Amid rising global racism and hostility towards people of Chinese descent following the coronavirus outbreak, one epithet stands out and stings Chinese to the quick. The sobriquet “Sick Man of Asia” – used in the headline of a Wall Street Journal opinion piece this month about the pandemic – led Beijing to announce the expulsion of three of the newspaper’s reporters from China. A day later the incident escalated into a diplomatic crisis, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang warning that the newspaper “must be held responsible for what it has said and done”. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo weighed in, saying “mature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and expresses opinions”. However the derogatory term was not first used by what Beijing calls “imperialist forces”. It was coined by renowned Chinese thinker, scholar and translator Yan Fu, who introduced Western ideas including Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection to China in the late 19th century. In 1895, Yan wrote an article describing China as the “Sick Man” following its humiliating defeat in The First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). Yan’s target was the Qing officials who had signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, which ceded Taiwan to the Japanese. The following year, the British-run Shanghai-based newspaper North China Daily News also ran a piece attacking the Qing court’s poor governance, stating: “There are four sick people of the world – Turkey，Persia，China，Morocco … China is the Sick Man of the East.” Hong Kong author Leung Man-tao, now a frequent commentator on mainland Chinese talk shows, wrote in a 2015 article that Chinese people are more likely to use the epithet. “In the West, the term ‘Sick Man’ is used often to describe a weak state. It was first coined to talk about the Ottoman Empire’s degeneration from its former glory. [Later], the outcome of the First Sino-Japanese War shocked the world when the big Qing empire was defeated by tiny Japan,” Leung wrote. “So Westerners took the term ‘Sick Man of Europe’, reserved for the Turkish, and applied it to the Chinese, calling them ‘Sick Man of East Asia’. “Later, the term ‘Sick Man’ gained widespread popularity in China, but those who used it the most were not foreigners but the Chinese themselves.” In 1902, another Chinese thinker, Liang Qichao, was the first to use the term “Sick Man” more literally, to describe the ailing physical state of the Chinese population, racked as they were by opium addiction. Liang also advocated replacing the Qing imperial system with a constitutional monarchy. The person who put the term into the wider public consciousness in modern times was action star Bruce Lee, who, in his 1972 movie Fist of Fury , yells “Chinese are not the sick man of East Asia” as he battles a group of Japanese judo fighters. Lee plays kung fu master Chen Zhen, who is overcome with humiliation when his foes bring a framed sheet of paper inscribed with the phrase “Sick Man of East Asia” to the funeral of his mentor, Huo Yuan Jia. In retaliation, Chen beats them up then forces them to eat the message, warning them: “This time you’re eating paper. The next time it’s gonna be glass.” He then goes to a park, sees a sign reading “No dogs and Chinese allowed” at the entrance, and kicks it to pieces. Since Fist of Fury ’s release, the term Sick Man of East Asia has taken on deep racist connotations that instantly raise Chinese hackles. However, as Leung Man-tao points out in his 2015 article, when Westerners first used it in the 1896 North China Daily News piece, it was not intended as an insult. “Liang Qichao was the first to associate ‘Sick Man’ with the Chinese people’s physical health. Due to his great influence … the use of the term was extended from its description of a weak country to that of the population’s weak state of health,” he wrote. “[When North China Daily News used the term], they were not talking about Chinese people’s health. They used it as a metaphor for poor Chinese governance and the Qing dynasty’s failed military and political reform, hoping that the corrupt Qing government would be prompted to mend its ways before it was too late.” Giving this context, and The Wall Street Journal ’s refusal to retract its opinion piece, Beijing – while seeing red over the term’s racial connotations – might want to consider its historical use. It could then be taken as a wake-up call to the government to overhaul bureaucratic and health care system failings exposed by the coronavirus pandemic.