Join 3,557 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


I bet your family owns a brothel, right? If you dislike Hanzi so much, you should change your daughter’s surname.
January 28, 2010 10:30 PM   Subscribe

Chinese Characters (Hanzi) Discriminate Against Women A lawyer argues for replacing vulgar sexist Chinese language characters containing the female radical with gender-neutral forms. Many say it is unnecessary.

The linked Chinasmack article is a translation of an article originally posted on the Chinese webiste Tianya, and also includes comments translated from Chinese into English.

As an added bonus, Chinasmack also provides a glossary (nsfw) of common Chinese-language crudities, internet terms, expressions, acronyms, or slang.
posted by KokuRyu (50 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
First ugly simplified characters, and now this? Ugh.
posted by Poagao at 10:48 PM on January 28, 2010


One urban legend says that the symbol for "trouble" is "two women under one roof". That turns out to not be the case.

However, there is this one: which is three copies of the female radical. It turns out to mean "debauchery".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:14 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


There would be precedent for changing the radicals in these characters, of course -- a number of ethnic minorities (e.g. the Zhuang 壮/僮) had the "animal" radical (犭) removed from their names after 1949. People come up with new grievances against Chinese characters every now and then -- one semi-serious response to the Tianya post suggested replacing the "woman" element, 女, with 官, the element meaning "official." Which strikes me as about as likely as any other change to the character set at this point.

The character 姦 that Chocolate Pickle refers to has been merged with the alternate form 奸 in simplified characters; it still contains the woman radical, but at least it isn't three women. Side note: some seal script forms of the character contained the heart radical (心) and had no reference to women at all.
posted by bokane at 11:26 PM on January 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


One urban legend says that the symbol for "trouble" is "two women under one roof". That turns out to not be the case.

Yes, but 安, meaning "peace" is one woman under one roof, so I think the implication still stands.
posted by bluejayk at 11:31 PM on January 28, 2010


One urban legend says that the symbol for "trouble" is "two women under one roof". That turns out to not be the case.

On a related note, when I lived in China I was told that the pictograph 安 ("an", meaning peace) represents the pictograph for woman with that for roof above it. As in "you won't get any peace unless your woman has a roof over her head." Wiki is equivocal about this etymology.
posted by msalt at 11:39 PM on January 28, 2010


On preview, damn you, bluejayk!
posted by msalt at 11:40 PM on January 28, 2010


These kinds of associations occur in a lot of words, which would be very hard to eliminate or otherwise police. The most common type of word in written Chinese consists of a radical (semantic element) plus phonetic (phonological cue). Mother = the radical for female and a phonetic indicating the syllable "ma". But "ma" with the appropriate tone means horse. The phonetic was originally there for its sound, not its meaning. Psycholinguistic studies have shown that the meaning of the phonetic does seep into the meaning of the word. So "mother" does consist of "female" and "horse", semantically. Lots of words have these coincidental associations. Of course, some are more blatantly offensive than others, but it would be very hard to create a PC version of written Chinese.
posted by cogneuro at 12:42 AM on January 29, 2010


Whenever stuff like this comes up, I find myself having to remind people that Chinese people speak Chinese long, long before they read it, and so arguments from character etymology (or, in many cases, from modern character composition, rather than etymology, which is a very different thing) are misleading and not all that useful -- analogous to people complaining about the insidious gendering of the English word "history" (moar like HIStory, amirite?).
posted by bokane at 1:40 AM on January 29, 2010


Paging Abiezer!
posted by smoke at 3:16 AM on January 29, 2010


However, many netizens believe Chinese characters are a part of history and that simply changing characters will not solve the core issue of gender inequality.

That's exactly the same argument that many citizens used to defend this (the racist Flag of the State of Georgia was changed in 2003 to look like this.)
posted by three blind mice at 3:17 AM on January 29, 2010


This.

It seems to me that defending racism (or sexism) on the basis of "well it's our history/culture/ tradition" is to argue on the wrong side of history.
posted by three blind mice at 3:27 AM on January 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


You mean a flag that looks suspiciously like the first Confederate States flag? If anything, that shows that people forget where the got stuff, even if it might be considered distasteful or improper.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 4:10 AM on January 29, 2010


If anything, that shows that people forget where the got stuff, even if it might be considered distasteful or improper.

