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Sexism In The Chinese Languages Cultural Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2395 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Language as a sociocultural phenomenon (Arndt et al, 1987) is closely associated with the social structure, values and norms of behavior. It arises with the formation of human society and varies with the development of social life. Such co-variation between language and society enables the linguistic phenomena to reflect the social customs and values of life. Gender differences and sexism in language reflect each specific social values, concepts and national modes of thinking. China has gone through a long history of feudal society in which women did not enjoy any prestige of social status. Sexism has pervasively existed in the Chinese languages and society and has reflected both in written and oral language.

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In the general linguistic literature, hundreds of popular and academic studies on language and gender have been conducted since the early 1970’s in the United States, prompted by the women’s movement. For the Chinese language and its dialects, during that period and into the 1980’s, scant attention was paid to gender-differentiated speech aside from language variation research, in which sex is an important independent variable. Owing to the scarcity of adequate empirical research and on the pavement of prior literatures and studies on gender discrimination in Chinese culture and society, the article attempts to conduct a comprehensive study on the Chinese language by analyzing the Chinese word structures, lexicon and sociocultural contexts.


Western linguists have been studying various aspects of sexism in the English language for several decades. Following the influential works by Robin Lakoff (1975), and Miller & Swift (1977), and some others, many of the researchers began to identify and categorize types of sexism marked in linguistic features such as vocabulary, grammar, discourse, and even intonation (Baron, 1986). Recently scholars have turned their attention to sexism in Mandarin Chinese as well, finding remarkably similar sexism phenomena in linguistic aspects on Chinese words, vocabulary, idioms, and proverbs. (Shih, 1984). The most notable treatment of sexism in the Chinese language is that of Yan (2003) and Pan (2004), whose works have greatly influenced the direction of this article. Since the mid-70s, Chinese sociolinguists have presented this topic from several different perspectives. Current studies in this field have shifted its focus from single linguistic variables to context-specific connected speech, drawing on approaches from discourse analysis and the ethnography of communication. Recent work also tends to be based more on empirical research rather than on casual observation or introspection. However, the studies of sex differences and language have been carried out in English-speaking societies. Relevant research on the Chinese language is still in its infancy. Moreover, very little has been done from the new perspectives on language and gender concerning the Chinese language.

Sexism in Chinese character structures

Chinese is one of the world’s longest-standing languages, whose characters are the important carriers of its culture that is the base on which Chinese words are shaped. Chinese is the world’s only existing language, which is characterized by ideography and which represents connotation by pictography. The Chinese pictographic words contain and convey plentiful cultural messages. One of the six categories of Chinese character formation is pictographs which display the meaning through directly depicting the appearance. Right from the early period of the word formation, the word “女” (woman) in Chinese ancient oracle script (甲骨æ-‡ jiaguwen) emerged the low social status for women in ancient China. The hieroglyphic character shaped reflecting a kneeling woman with her hands crossed. When two points (breasts) are added, it becomes “母” (mother). Oracle Bone Script is one of the oldest known forms of Chinese written language. According to recent archaeological research, it dates back as far as 4,800 years ago. It was likely used from the Middle to the Late Shang dynasty. Oracle script was etched onto turtle shells and animals bones. The shape of these characters are often described as “pictographic”, in that they resemble stylized drawings of objects they represent. Such pictographic words illustrate that the females were in dominated position. The ancient pronunciation of the word “女” (woman) was read “奴” /nú/ meaning “slave”, (connoting a woman “女” with a big hand”又”). In Chinese slavery society, daughters were used for debt mortgage. Afterwards, a great quantity of Chinese ideographic words combined with “女” as feminine morpheme are formed mostly of discrimination. From the onset of Chinese character formation, it is obviously seen that the women in Chinese society were in low position. According to Modern Chinese Dictionary ( Wang et al, 1995), besides the single word “女” (woman), there are 202 words consisting of “女” (woman) morpheme as the word root. Based on the statistics of some Chinese scholars, words with the “woman” morpheme are found in 《辞海》”Ci Hai” (literally translated “Sea of Rhetoric, published in Hongkong, 1989) with a total of 257 words, in which 100 characters are of medium evaluation in realty, 35 of derogatory, 47 of praise and 18 of half-and-half praise or derogatory evaluation. Let’s see some examples of this type “女”component which are detrimental to women : 妒 /dù/ (jealous)- woman 女 + household户/hù/; 嫉 /jì/ (envy) – woman女+ diseaseç-¾ /jí/; å¦- /yao/ (demon) – woman女 + die young 夭 /yao/ ); 娼 /chang/ (prostitute) – woman女+ flourishing 昌¼› 妓 /zhi/ (prostitute) – woman女+支 branch store); and 嬲 /niÇŽo/ (flirt) (man + woman + man); å«- /biào/ (act of visiting prostitutes); 奸 /jian/ (wicked or evil); å˜ / ping/ (have illicit relations or sexual intercourse with); å«Œ /xián/ (suspicion); 娛 /yú/ (give pleasure ) and so forth.

