He / she / it / none of the above

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I missed this article in the Chinese edition of China Daily when it first appeared on June 20, 2012, but it raises an issue that is sufficiently important to warrant addressing now that William Steed has kindly called my attention to it:

"Qián Jīnfán:  84 suì hòu kuà xìngbié 'rénshēng de cànlàn qī cáigāng kāishǐ'” 钱今凡:84岁后跨性别 “人生的灿烂期才刚开始” ("Qian Jinfan:  'the most glorious period of a person's life only begins' after age 84 when one transcends gender")

What is most striking about this article is that it politely uses TA (note the absence of tonal marking) as a gender neutral pronoun so that the author and editor don’t have to write tā ("he") or tā ("she").  Of course, tā ("it") would be gender neutral, but like "it" in English, is considered dehumanizing.  Setting aside the fact that all three forms have the same pronunciation in Modern Standard Mandarin and that their development as a means to distinguish masculine, feminine, and neuter is a fairly recent phenomenon, the use of Roman letters in an otherwise plain Mandarin character text, and an official newspaper, at that, is remarkable.  Moreover, one wonders why they don’t use English conventions of miniscule and majuscule (and Pinyin, for that matter), but instead just go with TA no matter where the word occurs in a sentence.  Writing "TA" would make most English speakers think that it’s an acronym of some sort.  On the other hand, the author and editor may have thought that it looked more natural to write "TA" instead of "ta / Ta", since most Roman letter terms in Chinese writing are indeed acronyms consisting entirely of capitals, and they may also have thought that "TA" looks more like a square-shaped Chinese character than "ta" or "Ta".

It is curious that the English version of the article in the People's Daily, "Man kept transgender secret for over 75 years" employs masculine gender throughout, while another translation in the English version of China Daily, "It's never too late to be yourself" mostly employs feminine gender, but switches to masculine when talking about Qian as a young boy.

I remember around 30 years ago reading a Chinese play called "Women" (sic) where the title — in Roman letters — was meant to stand for the Mandarin word "wǒmen" 我们 ("we / us"), but was also intended simultaneously to evoke the English word as well.  The play was banned before it could be publicly performed.  I still have the literary magazine in which the play appeared in my office at Penn, but cannot give the exact publication data right now because I am in Central Asia.  If anyone is interested in reading the play, say so in the comments and I'll provide the necessary information when I return to Philadelphia in about a week's time.



  1. Brendan said,

    April 19, 2013 @ 9:42 pm

    I've noticed a lot of webpages and ads using the romanized "TA" as a stand-in for "他/她" over the past year or two, and it seems to be entering general usage in ad copy. CNTV has a website up called "给Ta一个浪漫情人节" ("Give Ta a romantic Valentine's Day"), for instance.

  2. William Steed said,

    April 21, 2013 @ 6:17 pm

    The China Daily version is the most politically correct, by Western standards, using feminine pronouns. Using masculine pronouns about her as a child is reasonable, because she was presenting as male then, but some might dispute that she was already a woman then, even though she was presenting as female (which is hard to maintain, but there you go). The People's Daily's use of masculine pronouns would be considered inappropriate in the West, that's for sure. China is still adjusting, so I'd be willing to give them a little slack.

    Seeing TA used in a spot where it could be either, like in Brendan's post, it reminds me of the Spanish use of the @ symbol to mark unspecified gender in colloquial texts, such as the (slightly disturbing) Facebook page Yo soy como un buen vino entre más viej@ más buen@. I can't help but wonder if there are some agendered people who would use that to refer to themselves.

  3. Matt said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 8:21 pm

    Compared to gender-neutral pronoun projects that involve adding a whole new set of words to a language, it seems like it would be relatively easy to designate a new character, pronounced the same as 他/她/它 but not implying gender. People might even use it, if they're currently taking the issue so seriously that they use the spelling "TA". I guess the biggest problem would be inserting an all-new character in the relevant encoding standards, input methods, etc. in a timely fashion. Perhaps the new pronunciation could be assigned by fiat to 佢 or something.

  4. S. Tsow said,

    April 23, 2013 @ 1:51 am

    I once invented a unisex pronoun for English, when the "he or she," "he/she" "s/he" abominations began to grate upon my fastidious nerves. It combined all three pronouns, and could be used as a subject, object, reflexive, or possessive: "hesheit," pronounced "h'SHEEit." The accent on the "she" was intended to placate feminists," who in those days had me thoroughly intimidated.

    An example of usage: "The sexually unidentifiable creature was scratching hesheitself with a potsherd. I was unable to categorize hesheit in terms of gender, because hesheit had four breasts and two penises. As I was contemplating this marvel, hesheit raised heheits larger penis and pissed in my face."

    This lunguistic innovation did not take. It soon became apparent that the initial aspirate "h" would be elided, and my pronoun would be pronounced "SHEEEEit." Possible confusion with a well-known excretory substance torpedoed the whole business.

    Thus are great ideas conceived by mighty brains always rejected by a callous and unfeeling world.

  5. Meg said,

    April 26, 2013 @ 7:12 am

    In English, I always find myself wanting to use 'they' if the person is definitely human but of indisclosed gender, for instance 'the figure waved their arms'. Is this incorrect?

    Also @S. Tsow, very funny, I have had similar ideas myself but it seems these plans always turn to… ahem.

  6. Angelo said,

    April 26, 2013 @ 12:18 pm

    I would love to know more about the play. Curiously enough, the same pun made it to the stage a couple of years ago with another play/crosstalk performance entitled 《这一夜,Women说相声》 [sic] (Tonight we/women perform crosstalk) by Stan Lai (賴聲川).

  7. M.R.Forrester said,

    April 28, 2013 @ 3:39 pm

    "and an official newspaper"

    I wouldn't overemphasize that part. I've never seen a Mandarin edition of China Daily on the streets. This web-only news service is probably about as authoritative as Buzzfeed.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    April 28, 2013 @ 8:16 pm


    "probably about as authoritative as Buzzfeed"


  9. Mark said,

    April 30, 2013 @ 7:13 pm

    I'd love to read said play.

  10. Dave Cragin said,

    April 30, 2013 @ 9:30 pm

    Hi Meg, Using "they/their" for one person has a long history, so your usage as singular gender-neutral is fine. The linguist John McWhorter notes in Shakespeare, in The Comedy of errors, act 4 , scene 3: "There's not a man I meet but doth salute me/As if I were their well-acquainted friend." He also offers an example from Middle English.

    McWhorter notes it's also common to say "Tell each student to hand in their paper", but grammarians would say this is "wrong" because each student is singular, so it should be "his or her paper." (However, I would tell my students to hand in "their" papers. ).
    (from Myths, Lies, and Half-truths of Language Usage).

  11. B said,

    June 10, 2013 @ 11:37 am

    This is fascinating. I'm just beginning to do research for a dissertation on gendered language in Chinese (with pronouns being a big part of that) and had wondered whether there might be a Mandarin equivalent of the ze/zir pronoun. It seems like this might be it :) I think that Matt's suggestion of reviving a deprecated character such as 佢 (or 其 or 伊 — literary Chinese has a few…) is an interesting possibility. Unless the web wants to keep on using the Roman alphabet for this purpose. Does anyone have other examples of places they've seen TA used, or interesting readings on the subject?

    I've love to take a look at that play, too, if the offer is still open.

  12. kay said,

    November 15, 2013 @ 10:22 am

    hi! i would love to read the play. i'm a singaporean residing in singapore, and the play may not be banned here as the authorities may not have come across it, since it suffered an early ban. would it be alright if i offered to share it via email with some of my friends who might be interested?

    thank you!

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