I think it shows how difficult it is to root this stuff out. I lived in Georgia in the 1980s and was astounded by the percentage of whites who said if the blacks were offended the flag that was their problem. "It's not intended to be racist, it's just history and you can't change history."

The former flag was intended to be racist. (Like those Chinese characters: they didn't invent themselves.) I suppose the key to it being changed was that it was understood to racist by the majority of citizens.

Do the majority of Chinese perceive these characters are inherently racist? I have to admit that neither HIStory nor HERpes appears sexist to me. Neither does neitHER.
posted by three blind mice at 4:32 AM on January 29, 2010


Are there any male characters with negative meanings?
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:45 AM on January 29, 2010


This is just linguistic hysteria.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:52 AM on January 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


Hush, or people will get testy.
posted by fleacircus at 5:15 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


three blind mice

Meanwhile, the current flag of Georgia is the Stars and Bars (13-state variation) with part of the state seal inside the stars. Would you argue that's OK because most people don't realize that's what the original Confederate flag actually looked like?
posted by ubernostrum at 5:29 AM on January 29, 2010


Do people think that having gendered nouns (German, Spanish, etc.) is sexist as well?
posted by Comrade_robot at 5:31 AM on January 29, 2010


Turns out, he does have a slight flaw in his character.
posted by wobh at 5:57 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's so cute when people try to point out and protest institutionalized sexism.
posted by casarkos at 5:59 AM on January 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Often used in BBS forums

Oh man does that take me back! I'm glad the Chinese still use the term BBS to describe an internet forum.

Either that, or China still has a bunch of WWIV dial-up systems. Which would be even awesomer.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:02 AM on January 29, 2010


Do the majority of Chinese perceive these characters are inherently racist? I have to admit that neither HIStory nor HERpes appears sexist to me. Neither does neitHER.

That's cute, but the etymology of those words doesn't really back the notion. The root of "history" is not "his story," etc. "Hysterical" would be a better word to point to, and there are plenty of English speakers who find certain uses of the word as sexist.

In the case of Chinese, the etymology is nearly explicit, since the characters are right there in the word.
posted by explosion at 6:30 AM on January 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yes, and you can't have manslaughter without man's laughter.
posted by blue_beetle at 6:34 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Would you argue that's OK because most people don't realize that's what the original Confederate flag actually looked like?

I'm gonna try to keep the thread on the rails. This is a good question because it focuses on intent. When the Confederate battle flag was added in 1956, this was Georgia's way of saying "fuck you" to the rest of the country after the the decision of Brown v. Board of Education. In other words, the intent was inherently racist. A racist symbol used as a symbol of racism.

It seems the new flag might have been a compromise between those arguing in favor of "history" and those wanting to rid the flag of its racist intent - if not entirely of racist symbols. Not perfect, but a definite improvement.

Similarly, the use of female radicals to symbolize negative concepts seems to be the intent: to purposefully associate women with negative concepts. If so, then this should properly be changed. How to change it? If they would be changed by using perhaps a less potent symbol which might still refer to female, it would not be free of any sexist symbol, but rid of the sexist intent whilst still giving a nod to history/culture/tradition. Not perfect, but a definite improvement.
posted by three blind mice at 6:40 AM on January 29, 2010


Sean Connery: It looks like this is my lucky day! I'll take "The Rapists" for $200.

Alex Trebek: That's "Therapists." That's "Therapists," not "The Rapists."
posted by bwg at 6:40 AM on January 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


As another person with some interest in the politics of language but zero background in Chinese, it seems like the words selected for the author's argument are, uh, not exactly compelling. I guess I'm not surprised that the characters for "prostitute" or "rape" would include the symbol for "woman"--unfortunately, those terms mainly affect women.

Correct me if this is another urban legend, but I've heard that the character for "noisy" is just "woman" repeated three times. That would be a textbook example of sexism.
posted by kittyprecious at 7:06 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


In the case of Chinese, the etymology is nearly explicit, since the characters are right there in the word.

