For long there has been an article (original article in Chinese) circulated on the Internet which propagates the idea that the English word China is a pejorative term and should instead be replaced with the demonym Zhongguo. The author believes that China is given its name because of its porcelain, or china. He proceeds to argue that we may as well call Italy Pizza or Germany Beer should we be called China. Neither is the adjectival term Chinese innocent. The suffix –ese is said to be derogatory and only used on the supposedly inferior races (in the eyes of westerners) such as Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese.
After posting my other article So many negative prefixes, I received very positive feedback and many readers apparently found the article interesting and useful. Indeed, these little affixes (prefixes and suffixes) can be puzzling when they are similar in meaning but nevertheless non-interchangeable. That makes people ask why they are what they are: is there a subtle rule beneath all the messy superficial distribution, or things just happen by chance?
Not long ago, a friend asked me whether there are rules governing the usage of those suffixes of nationality, such as –ese, –ian and –ish. I thought about it for a while, then I remembered that years ago I read a post on the Internet, saying that –ese is a derogatory ending used only on those countries that the western world thought to be inferior, so we have adjectives like Chinese, Vietnamese and Burmese. After all, many of the Asian countries do form their adjectives in –ese. But I had doubts, don’t the westerners just love Japanese stuff? And why Korean, Indian, Malaysian and Indonesian then? So I decided to look for the answer myself.