GENDER IN LANGUAGE PROJECT


MANDARIN CHINESE




SPEAKERS: 1,119,961,120



Mandarin Chinese (or simply Mandarin) is the world's second-most spoken language with more than one billion speakers. Masculine-feminine gender appears in Mandarin in many different ways. Often the gendered distinction exists only in writing, as in the case of the pronouns 他 'he' and 她 'she' (both pronounced [ta˥]), which queer speakers have neutralized with the inclusive pronouns TA (pinyin), X也, and 无也.


Chinese script is comprised of pictographic characters called radicals which bear or connote meaning and are often standalone characters themselves. These radicals can be combined to form characters. While Mandarin is not a grammatically gendered language in the way that Romance languages are, it carries gendered meanings in the radical system (as in the case of 女, meaning 'woman') as well as in the positive or negative connotations associated with terms that refer to a binary gender system.



GENDERED LEXICON OF MANDARIN CHINESE


by COOPER BEDIN, CHELSEA TANG & IRENE YI

This lexicon is broken up into general categories of words in Mandarin on which gender are marked—for example, personal pronouns, terms used to refer to family members or romantic partners, terms used by and for the queer community, etc. Most sections have three columns, where the leftmost column contains normatively male-specific terms, the middle column contains normatively female-specific terms, and the rightmost column contains neutral or gender-inclusive terms. In general, words in the same row can be expected to differ only in gender marking, and not, for example, in politeness or formality, unless otherwise noted.



PERSONAL PRONOUNS


MASCULINE

he

FEMININE

‘she

NEUTRAL—PINYIN

TA

they [SG.]

INCLUSIVE—X

X也

they [SG.]

INCLUSIVE—

they [SG.]


While no gender-inclusive or gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun is widely used or accepted, TA appears sometimes in news and other media. X也 is an innovative form created by the intersex community The Missing Gender 0.972 in 2015. 无也, which uses the Chinese radical meaning 'none', is another innovative form created by Zipeng Zhu in 2021. It is important to note that all of these pronouns are pronounced the same way, and so the difference between them is not detectable in speech, only in writing. This often leads to the claim that Mandarin does not have gendered pronouns. TA is conspicuous because it is not written with Chinese characters, and its usage is currently restricted to more formal contexts such as subtitling on a news broadcast. X也 and 无也 are innovations that were created by and for queer speakers of Mandarin seeking an inclusive form, but they are not readily understood by most speakers of Mandarin without explanation, and they cannot (yet) be rendered by computers as a single character in the way that 他 and 她 can be.


A Conversation with Zipeng Zhu



KINSHIP TERMS


IMMEDIATE FAMILY


MASCULINE


FEMININE


MIXED OR NEUTRAL

There are currently no gender-neutral or inclusive terms for parents and siblings in Mandarin. 父母 ('both of my parents') and 兄弟姐妹 ('all of my siblings') each describe groups of people, though their character-by-character constructions are based on gendered singular forms, and therefore still assume binary gender. There is no extant gender-neutral way to refer to a single parent or sibling.

爸爸

bà ba

father



儿子

ér zi

son


弟弟

dì dì

younger brother



哥哥

gē gē

older brother

妈妈

mā ma

mother



女儿

nǚ ér

daughter


妹妹

mèi mei

younger sister



姐姐

jiě jiě

older sister

父母

fù mǔ

parents

lit. 'father and mother'


孩子

hái zi

child


兄弟姐妹

xiōng dì jiě mèi

siblings

lit. 'brothers and sisters'



SPOUSES


MASCULINE


FEMININE


MIXED OR NEUTRAL

The gendered term 夫妻 is the most-frequently used form describing a married couple. Its neutral alternative, 配偶, is very rarely used in informal settings. 家属 is now used frequently on social media to refer to one's spouse.

丈夫

zhàng fū

husband



老公

lǎo gōng

hubby (informal)


妻子

qī zi

wife



老婆

lǎo pó

wifey (informal)


夫妻

fū qī

spouses

lit. 'husband and wife'


配偶

pèi ǒu

spouse


家属

jiā shǔ

family member'


PARTNERS


MASCULINE


FEMININE


NEUTRAL

对象 is a commonly-used gender-neutral term for 'significant other', but it is used exclusively in informal settings. 另一半 and 伴侣 are very rarely used in informal settings.

男朋友

nán péng yǒu

boyfriend

女朋友

nǚ péng yǒu

girlfriend

对象

duì xiàng

'significant other' (informal)


另一半

lìng yí bàn

significant other


伴侣

bàn lǚ

partner'


EXTENDED FAMILY

Extended family terms are marked both for the gender of the person you're talking about and for the gender of the family member by whom they're related to the speaker—either a parent, sibling, or spouse. These terms are first divided into these three categories, and then within each category by the gender of the person referred to and the gender of the connecting family member. Currently, we have not found any attestations of gender-neutral or gender-inclusive variants for any of these terms. Ultimately, creating completely gender-neutral terms for extended family members would require collapsing all four of the columns in each table below. Terms marked with an asterisk have not been widely attested, because they would refer to queer family members, but are inferred by extrapolating patterns in the composition of these words.


