Language Thursdays: Sexism in MandarinWritten by Julen Madariaga on April 1st, 2010
In 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)  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) .
Off the top of my head, I find the following kinds of sexist occurrences in mandarin, see for yourself:
- 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).
- The female radical appearing in characters with negative “feminine” meanings like those in 嫉妒 (envy).
- Words like 丫头 that are widely used to mean “girl” and originally meant “slave” . Words like 弄瓦 and 弄璋 - give birth to a girl (mud) and to a boy (jade) - fall under the same category.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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 [↩]
- 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 [↩]
- 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” [↩]