Language Thursdays: Sexism in Mandarin

Written by Julen Madariaga on April 1st, 2010

canadagoose_300_tcm9139738_thumb3In this week’s language post I want to examine the gender implications in the Chinese written and spoken language, and the reactions of the Chinese women to the many discriminatory expressions in use today.

Given that most traditional cultures were extremely sexist by today’s standards, it is very common to have sexist elements embedded in today’s languages. In English, for example, there is the old peeve about what to call a female fireman. Latin languages with their gender declensions are even more problematic, to the point that some daring Spanish feminists like to write “abogad@”, to cover all the possible sexes of a lawyer.

The old Confucian tradition in China is hardly an example of gender equality, and given the intimate relation between Confucian scholars and the Chinese script over the millennia, it is only natural that the characters should carry some important bias. As we will see, the spoken language is not any better, reflecting a society where the woman had a limited role even among the common people.

I am not going to consider here Confucian notions like the three obediences and four virtues of a woman (三从四德) [1] that every Chinese speaker is familiar with. I discount these things as relics from the past that were discarded in the revolution, and they are not taken seriously today by any normal Chinese family. But even ignoring these relics, it is quite clear that the language has many common words and uses strongly biased against the feminine Half Skies (半边天) [2].

Off the top of my head, I find the following kinds of sexist occurrences in mandarin, see for yourself:

  1. The familiar case of the third person pronoun discrimination appears in the written 他 (like in English, the character for “him” is used even when the gender of the person is unknown).
  2. The female radical appearing in characters with negative “feminine” meanings like those in 嫉妒 (envy).
  3. Words like 丫头 that are widely used to mean “girl” and originally meant “slave” [3]. Words like 弄瓦 and 弄璋 - give birth to a girl (mud) and to a boy (jade) - fall under the same category.
  4. Order of words in expressions like mum and dad, brothers and sisters, which in Chinese systematically have the masculine members before the feminine ones (爸爸妈妈, 兄弟姐妹). There is an exception in 女士们先生们 (ladies and gentlemen), but it looks very much like a modern calque.
  5. Common words like 嫁给 (marry for a girl) and 娶妻 (marry for a man), which imply that the girl is “married to” someone, whereas the man has the prerogative to actively “get” someone. In the same category, the common term 成家,  to marry, literally to “build a family”, can only be used by men. Women don’t build families, they rather give themselves to a man, and he takes all the credit.

Bear in mind that my level of mandarin is far from native, and I am not particularly gender conscious, so there must be a lot more examples out there I haven’t thought of. Like usual, this Thursday feature is meant to engage the readers, so please lend me a hand to come up with more examples.

I don’t really think that this is among the big problems of Chinese women today, and I am not writing this to promote language feminism. What I do find interesting, however, is the little activism that I have seen in China regarding this subject. Especially compared with the West, where some groups have gone to great lengths to save our languages from their discriminatory legacy.

Given the efforts of Maoism to promote gender equality, and considering the power that Shanghainese women have enjoyed in the recent history of China, it is surprising that there hasn’t been more noise. There are some feminists to be sure, like the thundering delegate Zhang. But they don’t usually take language as a target, as far as I have seen.

What is your opinion? Any idea why this happens? Has this got to do with some conformist trait of the Chinese women, or is it due to the repressive environment?

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  1. 三从四德: This can be briefly translated as “obey and STFU”. Or if you prefer the classic translation: 3 Obediences- Obey your father before marriage, your husband when married, and your sons in widowhood. 4 Virtues- Morality, Proper speech, Modest manner and Diligent work []
  2. 半边天: Mao had the brilliant idea of declaring that women where holding half of the sky, and since then they are illogically called “Half Sky” in the PRC []
  3. 丫头:I believe this must be the origin of the English translation “she has given birth to a slave” that raised so many eyebrows in Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth” []

Comments so far ↓

  1. Apr

    Related to this topic is the question of racism in Hanzi. The character for Muslim back in the Qing period to be 回 plus the 狗 radical: 犭回. Fascinatingly, James Millward has pinpointed down to the exact week when the Qing administration decided to unilaterally remove the dog radical from all official documents; sometime in Feb 1760, all official documents simultaneously dropped the radical. This corresponded quite nicely to the same time period the Qianlong military finally consolidated full and permanent control of the area that would eventually be known as Xinjiang, and so Millward alleges a link between the change in terminology and a desire to view the newly incorporated Muslims as subjects of the Qing state rather than, as was usually the case, sub-human, untameable barbarians that would always harry the frontiers.

    I think it’s interesting to bring up this scenario because it’s an example going all the way back to the 18th century where ideographs were changed because of their suddenly unsavory political connotations, though it was very top-to-bottom, as opposed to the bottom-up sort of grassroots campaigning your visualizing for sexist character reform.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Apr

    Great post again!

    Interestingly, 她 is a recent invention due to Western influence:


    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    Thanks rui.

