Thursday, October 14, 2010

Women Hold Up Half of the Hanzi?

Studying something as brutal as the Chinese language is, every day there seems to be a new reason to give up. However, every once in a while you'll uncover a hidden gem about the language that is so interesting, it gives you just enough reason to keep going. The other day I came across my new all-time favorite Chinese character.

But before I explain what it is or why it tickled me so, let's take a quick second to go over again some basics of Chinese characters. Each character is made up of a several smaller parts, each which have their own pronunciation and a meaning. Characters' meaning and/or pronunciation is based on one, both, or a combination of these components.

The classic example is the character for good (好), which is comprised of the character for woman (女) and child (子). Here, the two components come together to form a new meaning, since a woman and a child together are generally considered 'good'.

Not every character works this way, however. Sometimes the meaning is based on only one of the parts, and one of the other parts supply clues to the pronunciation. Or sometimes, it seems completely random. There's much more to this, but this explanation will do for our purposes here.

Okay, back to the action. A few weeks ago, I was browsing through my Chinese dictionary, searching by "radical" (the name given to the most significant of these smaller components of a character). In this view, I was able to see all characters containing a given radical. After poking around for some time at various random radicals, I began browsing the radical 女, which means woman.

It was then when I came across my favorite new Chinese character. It's the character 嬲. What's so great about this character is how descriptive and direct it's composition is. What we have here in this character is the component for man (男) on the left, with the component for woman (女) in the middle, then surrounded again with another man (男) on the right. The meaning to this character? "to flirt / to tease / to play with / to disturb". This was just too good.

This got me thinking back to my studies over the past few years. There's always some interesting or ironic about the radicals that are used in some particular Chinese characters. For example, is it a coincidence or antisemitism that has placed the dog component into the word for Jew (犹)?

But by far, the one that I noticed most being used in interesting ways is certainly the woman character. It seemed to be used very stereotypically, chauvinistically, or just simply applied to words that have very negative connotation. At the time, while slightly taken aback and mildly offended, I just kind of laughed to myself and used it as a mnemonic device for remembering the character.

Soon soon after that, however, I ran across an article on the wonderful ChinaSMACK! about Chinese women being upset about the perceived sexism implicit in the written Chinese language. I realized perhaps I wasn't the only one who noticed this.

Here are some examples of characters with very negative connotation that include the woman radical:

奴 - slave
妖 - wicked, evil
嫉 - envy
妒 - envy
婪 - greedy
佞 - flatter
嫌 - dislike
妄 - presumptuous
奸 - rape
妨 - hinder, impede, obstruct

This is of course leaving out the dubious connection my Chinese friend pointed out about the character for marriage (婚), which contains the component for woman on the left, and the component meaning "confused / muddled" on the right, implying that when a woman gets confused or muddled, she then gets married. (Anyone familiar with the language, however, would understand that the confused / muddled component gives the character it's sound, not the meaning.)

Most words involving the woman radical are simply words that are directly and objectively related to women, such as mother, sister, etc... Then there are some that are just funny and bizarre, such as 姗姗, meaning "to walk slowly like a woman". (Why don't we have a word for this in English? At least you'd think we'd have a word meaning "to throw like a girl".)

But what about all the Chinese characters with positive connotation that contain the woman radical? The character, 安, means "peace", which is the roof component over the woman component. (Could this mean "one woman under a roof will bring peace to a household"?) Or how about the character 妙, meaning  "wonderful / excellent / fine". There are so many more, and I'm not even going to bother listing any of the literally countless words meaning beautiful containing the woman radical.

Are people just seeing what they want to see? Are these characters merely a coincidence and there is another explanation? Or is it sexism as a result of a male-dominated society?

Monday, October 04, 2010

One Man's Trash

Today, I recalled a humorous annectdote I had heard from a friend when I first arrived in China that I almost forgot about. Because it's third-hand information, I can't vouch for the truthiness of the story, but it sounds quite plausible to me. This story takes place approximately 15 years ago.

Some American friends living in rural Southern China, and wanting to continue the American lifestyle, were dissatisfied with hanging out laundry to dry. As clothing dryers were completely unheard of, and absolutely unavailable in mainland China, they decided to make the trek down to Hong Kong to pick one up.

When crossing the border back into the mainland, they were prepared to pay a duty on this large-ticket item when passing through customs. Although I wasn't present for the event I'll attempt to recreate the scene that transpired with the customs officials.

Customs Official: "What the hell is this thing?"

Americans: "It's a clothing dryer."

"A what?"

"A clothing dryer."

"Well, what does it do?"

"You put your wet clothes in it, press the button, and then they come out dry."

(Laughing hysterically in utter disbelief) "You know if you just hang clothes up, they'll dry by themselves, right?"

"Yeah, but this does it faster."

(Still laughing in disbelief) "How much did you pay for this hunk of junk?"

"About $500*."

"$500 for this worthless thing? Buddy, you got seriously taken. Go on and pass on through. No need to pay a duty on this piece of garbage. You've already been ripped off enough."

*I have no idea what the actual price was.

I love this story. Just goes to show that some luxuries that we believe to be so indispensable in the developed world are viewed as worthless in the majority of the rest of the world.

I can completely resonate with the story as well. When I first arrived in Hong Kong, part of the developed world, and realized no one used dryers here, I thought they were nuts. I was completely inconvenienced having to hang up every piece of clothing and wait a full 24 hours for my clothes to dry. Now, after three years of being dryerless, I'm wondering why we ever used them in the first place.

However, with the amount of development in the past 15 years, it's hard to imagine this story taking place today. Or at least in the big cities in China. Now, sadly, it seems as if the new middle class in China is copying all of the worst ideas of America and the rest of the developed world. The idea among the middle and upper class has now become, "If America has it, we want it." As I look around at packed KFC's on every street corner, pizza delivery, and drive-through fast food joints, 2-car garages, SUV's and urban sprawl, I'm beginning to hang my head in shame, wondering if America has now created a monster.

More on this idea to come in the future.