I don't think it's that straightforward - I do think that characters not surprisingly reflect the patriarchal tradition of the mainstream literati culture but they aren't necessarily pointing the finger at women in some of the example characters given in the translated article at the FPP, so much as decrying the behaviour of men as regards women - although of course founded in those patriarchal assumptions about the roles and behaviours of the genders but not locating the wrongdoing in women.
For example the character 姦 above: looking at the earliest texts cited in the standard etymologies you can see that a) it's shifting meaning somewhat and b) that if it is intended as a rebus the implication is that a man who seeks out many women is behaving improperly (it doesn't mean violent rape in all the early contexts so much as licentiousness or venality - earliest cite I could find was the line in the 尚书 舜典 chapter: 帝曰:皋陶,蠻夷猾夏,寇賊奸宄。). And so with 奴, 嫖 or 娼 - not checked the etymologies there but they could be said to be reflecting the historical reality that women were held in bonded service or were sex workers or were regarded as chattel in marriage but that doesn't mean that tbm's thesis ("he use of female radicals to symbolize negative concepts seems to be the intent") holds in quite such a bald fashion.
Despite being paged by smoke on the matter not my area/era of expertise though - bokane knows plenty more about all this that I do and would be interested in his comments on the above.
posted by Abiezer at 7:13 AM on January 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


On non-preview - kittyprecious, yes, that's about my point as well.
posted by Abiezer at 7:14 AM on January 29, 2010


As another person with some interest in the politics of language but zero background in Chinese, it seems like the words selected for the author's argument are, uh, not exactly compelling.

Then let's look at some more from his list: 妖 (evil) and 婪 (greedy). These concepts are not exclusive to or even mainly exhibited by women, yet the 女 radical is there. At the very least this would seem to imply that evil and greed are "feminine" traits.
posted by casarkos at 7:20 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


But casarkos, 妖 is far from being a word in common use to mean evil (stick it in one of the most popular online dictionaries and it doesn't appear in any of the suggested Chinese equivalents). It originally referred to a female evil spirit, but there were male evil spirits too. Even 婪 as covetousness may have begun by indicating the sin of coveting another's woman - reflecting the patriarchal culture but not identifying greed as a female trait.
posted by Abiezer at 7:28 AM on January 29, 2010


Should clarify the above insofar as 妖 appears in some common compounds about beguiling women (with a similar etymology to the English there concerning supernatural powers of attraction). By far the most common usage these days is in 人妖 AFAIK, which reveals some nasty gender politics but the emphasis is on supposed "unnaturalness" there rather than "evil".
posted by Abiezer at 7:41 AM on January 29, 2010


I'm sympathetic to her argument, but there's some weird puritanism in that article. For example:
A common phrase includes “eat, drink, [play with] prostitutes, and gambling”, all describe a person without proper conduct, who only loaf about and engage in lowly behavior.
posted by electroboy at 8:00 AM on January 29, 2010


婪 (greedy) evidently refers to a woman in violation of China's "one tree per family" law.
posted by kurumi at 8:39 AM on January 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


Do people think that having gendered nouns (German, Spanish, etc.) is sexist as well?

You definitely get some debate about it. In English, there aren't all that many gender specific words for jobs. You've got actor and actress, for example, with the latter going out of style, but writer and scientist are simply neutral. In German, it's currently a lot more common for there to be explicitly masculine and feminine versions of the word, the latter generally involving changing the article and adding the suffix -in to the male version of the word. Obviously, however, if you're putting out a general job ad for, say, an accountant, you don't want to use the male-specific form. But using both forms gets to be pretty long. The result is constructions that look like this:

Darüber hinaus kann eine Aufstiegsfortbildung zum/zur Geprüfte/-n Bilanzbuchhalter/-in absolviert... (From Wikipedia)

The form hasn't fully standardized yet; you may see BilanzbuchhalterIn, Bilanzbuchhalter(in), Bilanzbuchhalter/in and even (in ads) something like Bilanzbuchhalter (m/w). Plurals get the treatment too (Bilanzbuchhalter/innen) - as do gender-specific adjectives and prepositions (zum/zur Geprüfte/n.) Neologisms, imports from English, and switches to alternate German words (e.g. der Mensch to die Person) are also widespread ways of dealing with gendered words having to do with people. This last choice is often preferred by people who want to avoid both the use of the generic masculine form (arguing that it can never truly be neutral) and the addition of gendered feminine versions for inclusiveness (which make gender even more explicit, and which results in the somewhat awkward constructs described above.)

