Some characters with negative connotations have a female root
GENDER bias in language is exercising Europe’s linguists. A French grammar book published last year ignited debates about an old grammatical rule that holds that masculine forms of words trump the feminine. In similar vein, Spanish politicians have proposed editing the constitution to include a reference to female workers (“workers” in the masculine, and therefore universal, form are already mentioned). And German grammarians are mulling an update to dictionaries to include new genderless versions of words. In China, however, the debate is rather quieter. Yet Mandarin—spoken by 70% of Chinese people—has gender bias, too. It shares some issues with other languages: female bosses, for example, are typically identified as such (eg, woman-boss), whereas male ones are not. But unlike some European tongues, Mandarin does not assign genders to nouns. It has a different—and inaudible—issue: some of its written characters ascribe negative stereotypes to women.
Chinese characters are made up of smaller components, called radicals, that come in two forms. Phonetic radicals give clues about a character’s pronunciation; semantic ones give clues about its meaning. For example, the radical for “speech” (讠) is semantic and is found on the left side of characters associated with speech: “language” (语), “words” (话), “to request” (请), “to chat” (谈), “to thank” (谢) and so on. Chinese dictionaries are often sorted by radical, so these characters are listed together. Similarly, the Chinese radical for “woman” (女) is found in the characters for “mother” (妈), “sister” (姐), and “aunt” (姑).
But the “woman” radical is also found in the characters and words for “jealousy” (妒), “suspicion” (嫌), “slave” (奴隶), “devil” (妖) and “rape” (强奸). It appears in some more positive instances, such as “good”（好）and “safety” (安), but even these characters rely on stereotypes: “good” depicts a woman next to a child, and “safety” is represented by a woman under a roof. The woman radical itself (女) is throught to derive from an image of a woman bending over with her hands clasped together. The word for man (男), by contrast, is made up of radicals meaning “field” (田) and “power” (力). Chinese grammar, especially word order, can also be said to favour men. The word for “parents” is “father and mother”, in that order; “children” is sometimes depicted as “son and daughter”. Most ironically, as one linguist has noted, the phrase for “gender equality” (男女平等) puts the male character before the female one.
Progress is possible. In 2015 curators used the traditional character for illicit sexual relations (姦—three women radicals, one on top of two others, to suggest multiple affairs by a man) as the name of an exhibit on violence against women. A year later a group of female typographers published a book of characters that they had made up. One put the radicals for “walking” and “woman” together to convey the idea that women’s roles can be outside the home. Inventing new characters is rather easier than abolishing existing ones, though. China’s written language is a source of national pride, persisting despite the difficulty it imposes. Anyone who spends hours learning Chinese characters will also learn the stereotypes built into them.