GENDER IN LANGUAGE PROJECT
A CONVERSATION WITH ZIPENG ZHU
by BEN PAPADOPOULOS & ZIPENG ZHU
AUGUST 2, 2021
On June 29th, 2021, Brooklyn-based artist Zipeng Zhu posted his latest creation—the nonbinary Mandarin personal pronoun 无也—to his Instagram account (post below). Zipeng's gender-inclusive pronoun neutralizes a gendered distinction between the Mandarin personal pronouns 他 (meaning he) and 她 (meaning she) using the radical 无, meaning 'none' or 'not any'. As of the time of this writing, the post has received almost 19,000 likes and has reached almost 130,000 people. I spoke to Zipeng about how he created the pronoun, how he hopes it will be used, and what the reaction to his creation has been.
BP: Ben Papadopoulos (interviewer)
ZZ: Zipeng Zhu (interviewee)
BP: Would you please introduce yourself?
ZZ: My name is Zipeng Zhu and my pronouns are he/him. I’m an artist and designer living and working in Brooklyn, New York.
BP: What is your language background?
ZZ: My mother tongue is Mandarin and I speak English and Cantonese also.
BP: What are the challenges in expressing nonbinary gender identities in Mandarin Chinese?
ZZ: One of the things that inspired me to make a nonbinary gender pronoun is that we don’t really have binary pronouns in the second person, but we have them in the third person, which is kind of unusual because they’re all pronounced the same way, just written differently. So when you say it, it’s actually nonbinary, if you think about it, because they’re all pronounced the same. Whether it’s for he/him, she/her, or it, it’s all the same exact sound, and that is sort of the original inspiration, because if the sound is nonbinary, why can’t we have a nonbinary character?
BP: What did you intend your pronoun to mean? For example, in English, many people consider the pronoun they [SG.] to be neutral, while others consider it to be specifically nonbinary, and often these understandings overlap.
ZZ: I watched the interview between Elliot Page and Oprah and that interview sort of unlocked something in me. I understood a lot of the struggle [of being] a trans person prior, but I got another layer of insight into what they’re going through. Meanwhile, I had a lot of friends that came out to me as nonbinary who really walked me through their struggle and why they decided to come out as nonbinary. That was all very educational and emotional for me, and I wanted to create something for non-English speakers to express [nonbinary gender], especially in my mother tongue, in Mandarin. That is the main reason I decided to make this character. I sort of feel like it’s for whoever wants to use the character, whether you want to use it to identify yourself neutrally, or as specifically nonbinary. For me, it’s up to them, but originally, I just wanted to create a character that was not gender-based, so that anyone who wanted to use it could. If it becomes more broadly used, that would be amazing, but for now, whoever’s interested, I’m happy to send them the file.
First version of Zipeng's pronoun
BP: I want to know about the ‘no’ or ‘none’ meaning of the 无 radical. What does it mean in the character and how did you choose that radical for the pronoun?
ZZ: I had a few different sketches of this pronoun. My initial sketch actually uses a character called fēi (非), which means ‘neither’. I shared it with a few friends and we felt like the thought of ‘neither’ might have a slightly negative connotation, so we decided to go with wú (无), which means ‘none’, also in response to nonbinary. So that’s one of the reasons we decided to use this character in the final design, and what we also liked about it is that it’s not too complicated or dense…we wanted to make sure it had a similar complexity [to 他 and 她] so it’s not a very difficult new character.
I think the controversial thing that I have sparked a debate on is that I think I might be the first person to use 无 on the left side of the character. Usually it’s on the right side. I think a lot of people don’t like that because I’m really challenging the rules and traditions here, but I think, to me, my argument is that the concept of nonbinary gender has been an evolutionary, provoking thought in recent years, and I think it’s a new way of thinking, therefore I would like to bring that new way of thinking, that rule-breaking mentality, into the character making.
BP: What has the reaction to your creation been?
ZZ: I would say that the reaction has been extreme. It’s the most wide-reaching post I’ve ever made. I use the word ‘extreme’ versus ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because it’s a lot of intense feedback I’ve been getting, whether people are strongly supportive, or they strongly disagree, people are very informative in providing their insight, their opinions. It has just been a very interesting journey. The day after I made it, someone tattooed it on the side of their head. I felt like… now I’m responsible for a tattoo, which was a little nerve-wracking. Someone’s also talking about it on TikTok—it’s a very mixed review on TikTok. So it’s been interesting for me to see that a post that I made has reached so many people and meanwhile sparked so much conversation that has been educational.
I think there is a lot of positive feedback, like “Wow, finally!” or “This is so great!”. I think one of the reasons the post reached a lot of people is that I support the main post with an explanation and a simple graph. That’s the beauty of Mandarin, it’s like an equation. You can sort of combine and subtract. So I think the people who are supporting it really understand the logic and reasoning behind the post. I think the people who are having a somewhat visceral rejection are either very proud of our traditions, our language, and our heritage—they want to protect the beauty and the purity of our language—or there are some who have extreme homophobia and nonbinary-phobia, I guess, because a lot of their argument is that you could use the he/him pronoun as the overall pronoun. I think they’re missing the point. I’m not trying to take the he/him pronoun away from people. I’m just trying to create a new option for people who don’t want to use it. That is a conversation and a perspective that I think has been misinterpreted a lot, because I felt like people felt attacked and like I am taking their pronoun away from them, but far from it. I just wanted to provide a new alternative, and also, it is very much a work in progress in many ways.
BP: What else could be done to visibilize nonbinary gender identities in Mandarin Chinese?
ZZ: The first thing that came to my head is that it’s interesting what exists in the third-person pronouns. The word 'good' (好) is the letter woman (女) plus the letter son (子), which to me is so progressive yet so backwards at the same time. The definition of 'good' is half a lady and half a child... and a boy, preferably. So it is progressive in the sense that they define the sense of 'good' as having family and having life, I think that’s beautiful... it’s beyond superficial 'good', I think that’s nice, it’s about human bonding. However, if you break it down a little bit, the concept is beyond backwards—not only is it a little misogynistic and biased towards [having] children, but it’s also a very narrow-minded definition, if that makes sense. I’m curious to know if we could find a way to see past the origin story of the word or, for me, I’m actually very interested in what could be new ways to express the definition of 'good' in a nonbinary way. And I don’t have an answer to that, it’s kind of the next project I’m working on! That being said, I think what should also be kept in mind is that all of these new experiments are simply trying to find a way to express a new understanding of ourselves versus trying to take away history, heritage, or culture from this 5,000 year old place. We’re not here to take anything away. We’re just trying to provoke some new potential way of seeing things. I’m basically proposing a new radical in many ways, and I think that’s why people are not having it. But it is what it is.
BP: Is there any other comment you'd like to make?
ZZ: I’m just very thankful to be part of your study, and I felt very honored to make something for my language and also make something for the people and the causes I really care about.
Photos courtesy of Zipeng Zhu. Zipeng's website is zz-is.it. You can find him on Instagram and Twitter at @zzdesign. The gender-inclusive Mandarin pronoun 无也 can be seen in our Gendered Lexicon of Mandarin Chinese.
CITE THIS PAGE
Papadopoulos, B., & Zhu, Z. (2021, August 2). A conversation with Zipeng Zhu. Gender in Language Project. www.genderinlanguage.com/mandarin/zipengzhu
saffron, like the spice. [@saffron.jpeg]. post from zzdesign on ig!! #greenscreen #neopronouns #mandarin #chinese #他 #fyp #pronouns #trans #nonbinary #enby #foryou #lgbtq [Video]. TikTok. https://vm.tiktok.com/ZMd7t4mrv/
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/