On the other hand, there are far fewer people who care very much about gender for things like fenceposts and cats or for abstract nouns like boredom. In many cases, gender is clearly entirely the product of word endings and suffixes and is important only for correctly declining nouns. For example, the words for many abstract nouns, positive and negative, are feminine simply because it's automatic for words with the suffixes -heit and -keit (used sort of like -ness to turn an adjective into a noun) and the suffix -ung (sort of like -ing, turns verbs into nouns.)
posted by ubersturm at 8:53 AM on January 29, 2010


This topic is discussed in greater depth in

Gender and Grammar in Chinese: With Implications for Language Universals
Catherine S. Farris
Modern China, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Jul., 1988), pp. 277-308


(Interested parties without JSTOR access - I might be able to arrange a copy of the article.)
posted by Sangermaine at 3:44 PM on January 29, 2010


In English, there aren't all that many gender specific words for jobs.

any more. There aren't that many any more. IDK how old you are, but when I was a kid, "lady doctor" and "lady lawyer" and "lady pilot" (and "male nurse," unfortunately) were still in common use, and Emily Dickenson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were "poetesses", which sounds like a cheap pastry instead of the stud poets they were.

men complained about "Women's Studies" programs and asked where the men's studies programs were - what, the whole fucking curriculum wasn't enough for them?

excessively gendered language allows the dominant gender to pat the non-dominant on the ass and not pay them.

less-gendered language sounds funny for, like, a generation, and then everybody who's nostalgic for that kind of stupidity finally dies and things get better.
posted by toodleydoodley at 3:45 PM on January 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


I suggest change the radical for ‘奸’ [rape] to the ‘犭行’ ['犭' is the dog or animal radical]; so that it will show people ‘犭行’ is a bestial act. I believe changing this character will reduce rape by 20 percent.
The should just change it to the character for consensual sex and reduce rape by 100%.
posted by Cogito at 3:56 PM on January 29, 2010


Do people think that having gendered nouns (German, Spanish, etc.) is sexist as well?

That's basically how my high school spanish teacher explained it.

"If you're stuck on whether a word is masculine or feminine, if it's a word with a bad connotation, it's probably feminine."

As for English, I first learned to spell "together" by separating it out into "to get her". I don't know if I have any subconscious associations with "together" and maybe a group of guys going out together to "get" a female, but that doesn't preclude anyone else from having some associations due to breaking down a word.
posted by rubah at 4:42 PM on January 29, 2010


Many say it is unnecessary.

These are probably distant relatives of the people who are Still! Complaining! about losing the word "gay" to, well, gay people. I means, there aren't any other words to describe lighthearted, except: carefree, untroubled, blithe, blithesome, bright, buoyant, cheerful, effervescent, expansive, feelgood, frolicsome, glad, gleeful, happy, happy-go-lucky, high-spirited, insouciant, jocund, jolly, jovial, joyful, joyous, laid-back, lightsome, lively, merry, playful, resilient, spirited, sprightly, sunny, upbeat, vivacious

oh, and gay.
posted by toodleydoodley at 6:08 PM on January 29, 2010


Wrote something yesterday which was poorly phrased, and while no-one's picked me up on it and I doubt anyone cares, should say that "By far the most common usage [of the character 妖] these days is in 人妖" gives the wrong impression - it appears far more commonly in those compounds I mentioned about supernatural attraction; meant 人妖 was by far the most actively demeaning or negative usage of it these days - was discussing this post with some friends whilst out last night and someone mentioned they were aware of specific objections to the term by transgendered people.
So, my supposed clarification contained further errors. Job's a good 'un! Ahem.
posted by Abiezer at 6:57 PM on January 29, 2010


Yes, I was informed after writing a column in Chinese that made reference in the first line to "the tranny puking all over the bar" that 人妖 is not the preferred term by transgendered persons in China. That said, there is nothing inherently evil or wicked about 妖; sometimes you'll see it used of women in the sense of "beguiling" etc.

