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.