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?

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