The notion that gendered nouns in Spanish are "bad" if they're feminine is bullshit. Indo-European tends to make abstract concepts feminine, good as well as bad: "la libertad," anybody?
posted by bokane at 7:36 PM on January 29, 2010


Anyway, all of the etymology going on in that post is very low-powered; it reminds me of attempts by missionaries to prove that Chinese was the original language of Eden because the word for "to want" (要) breaks down to "woman" (女) and "West" (西), clearly indicating the Garden of Eden story. Except that the word for "to want" was, starting very early, written as a graphic borrowing of the word for "waist" (which sounds the same), showing a hand (手, mutated to 西 in modern form) pointing at a woman's waist.
posted by bokane at 7:41 PM on January 29, 2010


Anyway, all of the etymology going on in that post is very low-powered; it reminds me of attempts by missionaries to prove that Chinese was the original language of Eden

The Rorschach-test nature of chinese characters to westerners always amuses me. Back when I was in grade school, there was very a popular misconception that the etymology of the "woman" 女 character was the "man" 人 character altered into holding an object like a servant. This was explanation was unquestioningly accepted because it was "common sense" then that those orientals were a bunch of hopelessly backward misogynists who considered women to be the servants of men.

This popular etymology was completely wrong, of course. 人 is actually rather gender-neutral, more akin to "person" or "human". The character for "man" (in the gendered sense) is actually 男, a compound of two completely different characters unrelated to both 人 and 女. And 女 itself is not related to 人 either; the 女 character is just a simplification of a literal drawing of a woman, not some "servant" alteration.
posted by PsychoKick at 11:09 PM on January 29, 2010


My point, though, is that regardless of etymology (and I'm not sure to what extent Chinese people are usually aware of the etymology of their language) if you put all these characters next to each other they don't have anything in common except the "woman" radical. So to the casual everyday speaker/reader, it looks like these words are directly associated with women, or being feminine, or femaleness. And it doesn't help a culture's attitudes toward women when in their own language "woman" is a component of many negative ideas.

With 妖, I agree that it's not often used to mean "evil" as such these days, but as you said, it still has connotations of unnaturalness, and Chinese culture traditionally is not all that keen on things that are "unnatural" and un-orderly.

the 女 character is just a simplification of a literal drawing of a woman, not some "servant" alteration.

When I was learning Chinese, we were taught that it showed someone kneeling/curtsying with their legs crossed - i.e. a submissive position.
posted by casarkos at 8:20 AM on January 30, 2010


Yeah, I've heard that explanation as well, along with other different explanations such womb, breasts, standing woman, kneeling woman, wide hips, etc. My point was that the 女 character is based on its own unique visual depiction, not as a variant/alteration of 人.

While the exact nature of those depictions are debatable, actually delving into the graphical lineages behind and shows that they're clearly distinct.
posted by PsychoKick at 10:54 AM on January 30, 2010


Correct me if this is another urban legend, but I've heard that the character for "noisy" is just "woman" repeated three times. That would be a textbook example of sexism.

When 姦 is used as a kanji (in Japanese) one of the readings of it is "noisy".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:02 PM on January 31, 2010


...However, 姦 isn't one of the Jouyou Kanji, the standard set of kanji that all students are expected to have mastered by the time they leave high school. I'm no expert, but I get the impression that it's deprecated. And there are other kanji that can be used to mean "noisy" such as 喧 and 囂.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:47 PM on January 31, 2010


When 姦 is used as a kanji (in Japanese) one of the readings of it is "noisy".

If used in the adjectival 姦しい (かしましい kashimashii) form, sure. But the やかましい (yakamashii) form is quite rare in modern Japanese--most people would write it in hiragana alone--and the use of "kashimashii" is pretty much limited to the phrase "三人集まれば姦しい" ("wherever women gather it is noisy"). I have yet to see it in another context, but I defer to people like no-sword in the literature department.

I'm no expert, but I get the impression that it's deprecated.

No, there are a number of words using that character, mostly related to rape and assault. The character is generally used in jukugo kanji compounds, however, and not by itself.
posted by armage at 9:14 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ah, well, thanks Choco.
posted by kittyprecious at 5:28 AM on February 1, 2010


And there are other kanji that can be used to mean "noisy" such as 喧 and 囂.

These characters are somewhat obscure in Japanese.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:12 PM on February 3, 2010


« Older Sgt. Pepper's one-and-only Lonely Hearts Club Band...  |  When Pablo Escobar escaped fro... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments