personally I find that despite the fact that my asian students all say horrible things about each others nations they seem to rub along well enough

    Also, perhaps expecting a politically correct attitude among the general populace is really a modern western thing.

  3. AntC said,

    September 23, 2012 @ 4:17 pm

    @joanne a modern western thing

    I suppose all depends on how modern, how Western? The most horrific wars and genocide of the past century were perpetrated by Western and supposedly civilized/enlightened states, prefaced by verbal prejudice. ["Western civilisation – that would be a good idea".]

    Even within the West nowadays, I'm not sure that all of the verbal attacking is politically correct (GKP's piece on 'plebs') and the USA's race riots are very fresh in memory.

    The comparison with the Falklands/Malvinas is illuminating: I lived in the UK through that period. The tabloid media didn't have to scratch very deep to excite all sorts of xenophobia — against a country that few Britons would have been able to place on a map previously. There was a real shooting war with real killing.

  4. tsts said,

    September 23, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

    I would think that this kind of language was also more common in the West some time ago. Not just during Nazism, but long before that. I think a few hundred years ago it would have been quite normal for mobs to demand to kill all the Turks, or all the Moors, or all the Swedes (think of the 30-year war) as a result of some real or perceived offense. Or consider the famous "Hun Speech" by Wilhelm II during the Boxer rebellion in 1900.

    What changed? Maybe just that most people now know at least some people from other countries, and are exposed to a lot more news from abroad. In earlier times, many people had never met any foreigners, or even anyone from the other side of the forest (the one with the monsters and dragons). And on some level, that seems still true in many parts of China. I think we underestimate how much things have changed in the West on some of these issues.

  5. Mal in China said,

    September 23, 2012 @ 7:34 pm

    I’ve been following the reports of the anti-Japanese protests in several newspapers. The use of language, by what are nationalistic young Chinese, sometimes referred to as 愤青 fènqīng, or angry and indignant youth, is at times overtly racist.

    The fènqīng may also be young Chinese who are critical of the government. Add to this mix the 五毛党 wǔ máo dǎng who, it is alleged, are paid stooges trolling Western media to attack what they see as anti-Chinese posters and it seems clear that protests like this are a reminder that anger at Japan will simmer below the surface until it is triggered by an event – such as the purchase of the islands in question by Japan.

    An article in the Economist hinted that the anti-Japanese protests are going “off script.”

    “Anger at Japan is real and enduring in China. Years of Chinese propaganda and patriotic education have deepened the wounds of Japanese wartime depredations. But Chinese citizens also have many other domestic complaints—corruption, pollution, land grabs by officials—that lead to scattered protests around the country every day.”

    My partner and future wife is Chinese and from a different province to where I live and work. She would be called 外地人, wàidìrén, a term used for outsiders or non-locals. On designations of foreigners, there is also an ethic slur for Koreans 棒子, bàngzi – meaning a club or stick.

    I posted a comment on China Daily under my alias 'Teacher M' condemning the wanton destruction of Japanese cars and property. and stating that this action would dilute the message and peaceful protest would be more effective. To date, I've been left alone by the wumao.

    What was encouraging was to see a denouncement by some Chinese netizens of the CCTV Dialogue progamme anchor, Yang Rui who "tweeted" on Weibo ( Chinese version of Twitter) that China should rid itself of "foreign trash".

  6. W. Sun said,

    September 23, 2012 @ 7:46 pm

    Well, the angry youths have been calling for 屠美灭日(slaughter US, destroy Japan) for a long time; since they think it's USA behind Japan, and everything else, too; it's not an uncommon theme in Chinese YY novels (意淫: I have no idea how to translate this appropriately).

  7. joe said,

    September 24, 2012 @ 4:44 am

    the language style probably goes back to very ancient times. it was not a new game invented in the qing dynasty or in the second half of the 20th century. emperors and ministers and rebels used this trick in various ways in order to remove enemies. massacres did happen in ancient times. the army of the qin executed 400,000 prisoners of war after the siege of changping. it was more than 2000 years ago. the qing soldiers did three massacres in jiading within a month in the early years of the qing dynasty. purges in the second half of the last century were similar. the deeds and words all came from the same brutality.

  8. joe said,

    September 24, 2012 @ 4:50 am

    i would like to see evidence before i would accept the conclusion that the slogans were government-sanctioned.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    September 24, 2012 @ 6:58 am


    Thanks for the valuable historical information in your first comment. I can think of many other large-scale massacres, in which tens and hundreds of thousands of individuals were killed, that took place in Chinese history, though it is not always easy to find the slogans that accompanied these pogroms.

    As for your second, short comment, certain anti-Japanese slogans are:

    1. standardized and widespread across the country

    2. permitted to remain on large banners even in the presence of security forces

    Have you ever seen what happens to banners and slogans of which the CCP does not approve? They are immediately taken down. For example, uniformed and plainclothes policemen smother Falun Gong practitioners as soon as they unfurl the smallest banner. Of course, there are lots of scattered, satirical, sardonic, and cynical slogans too now, and I've gone to great pains to document these in this post: "More anti-Japanese slogans, but with a twist" The fact that these latter types of slogans are popping up here and there does indeed indicate that the government is playing with fire in permitting and even in some cases inciting anti-Japanese demonstrations (if you want evidence for that, I can send it to you privately; I don't think it's suitable for dissemination in a LL comment).

