Sexism in Characters

A lot has been said on the topic already, but I thought I’d take a look myself.

A good number of words we would deem negative have the 女 woman radical. I got to thinking about this again today while writing an email to a friend. In it, I wrote jídù 嫉妒, “jealous”. 女疾, 女户. So I popped open Pleco, went to the Unihan dictionary and found the 女 radical. Here’s what I could come up with:

奷 crafty, villainous, false
妄 absurd, foolish, reckless, false
妖 strange, weird, supernatrual
妨 to obstruct, interfere with
姍 to slander
婄 soft, weak, unreliable
婪 to covet
媟 lewd
婬 lewd
媢 to be jealous
媮 to steal
媿 ashamed
嫚 to scorn, to humiliate
嫽 to provoke (Cantonese)
嬬 weak (or concubine)
嬾 lazy

I skipped any word meaning prostitute, prostitution or concubine. There were quite a few to chose from.

English has no shortage either. See lunacy for one and hysteria for another*.

On the other hand, there were about three times as many characters under the 女 radical meaning beauty, grace and the like. And let’s not forget one of the most common: 好 hǎo, good.

I couldn’t help noticing 嬲, (男女男), to frolic or play with or tease, or in Cantonese, “angry”. I assume it’s one of the 男 in the character that is angry, and we can probably guess why. Note 嫐 (女男女), a slight variation, has the same basic meaning.

And there was also 姦, 女女女 in 品 arrangement, meaning adultery. But I think for obvious reasons it doesn’t quite fit the “hanzi are sexist” mould given the implications regarding the man’s behaviour.

edit Thanks to Syz, here’s a full list.

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* I once had an English teacher in high school tell me that girls couldn’t be cocky because they lacked the anatomy to which it referred. I politely told her it had more to do with the behaviour of roosters than penises, and anyway I know this guy who’s a real bitch.

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7 responses to “Sexism in Characters”

  1. Max says:

    I’m happy for the people that complain about things like that. Apparently, they don’t have any real problems.

  2. Jean says:

    Maybe 耍 could be added ? (and isn’t 好 another example of sexism, where it is the “woman + male offspring” that is good ?)

    Sexism can also be seen in the formation of characters : in traditional characters, 婦 (fù, married woman) is a woman and a broom 帚 (zhǒu). I think I saw others, but I can’t find them now.

    And I always remembered 妙 as sexism by negation, like “very few women do something clever”, but it is probably good only as a mnemonic 😉

  3. Julen says:

    Kellen, I did a post about this some time ago. It considered sexism in a broader way, not just in the characters themselves but also in words and usage. You can see it here

    Also there was another previous and more complete study by David Moser, here.

    I quite agree with Max above… although I have this to say about Chinese women: I have never seen them complain about this as I have seen their counterparts in the West. This is language geek territory here.

  4. Kellen says:

    True enough. Actually yours was one of the “a lot” to which I was referring.

    Anyway, there aren’t really that many negatives under 女.

  5. David Moser says:

    Of course, the really big question from the cognitive viewpoint of sexism, is “Why doesn’t the male radical 男 exist?”, which is what my article tries to address. (And thanks for the link.) This is the crux of the issue, and it underlies much of the sexism found in English and other languages, as well. And check out the tortured origins of the character 她, as probably most of you have. (And by the way, 她 still comes third in the list of options in my Microsoft input for “ta”, after 他 and 它.) And, on a slightly related note, the phrase “gay and lesbian” always bugs me, because “gay” is really a generic term including 她/他, as in “gay rights” etc. Every culture, every language, seems to fall into the same cognitive sexist pattern. But yes, alas, it’s ALL language geek, I’m afraid.