Sexism in the Chinese language
The history of gender inequality left traces everywhere, including daily language. And perhaps we’re extra sensitive to this, because GoEast has three female founders, which probably influenced the way we set up what we think is the ideal Mandarin school. Language should be inclusive, but it’s not always — so we also have listening practice stories on period cramps, and the main character of our courses for kids is a girl named Mika, a more adventurous one than any boy.
But it’s not even a drop in the ocean against centuries of inequality. Several students noticed how an idiom such as “妇孺皆知Fùrú jiē zhī” are extremely sexist. It is used to say “everyone knows” but literally it means “women and kids”, labeling women as ignorant as kids. And there are dozens of other examples. So whether it’s for sake of being aware of these shortcomings of language, or simply for the sake of language trivia, here we list the overt sexism in the Chinese language in several parts.
Names for girls
For centuries, girls often receive names of ideal virtues women should have. Even in 2022, popular girl names include:
- 梦瑶 (Mèngyáo), dreaming of jade or beauty
- 欣妍 (Xīnyán), joy beauty, or admire beauty
- 欣怡 (Xīnyí), joy
While boy’s names include:
- 子墨 (Zǐmò) refined ink
- 浩然 (Hàorán) vastness
- 奕辰 (Yìchén) grand sun, moon, stars
This isn’t just from today.
Last century, girl names like “招娣”(zhāo dì)、“引娣(yǐn dì)” were very popular, since it sounds like “summoning a younger brother”, in hopes that the mother can give birth to a boy after her. One of China’s legendary volleyball players was named 陈招娣 (Zhaodi Chen), she was a key member of the national team that won the 1981 and 1982 world championship, and went on to become a military general. But her parents when they gave her that name perhaps merely wished she could be a boy.
The difference in addressing
In ancient times, a girl lost her name once she got married. If her husband’s name was 王Wáng or 李Lǐ, she’d become 王氏(Wáng shì) or 李氏(Lǐ shì), which means “the Wang/Li family’s wife”. Or she’d be named “~嫂” (sǎo), which is used to address someone’s wife who is of similar age to you). For example, in the famous story “The New Year’s Sacrifice”, 祝福(Zhù Fú) by Lu Xun, one of the most renowned writers in Chinese history, the main character is called 祥林嫂(Xiánglín sǎo), meaning the woman who married Xianglin. No one ever knew her name at all, not even her surname.
Then the words used for marriage are different for men and women: for a man marrying a woman, is “娶进来” (qǔ jìnlái), literally means “fetch a girl into (the house)”, while for a woman is “嫁出去”, indicating “a girl is leaving her family and entering another”. As for grandparents, the female side of the family is called 外婆(wàipó), 外公(wàigōng), in which “外” means outside, indicating the mum’s side is not really the core intimate family, but merely outsiders.
The default ‘ta’ is 他. And when the two sexes are mentioned, 夫妻 (fūqī, husband and wife)，兄弟姐妹(xiōngdìjiěmèi, brothers and sisters), 父母fùmǔ (fùmǔ, father and mother), 爸爸妈妈(baba māma dad and mum), 男女(nánnǚ men and women), the male word is always mentioned first.
The only exception is “女士们，先生们”(nǚshì men, xiānsheng men, ladies and gentlemen) out of some kind of courtesy, or more likely because it’s directly translated from English.
Names of professions
Spoken Chinese is similar to English in that if someone is a male doctor, then it’s just an 医生(yīshēng, doctor), but if it’s a female doctor, a gender prefix is added: 女医生 (nǚ yīshēng, female doctor), 女飞行员（nǚ fēixíngyuán, female pilot）, 女老板(nǚ lǎobǎn, female boss), 女总统(nǚ zǒngtóng, female president). This prefix is male when it’s for “typical female” jobs, such as 男清洁工(nán qīngjié gōng, male cleaner) , 男阿姨（nán ā‘yí, male nanny), 男幼师 (nán yòushī, male kindergarten teacher)— showing it is outside of the norm (more about this later, why this is so destructive to the hopes of girls).
Characters are a unique part of the Mandarin language, even if in spoken words you cannot hear the components of a character, the character itself can have a hidden negative meaning towards women.
Characters are not developed by nature or anything. They’re designed. And yes, there are some characters with the female component that have a positive meaning, the most obvious being “good” and “safety”, even here it reinforces typical gender roles: 好(hǎo) is a woman and a child, and 安(ān) is a woman under a roof (they’re not meant to go outside). — while on contrast, the word man 男(nán)has the radicals of “field” (田 tián) and “power” (力 lì).”
The “woman” radical is found in the characters and words for “jealousy” (妒 dù), “suspicion” (嫌 xián), “slave” (奴隶 núlì), “devil” (妖 yāo).