In addition of the word structure with the left-side morpheme of “woman” mentioned, Chinese people, in cognition of up-down spatial system, have a tendency of superior-and inferior concepts and discrimination. The loss of female identity consciousness is superficial cause that emerges come into gender discrimination of Chinese character structures. For examples, 妾 /qiè/ (concubine)- consisting of ‘set up’ ç«‹/lì/ and ‘woman’女; 妄 (absurd, arrogant); 妥 / tuÇ’/ (proper, suitable)、妻 /qi/ (wife); 婪 /jìn/ (greed); 耍 /suÇ’/ (weak, play); å¬- /pi/ (show favour to); å¦ /jian/ (rape) and much more. Those are made of a “女” (woman) morpheme and another component word. Such kind of words in the up-down structure occupy 3% of the total words with “woman” (“Ci Hai”《辞海》, 1989). Chinese people ancestors might have thought of peacefulness by positing women in a deep room under the roof ( 安 /an/). Such structure of “安” (peacefulness) further reflects obviously the male-dominance ideology in Chinese languages and society. If those words are dissembled¼Œthey can be interpreted as women’s common failing¼Œa gender-based failing to the exclusion of men¼ŽThose Chinese characters seem to pass on the message that women are characteristic of those negative emotions¼Œdisposition¼Œand maneuver¼Ž

Sexism in the Lexicon and socio-cultural contexts

Another biased representation of the sexes that concerns the portrayal of man as the norm and women as the appendage can be seen in Chinese lexicon. The article tends to focus on the manifestation of sexism from the angles of generic masculine, naming and addressing terms. The Chinese lexicon has many depreciative terms of address, a lot of which are directed at women. For example, a man can call his wife å…人 /nèirén/ (a person inside the home), means a woman can only stay at home without freedom of movement or engaging in political and social activities. Another termè³¤å… /jiàn nèi/ illustrates the lower status of a woman as “humble and lowly person inside home”. 荊釵/jingchai/ (thorn hairpin), meaning a woman who is very poor as she uses a thorn as her hairpin. 貞潔 /zhenjié/ (chastity and virginity), these are specially prepared for women. Chinese lexicon has 貞婦 /zhenfù/ (chastity woman) and 節婦 /jiéfu/ (widow) but it has no 貞男 /zhennàn/ (chastity man) and 節男 /jiénán/ (widower). This illustrates that in terms of sexual relationships, the chains are only obligatory to women. A man can remarry after his wife’s death, and his newly-married wife is then called 添房/tianfáng/ ( added room) or 續絃/xùxián/ ( continued string, meaning a woman who marries a widower). But there are no corresponding female-centered characters in Chinese in this regard; as a result. Chinese traditional principle of “no posterity as the greatest of the three unfilial acts” firmly legalizes the male dominance.

The male-dominant trend of modern Chinese characterized by polysyllabic words are only aimed at or centered on men. The generic words like 法官/fÇŽguan/ (judge), å·žé•·/zhouzhÇŽng/ (governor), 政治家/zhèngzhi jia /(politician), æ ¡é•·/xiàozhÇŽng/ (principal), 部長 /bùzhÇŽng/ (minister), 將軍/jiangjun/ (general), and 總統/zÇ’ngtÇ’ng/ (president) are specially denoted and referred to male. When referred to female, the morpheme “女” (female) /nü/ is added to the existing as a prefix, such as 女部長 / nü bùzhăng/ (ministress) 女總統 / nü zÇ’ngtÇ’ng/(female president ) and so forth. The sexism in Chinese can be reflected on the order of word combination involving sex. In collocation, many polysyllabic words denoting male are placed before those denoting female. For example, 男女/nánnü/ (man and woman or boy and girl), 夫妻 fuqi/ (husband and wife), 兒女 /érnü/(sons and daughters). This mentality of regarding men as taking precedence over women exists not only in Chinese culture but also in Western culture.