Note: In traditional Chinese families, a person's paternal relatives are viewed as "closer" than their maternal relatives. This is reflective of the patriarchy and sexism embedded in Chinese cultures.

MASCULINE (PATERNAL)

FEMININE (PATERNAL)

MASCULINE (MATERNAL)

FEMININE (MATERNAL)

爷爷

yé ye

paternal grandfather


伯伯

bó bo

father's older brother


姑丈

gū zhàng

father's older sister's husband


叔叔

shū shu

father's younger brother


姑夫

father's younger sister's husband



堂哥

táng gē

father's sibling's son

(older than the speaker)


堂弟

táng dì

father's sibling's son

(younger than the speaker)

奶奶

nǎi nai

paternal grandmother


伯母

bó mǔ

father's older brother's wife


姑妈

gū mā

father's older sister


婶婶

shěn shěn

father's younger brother's wife


姑姑

gū gū

father's younger sister



堂姐

táng jiě

father's sibling's daughter

(older than the speaker)


堂妹

táng mèi

father's sibling's daughter

(younger than the speaker)

外公

wài gōng

maternal grandfather


舅舅

jiù jiu

mother's brother


姨夫

yí fū

mother's older sister's husband


姨丈

yí zhàng

mother's younger sister's husband


表哥

biǎo gē

'mother's sibling's son'

(older than the speaker)


表弟

biǎo dì

mother's sibling's son

(younger than the speaker)

外婆

wài pó

maternal grandmother


舅妈

jiù mā

mother's brother's wife


姨妈

yí mā

mother's older sister


阿姨

ā yí

mother's younger sister


表姐

biǎo jiě

'mother's sibling's daughter'

(older than the speaker)


表妹

biǎo mèi

mother's sibling's daughter

(younger than the speaker)


MASCULINE (FRATERNAL)

FEMININE (FRATERNAL)

MASCULINE (SORORAL)

FEMININE (SORORAL)

嫂子

sǎo zi

older brother's wife


弟妹

dì fù

younger brother's wife


姪子

zhí zi

brother's son

嫂子

sǎo zi

older brother's wife


弟妹

dì fù

younger brother's wife


姪女

zhí nǚ

brother's daughter

姐夫

jiě fū

older sister's husband


妹夫

mèi fū

younger sister's husband


外甥

wài shēng

sister's son

姐妇

jiě fù

older sister's wife


妹妇

mèi fù

younger sister's wife


外甥女

wài sheng nǚ

sister's daughter


MASCULINE (HUSBAND)

FEMININE (HUSBAND)

MASCULINE (WIFE)

FEMININE (WIFE)

公公

gōng gong

husband's father

婆婆

pó po

husband's mother

岳父

yuè fù

mother's father

岳母

yuè mǔ

wife's mother


TO MARRY


MASCULINE


FEMININE


MIXED/NEUTRAL

Both 娶 and 嫁 objectify women. The semantic radical in 娶 is 取, meaning ‘pick up an object’. The semantic radical in 嫁 is 家, meaning ‘home/family’, and the verb 嫁 means that the woman is transferred to another family/household. Both of these characters exclude people who identify themselves as neither male or female. 结婚 is a much more inclusive term to use.

man marrying woman' (v.)

jià

woman being married by man’ (v.)

嫁娶

jià

'marry' (v.)


结婚

jié hūn

'marry' (v.)



TERMS RELATED TO THE QUEER AND TRANS COMMUNITY


STRAIGHT PEOPLE


MASCULINE


FEMININE


NEUTRAL

These terms are used almost exclusively by the queer community.

异性恋男

yì xìng liàn nán

'heterosexual male'


异男

yì nán

'heterosexual male'

(abbreviation)

异性恋女

yì xìng liàn nǚ

'heterosexual female'


异女

yì nǚ

'heterosexual female'

(abbreviation)

异性恋

yì xìng liàn

'heterosexual people'


GAY PEOPLE


MASCULINE


FEMININE


NEUTRAL

基佬’is often used in a derogatory manner, while 百合 is often romanticized by heterosexual males. Members of the queer community sometimes use these terms in self-deprecating humor.


男同性恋

nán tóng xìng liàn

male homosexual


男同

nán tóng

male homosexual

(abbreviation)


男同

nán tóng

male homosexual


基佬

jī lǎo

'gay guy' (slang)



搞基

gǎo jī

the action of being gay (v.)

女同性恋

nǚ tóng xìng liàn

female homosexual


女同

nǚ tóng

female homosexual

(abbreviation)


女同

nǚ tóng

female homosexual


百合

bǎi hé

'lesbian' (slang)

lit. 'lily plant'


搞百合

gǎo bǎi hé

the action of being lesbian (v.)

同性恋

tóng xìng liàn

homosexual'


同志

tóng zhì

'homosexual'


同性伴侣

tóng xìng bàn lǚ

'homosexual couple'


OTHER SEXUALITIES


NEUTRAL

Terms for other sexualities besides gay and lesbian are very limited in Mandarin Chinese, as most sexualities do not have Chinese translations.