Here are some more examples, listed in the article of Victor Mair, or the tiny book of Karmen Hui, Tan Sueh Li, and Tan Zi Hao:
- jiān 奸 (“evil; treacherous; traitor; illicit sexual relations”)
- jiān 姦 (“adultery; debauchery; rape”)
- nú 奴 (“manservant; slave”)
- jí 嫉 (“envy; jealousy”)
- jídù 嫉妒 (“envy; jealousy”)
- yín 婬 (“lewdness”)
- xián 嫌 (“suspicion; ill will; resentment; quarrel; dislike”)
- nǎo 嫐 (“frolic; play / flirt with”) — the character has a man sandwiched between two women
- lán 婪 (“greedy; covet[ous]; avaricious”)
- pīn 姘 (“have an affair; illicit sexual relations”)
- yāo 妖 (“monster; devil; goblin; witch; phantom; bewitching; coquettish; strange; weird; supernatural”)
- jì 妓 (“prostitute”)
- chāng 娼 (“prostitute”)
- biǎo 婊 (“prostitute”)
- piáo 嫖 (“visit a prostitute; whore”)
- wàng 妄 (“absurd, foolish, reckless; false; untrue; preposterous; presumptuous; rash; extravagant; ignorant; stupid; wild; frantic; frenetic”, etc., etc.) all pejorative and defamatory meanings
Of course, not all characters having the woman radical are negative:
- xìng 姓 (“surname”); note that some of the oldest Chinese surnames, such as jiāng 姜 and jī 姬, have the woman radical, indicating a matriarchal society
- wēi 威 (“force; might; power[ful]; dominate; pomp”)
- zī 姿 (“appearance; gesture; looks; posture” [often of a majestic sort])
- tuǒ 妥 (“proper; appropriate; settled; ready; satisfactory”)
Idioms are a quick way to convey a bigger meaning, part of language and the meaning understood by its speakers. We rarely wonder about the literal meaning of an idiom or expression, such as “Once in a blue moon” or “cool as a cucumber” or “when pigs fly” or “let the cat out of bag”. Why a blue moon? Why a cucumber?
But these idioms not only carry hidden defamatory meanings, they also reinforce them. One of them appears in the Analects of Confucius. Here is the translation by James Legge:
“The Master said, ‘Of all people, girls and servants are the most difficult to behave to. If you are familiar with them, they lose their humility. If you maintain a reserve towards them, they are discontented.'”
And this formed the idiom “唯小人与女子难养也，近之则不逊，远之则怨 Wéi xiǎo rén yǔ nǚzǐ nán yǎng yě, jìn zhī zé bù xùn, yuán zhī zé yuàn”, which is still part of Chinese language today. We praise Confucius for his wisdom, but this is misogyny wrapped in poetry.
Other idioms are:
- 夫唱妇随Fūchàng fùsuí (husband sings and wife harmonizes) & 男才女貌náncái nǚ mào (guys should be clever, women can just be pretty) — but used to mean a couple is great together
- 妇孺皆知Fùrú jiē zhī (women are labeled as ignorant as kids) — but used to say ‘everyone knows’
- 妇人之仁Fù rén zhī rén (your kindness is just like a married woman’s soft heart to describe someone is lacking of resolution
- 贤妻良母 Xián qīliáng mǔ & 相夫教子xiàng fū jiàozǐ — literally means “taking care of kids is a women’s job”, used to describe a good wife and mother.
- 人老珠黄 Rénlǎo zhūhuáng(old women are like dimmed jewelry) 残花败柳 cánhuā bài liǔ(old women are like beaten flowers and defeated willows by wind), on aging women. Meanwhile, guys get the idioms like“男人四十一枝花”(nánrén sìshī yīzhīhuā, a man is still like a flower when he turns 40 years old)
Why it matters
This is not some trivial nitpicking on language. Language and sexism go hand-in-hand. And it works in two ways: Freudian slips may reveal sexist notions, while language may reinforce others. If a child hears the idiom, “妇孺皆知” which means “everybody knows” but literally means “women are labeled as ignorant as kids”, then what does that teach the child?
Language isn’t just our thoughts put into words, it also acts as a framework for thinking. We can provide two examples. Environmentalist Philip Wollen gives one: “When animals do something noble we say they are behaving ‘like humans’. When humans do something disgusting we say they are behaving ‘like animals’. This perpetuates the myth that animals are inferior and disposable beings.”
Advertising executive Rory Sutherland explains that by creating a phrase you can change the way people think, decide and behave. This can also be used positively, the term ‘Designated Driver’ was coined because there was no ready name for a person who doesn’t drink alcohol as to be fit to drive others home. Without such a name, it was harder to embed this behavior as the norm. And so after the term ‘Designated Driver’ was created, TV series were encouraged to use the term in their episodes to help the term find its place in everyday language.
In a negative case, prejudices are fueled by stereotyped language. In language will we often mention something explicitly if something is not in line with the stereotypical image, for instance a ‘working mother’ or a ‘caring father’. These prejudices go both ways, but most often it’s against females.
If a doctor is female, a gender prefix is added, but this is not the case if the doctor is male. And so the girl who wants to become a doctor may constantly need to defend or explain her choice, because it deviates from the norm. Guys are unlikely to become cleaners, because the name for such a job is 阿姨(Āyí, auntie). Our teacher Emily mentioned a story about her male cousin, who wanted to be a kindergarten teacher since he loves kids so much, but his parents felt so wrong and ashamed.
There is a word for ‘housemom’ (家庭妈妈) but not for a ‘house dad’ (宅爸爸). Women are expected to take care of their kids (贤妻良母), while guys can — should — have a career (男才女貌). The same for “leftover woman” (剩女shèngnǚ), a deeply derogatory term. With that name, it became much easier to stigmatize women, but no equal term for men really exists or is widely used.
Women in managerial roles in companies often have to explain how they combine work and care and whether they feel guilty about it – men are not asked that.
The vicious circle is one where the girl who wants to become a doctor is constantly confronted by stereotypical, sexist language, which can lead to self-doubt, lack of confidence, and worse performance. The lower performance perpetuates the image of being less or not at all suitable for that particular role. And thus stereotyped language also contributes to the underrepresentation of women at the top.
What do we expect from this article? Even if we cannot change language, we can make you more aware of its shortcomings.