In Chinese lexicon, there is an imputation of sexual immorality to referents of the woman’s term, but with the man’s term carrying very general¼Œusually favorable implication¼ŽAnother astounding fact is that there are far and away more words for prostitutes than for their customers¼ŽIn Chinese, many terms refer to a prostitute¼Œsuch as examples above¼Œbut there’s the only most frequently used for a man as “å«-“/biào/¼Œstill with Chinese compound character “女”(woman)¼Ž

Like English, in Chinese, masculine pronouns are mostly used as a general reference. For example, ä»- /ta/ (he) referred to both generic gender. Similar cases include ä»-人 /tarén/ (others), å…¶ä»-人 /qí ta rén/ (the rest). In speech, women like to express themselves as 人家 /rén jia/ (another person) instead of using “I” due to social expectation that women are said to be indirect and invisible. Sexism in Chinese sociocultural contexts can be observed in Chinese slang and idioms which also reflect the social ideology of less-dominance upon women. For example, Chinese has expressions 男不跟女鬥 / nán bù gen nü dòu/ ( man will not argue with a woman) or 雞不跟ç‹-鬥 / ji bù gen gÇ’u dòu/ (chicken will not fight with a dog), 女子無才便是德 /nü zǐ wú cái biàn shì dé/ ( a woman of ignorance is a virtue, or an unaccomplished woman is a virtuous woman), 女人是禍水 /nü rén shì hùo shÇ”i/ A woman is a disaster-maker), and 三個女人一台戲 /san gè nü rén yi tái xì/ (Three women can stage a performance, equally English, ” many women, many word” ). A common theme here is that women are liable to gossip¼›they are talkative¼Œand noisy. They are stereotyped as gossip- laden, tentative, discursive and fussy which again echoes how important language is to the social construction of gendered identity¼Ž


Since human being existed on the earth, there have been presented two different genders-male and female. On account of the differences between their physiological features and the superiority and inferiority in social activities, men and women are differentiated from each other in individuality, value, image and status, which give rise to variations in their language styles and language uses. From these linguistic evidences of sex discrimination existing in the Chinese language and male-governed society, a woman was always in the less-dominant position. Sexism phenomena present in the formation of the language, but it originates from its sociolinguistics and socio-culture. The differences refracted from the linguistic aspects and sexism are not determined by natural property of the language itself, but are naturally refracted in the language by specific concepts of social values and national modes of thinking. Many attempts nowadays are made to eliminate as much as possible the gender discrimination both in the cultural-linguistics and social identity.


1. Carfleron Deborah. 1990. The feminist critique of Language. (2001)

2. Ci Hai (辭海,香港), 1989. Rhetoric Dictionary, Hongkong.

3. Defeng, Yang. Chinese and Cultural Communication. Beijing: 2001.

4. Freeman¼ŒR. and McElhinny¼ŒB.”Language and Gender”. InMckay, L.S. & Hornberger, H. N. (2001). Sociolinguistics and Language Teaching. Shanghai.

5. Modern Chinese Dictionary, 2001. Xiandai Hanyu Cidian, 现代汉语词典, åŒ-京æ-°åŽä¹¦åº-总åº-åŒ-京发行所,Xinhua Book Store, Beijing, 2001.

4. Sunderland, Jane. 2006. Language and Gender. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

5. Zhang, Aiping (张爱萍译音). 1995. Another look at the “sajiao”¼ˆæ’’娇¼‰ phenomenon. Manuscript, Ohio State University.

Appendix 1

Some Oracle Bone Scripts found related to woman. ( pictographic words were found at http://www.shufa.org 書è-å…¬ç¤¾ç¶²-交流è«-壇 (translated and arranged by Lam)


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