Unlike words, characters can often reveal hidden insights about the society and views of thousands of years ago, when roughly the same characters were used. The character ‘女’ (nü3), meaning ‘female’, seems harmless at first glance, such as in ‘ 女儿’ (daughter), ‘ 女高音’ (soprano) and 女朋友 (girlfriend), but when looked at in closer detail, many 女 compounds reveal the blatant sexism from the ancient society creating these words which are used today with little thought to what they mean.
‘你好’ is the first phrase pretty much anyone learns in Chinese – the first post on this blog was about the wonders of this phrase. You’ll be able to see the 女 in there at the start of 好, which literally means ‘good’. 好 is a compound of ‘woman’ and ‘child’, implying that the only ‘good’ thing for a woman to do is to have children. Perhaps not surprising for a primaeval society, but in a language of the 21st century, it seems shocking that a common word like ‘good’ is just a compound of ‘woman’ and ‘child’.
The 女 radical appears to be everywhere in words with negative connotations – 婪 (greedy), 妖 (demon), 媸(ugly), and even ‘安’, which depicts a woman under a roof, meaning ‘peaceful’. Some words even go as far as ‘奻’, a clear depiction of two women together, the most revealing of all, meaning ‘argument’. In early Chinese society, it was common for men to have more than one wife, and so wives would tend to argue with any new woman the man ‘brought home’, so that they would inherit a larger part of his share – but does this character need to be part of Chinese dictionaries today?
Modern Chinese feminists have called for these characters to be changed to the more neutral 彳, a symbol for two people, but changing a 5,000 year old pictographic language throws up (as you might expect) a few issues. These characters might seem shocking to learners of the language, but for native speakers they are just a word, and do not even show up in spoken Mandarin.
What do you think? Should the Beijing authorities alter the language to remove these compounds and replace them with more gender-neutral replacements, or is changing the building blocks of a language a step too far? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
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