    The new origin of 她 is well known, I remember we were discussing it last year in this blog. In fact, I don’t even think it is a real case of sexism, I just wanted to list it because it is one of the most common points in this discussion, and it is also a phenomenon common to many other languages.

    I say it is not really a sexist case because 他 is not in itself masculine. It is a neutral pronoun, with the radical 人 that just means a person. As far as I know it has always been used neutrally and it is only the invention of the feminine character 她 in the 20th century (for reasons of clarity, and due to Western influence like you explain) that suddenly made the 他 look like a “he” in Western eyes.

    In fact, it might be argued that the case of 她/他 is a case of discrimination against men, because ladies get their own exclusive pronoun, whereas we are left with the old generic term… :)

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Apr
    Julen Madariaga

    @Porfiry - Thanks for the info. I heard about that one before, and if I remember well there were a similar cases for other Chinese minorities that also had demeaning characters, I can’t remember which now.

    Perhaps in the future I will do a Thursdays about racism in language. Although I am not sure there is so much racist bias in mandarin today. What there is without any doubt is a Nationalist bias, and I intend to write about that soon.

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Apr

    About activists targeting language, actually, there was a lawyer recently who I think was arguing that the negative characters with female radicals should be reworked. Don’t have a link for you though.

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Apr

    I just wanted to comment on Point 2 you raised - the female radical in many negative characters. It’s quite true that it reflects an ancient bias against women. However, nobody would really consciously (or unconsciously) associate these negative qualities exclusively with females, because of the way the characters are written, more than one would associate inanimate objects with the gender grammatically marked on them in Romance languages.

    In addition, Chinese characters are much less flexible than Western words. One might be able to derive actress from actor, lioness from lion, etc. because these derivation processes are active in the language. This is not the case in Chinese. People generally don’t recombine radicals to form new characters. It’s possible to form new words through compounding (combine one character with another, for example), but characters themselves are generally considered unalterable.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Reply:

    @yinbin, I agree with you only partly.

    I agree in that it is less important than the other points. After all everybody knows that characters come from ancient times, and it was normal that 勇 has a male in it, while 嫉妒 has a female radical. I don’t think this is used to discriminate people, and besides you can also find masculine characters that are negative (but I can’t think of one now).

    Where I don’t agree so much is that the radicals don’t convey a meaning. In most of the cases they do, and although in everyday life you don’t stop to think of it so much, it is clear for everyone that a character with 女 radical usually indicates something related to women, like 妈妈, 婆婆, 妓女,婴儿, etc. If not then the government wouldn’t have changed the characters for some minorities like Porfiry says in the first comment.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Qixi Reply:

    @Julen, 勇 is a phonogram derived from 甬 and 力 and is unrelated to 男.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:


    Thanks for that correction. I just realize I have been writing the character 勇 wrong ever since I learnt it. I have always written 田 and 力 with the little thing on top. The thing is when you see it in small font it looks exactly the same, and in my mind I always thought 勇 represented a guy with a crazy hairstyle, like a punk warrior or something :)

    I know this is stupid, but I guess I never had the time to stop and analyze this character slowly. Looking at it closely in bigger font, it is obvious that you are correct. It is a 甬 phonetic element and a 力. Shame on me…

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. Apr

    I have one positive and one negative example:
    1) the word “adultery” applicable both to men and women is 通奸 and has a “woman” radical
    2) but on the other hand - “good” is 好. Funnily enough, first character is “woman”, second is “son” - so feminists would argue that the woman is good as long as she gives birth to son… hahaha

    In most languages, when someone refers to a group of people that has both men and women the “masculine” form is usually used: in Chinese for such indiscriminate “they” 他们 is preferred over 她们

    By the way, my friend did find a language in which the “feminine” form is used for such case -> Lithuanian (in it “zhmones” - “people” is close to “zhmonos” - “wives”).

    [Reply to this comment]

  7. Apr

    David Moser did a paper on this a long time ago called “Covert Sexism in Chinese”. It’s available through the Sino-Platonic Papers, online at:

    [Reply to this comment]

  8. Apr
    Julen Madariaga

    @Kaiwen +1 point

    Thanks a lot for the link, looks really interesting. I will read it next week after my HSK and then get back to comments here.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    @Kaiwen - I just read it. It is interesting that I came up with the same examples as this paper written 13 years ago. Anyone who is interested in the linguistics aspects should absolutely read the paper, it is much more detailed than my amateurish post.

    One thing that is interesting is how in most of the cases in the paper, there is an exact parallel in the English language.

    For mi part, the main question remains: since the Chinese language is about as sexist as English, why women here have never mobilized to fight against this, as they have in the West?

    [Reply to this comment]

  9. May
    Neal Whitman

    Could you give the pinyin or IPA transcription of the two verbs for “marry”? Thanks!

    [Reply to this comment]

  10. May

    嫁给 - jia4gei3
    娶妻 - qu3qi1, or also 娶老婆 qu3lao3po0
    成家 - cheng2jia1

    [Reply to this comment]

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