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 24, 2012 @ 7:41 am

    I see that according to wikipedia in the run-up to the 1911-12 revolution, someone named Zou Rong a/k/a Tsou Jung called upon his fellow Han Chinese to "annihilate the five million and more of the furry and horned Manchu race." The Sun Yat-Sen crowd may have more typically merely called for expulsion rather than genocide, but there seems to have been tension from the founding of the ROC between the pluralism implied in the "Five Races Under One Union" principle and the ethnic-chauvinist anti-Manchu sentiment that had actually gotten some of the revolutionaries riled up in the first place.

    I expect the numerically small but vocal and strident ultranationalist factions in Japanese politics (the sort lumped by wikipedia under the umbrella term Uyoku dantai) are probably also responsible for fairly bloodcurdling rhetorical excesses, which may or may not be best read as hyperbolic, but the difference is that they can be understood as a fringe movement from whom most actual elected Japanese politicians need to at least appear to keep their distance. Whereas as noted above in the PRC fringe sentiments viewed as unsavory or impolitic by the authorities do not get this sort of public airing.

  11. ajay said,

    September 24, 2012 @ 9:58 am

    Sorry for the off-topic post, but comments are closed on the plebs posts, and I'm not sure you're right that "Pleb is what linguists call a clipping: It is formed by dropping all but the first syllable of the word plebeian."

    The Latin for "the plebeians" is plebs, plebis – which is a singular collective noun. "Pleb" being the English word for a plebeian is surely the result of an educated Englishman talking about "the plebs" and slightly less educated Englishmen thinking that he's using a plural English word, the singular of which is "pleb".

    It's as though France were to adopt the English word "police" – say, as "polis" = the police force – and were then to start referring to individual policeman as "un poli".

  12. Victor Mair said,

    September 24, 2012 @ 11:39 am

    from Michael Lackner:

    I don't think the knowledge of traditional Chinese rhetoric will be very useful for this case. World history has taught us that sometimes there is but a short distance, a very small step between "I say it" (or better : "we say it", because you need a crowd for this kind of utterance) and "I mean it". This rhetoric is part of the nationalism that started around 1895, increased with the May Fourth Movement, and came to a (preliminary?) climax during the Cultural Revolution: the respective enemies (necessary for this way of self-assertion) may have changed, yet enemies there must be. The CCP is now a hostage of the results of its patriotic education, somehow like the magician's pupil in Goethe's poem about the sorcerer's apprentice: "spirits raised by me, vainly would I lay".

  13. Matt V said,

    September 24, 2012 @ 2:03 pm

    "Sapir-Whorf had a point, I think."

    Right, exactly the same as how English speaking cultures relish killing birds with one stone. Language makes violence.

  14. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    September 24, 2012 @ 5:41 pm

    @Matt V:

    But "to kill two birds with one stone" is surely idiomatic, not compositional, in its semantics. Is "kill all the Japanese" idiomatic? If so, what is the actual, non-compositional meaning? If it is compositional, then I think we should address the question of how much the social normalization of violent rhetoric influences behavior.

    Note that I am not endorsing Whorfianism. If violent rhetoric is socially normal, and if it correlates with more violent behavior, I think that tells us something about the society, but not about the language itself, i.e. I would say the rhetoric and the behavior were both caused by the same underlying social factors, not that the rhetoric was directly causing the behavior. But I could be wrong.

  15. Mal in China said,

    September 25, 2012 @ 12:52 am

    @ W. Sun said, September 23, 2012 @ 7:46 pm

    ".. it's not an uncommon theme in Chinese YY novels (意淫: I have no idea how to translate this appropriately)."

    A simple translation could be 'obscene' or obscenity. If used as a verb YY, yì yín could mean "strange and peverted thoughts and fantasies."

  16. W. Sun said,

    September 25, 2012 @ 4:19 pm

    @ Mal in China,
    But it sounds to me that obscenity would imply explicit sexual nature, while YY novels, even though some may aim to fulfill the readers' desires such as 全初全收,种马后宫 (all female characters are virgins who would eventually belong to the main character's harem), are seldom explicit in those regards.
    The phrase, 意淫, may have its root in Cao Xueqing's Dream of the Red Chamber, chapter 5, where yi yin is not necessary erotic or negative.
    I would have liked to suggest that YY means any kind of self gratification of impossible fantasies; but contemporary usage of the term seems to vary in meaning.
    (Good citizens of the Empire: tourists pretending to be Japanese apologize for Japan, YY strong nation)

    “操日本”同学躺枪 名字仅是符号无须意淫
    (Mr. "Cao Riben" got swept up; a name is a symbol; no need for YY)

    反日月饼印"咬死小日本" 意淫式"爱国"
    (Anti-Japan moon-cakes say "Bite Japs to Death," YY "patriotism")

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