双性恋

shuāng xìng liàn

bisexual'


无性恋

xìng liàn

asexual'



泛性恋

fàn xìng liàn

'pansexual'


TRANS AND INTERSEX PEOPLE


MASCULINE


FEMININE


NEUTRAL

People outside of the queer community almost never use these terms in informal settings or on the internet. Instead, they use the more derogatory terms in the following sections.

女跨男

nǚ kuà nán

'trans man'

lit. woman.step-across.man

男跨女

nán kuà nǚ

'trans woman'

lit. man.step-across.woman

跨性别者

kuà xìng bié zhě

'trans people'



变性者

biàn xìng zhě

'trans people'


双性人

shuāng xìng rén

'intersex'



SLANG AND INSULTS USED TO REFER TO TRANS AND GENDER-NONCONFORMING PEOPLE


The following terms are derogatory and frequently used by cisgender people to ridicule people that are perceived as trans or gender-nonconforming. There seem to be no slang terms that exist for trans men, possibly due to a lack of representation in Chinese-speaking queer communities. 女汉子 is sometimes understood as a compliment because people think that women who have more “masculine" traits (e.g. being brave, independent, hard-working, successful) are better than those who are perceived as more feminine. 伪娘, 人妖 and 女汉子 are frequently used to refer to people that are not even necessarily trans, but who are perceived as not masculine or feminine enough.

伪娘

wěi niáng

'trans woman' (derog.)

lit. 'fake woman'


男人婆

nán rén

'manly female' (derog.)

lit. 'man woman'


does not typically refer to trans women

变性人

biàn xìng rén

'trans people' (derog.)

不男不女的

bù nán bù nǚ de

'trans people' (derog.)

lit. 'neither male nor female'

人妖

rén yāo

'lady boy/trans woman' (derog.)

lit. 'human monster' or

'human.evil-alluring-woman'

女汉子

nǚ hàn zi

'manly female' (derog.)

阴阳人

yīn yáng rén

'intersex people' (derog.)

lit. 'yin yang people'



GENDER-MARKED RADICALS IN WRITTEN CHINESE


In the Chinese writing system, characters are made up of phonetic radicals, which indicate the pronunciation of a character, and semantic radicals, which convey the meanings. There are two gender-marked semantic radicals in written Chinese: the female radical (女) and the male radical (亻). The meanings of gender-paired words which differ only by these radicals are extremely asymmetric. Studies have shown that nearly 90% of the characters that co-occur with the female radical are either derogatory or project harmful stereotypes towards women. In contrast, characters with the male radical are typically semantically neutral or have a positive connotation. This section displays orthographic minimal pairs which differ by gendered semantic radical and common words they are found in.


MALE RADICAL

FEMALE RADICAL


WITH MALE RADICAL ()

COMMON WORDS

WITH FEMALE RADICAL ()

COMMON WORDS

rèn

no direct translation

任何

rèn hé

'any'


责任

zé rèn

'responsibility'


rèn

'pregnant'

妊娠

rèn chén

'pregnancy'

jǐn

'only'

仅仅

jǐn jǐn

'only'


责任

zé rèn

'responsibility'

'slave'

奴隶

nú lì

'slave'


奴婢

nú bì

'servant'

仿

fǎng

'to copy'

仿佛

fǎng fú

'as if' or 'similar to'


仿造

fǎng zào

'counterfeit' or 'copy'

fáng

'to hinder'

妨碍

fáng ài

'to hinder'


无妨

wú fáng

'might as well'

lit. 'no problem (to do something)'

'skill'

伎俩

jì liǎng

'trick'

'prostitute'

妓女

jì nǚ

'prostitute'

jiǎo

'handsome/beautiful'

佼佼者

jiǎo jiǎo zhě

'a well-known/successful figure'

jiāo

'pretty/cunning'

姣美

jiāo měi

'beautiful figure'

qiàn

'attendant'

xián

'to blame or dislike' (v.)

嫌弃

xián qì

'to be disgusted (by something or someone)'


嫌犯

xián fàn

'someone who breaks the law'

chàng

'to promote' or 'to initiate'

提倡

tí chàng

'to promote/advocate for'


倡导者

chàng dào zhě

'pioneer' or 'advocate'

chāng

'prostitute'

娼妓

chāng jì

'prostitute'


'to enable' or 'to cause'

俾使

bǐ shǐ

'to cause/result in'

'maid', 'servant girl' or 'slave girl'

婢女

bì nǚ

'servant girl' or 'slave girl'

(for a rich family)



CITE THIS PAGE

APA 7

Bedin, C., Tang, C, & Yi, I. (2021). Mandarin Chinese. Gender in Language Project. www.genderinlanguage.com/mandarin



REFERENCES

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男女同性恋、双性恋和变性者的权利: 常见问题. United Nations Human Rights. (2017). https://www.unfe.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/UNFE-FAQs-Chinese.pdf.

Zhu, Z. [@zzdesign]. (2021, June 29). Say hello to the FIRST NON-BINARY They/Them Pronoun in Mandarin. ✨ I created this for the Nonbinary Chinese speaking people... [Two images]. Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/p/CQt6kFDr05d/