Chinese Language

Women in the Chinese Language

Zhong wen

The extent to which any language merely reflects or actually conditions the way we think is fiercely debated. In the case of the Chinese language there is an interesting further issue: the way in which Chinese characters have fossilised attitudes towards women which existed thousands of years ago.

The character for 'woman', is nu and it appears in several characters with broadly positive meanings, such as, an 'peace' (showing the woman under a roof) and hao 'good' combining the symbols for a woman and a child.

There are also terms which imply negative characteristics in women through their use of the sign for 'woman' - such as 'adultery' using three women characters. Other examples are 'jealous' and 'play about' (often irresponsibly)


It also appears in characters for roles women played in traditional society, whether willingly or not, for instance 'slave', 'prostitute', 'mother', 'wife', 'elder sister' 'younger sister' and 'imperial concubine'

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2001 by David Wright reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 152, Page 16, 1995

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
If you have any comments, updates or corrections please let us know via our Contact page.