Misogyny as reflected in Chinese characters

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Speaking of getting schlonged….

It is well-known that many Chinese characters with a female radical (nǚ 女) have pejorative or negative meanings:

Joe, "Sexist Chinese Characters Discriminate Against Women " (chinaSMACK, 1/28/10)

Koichi, "Kanji Hates The Ladies " (Tofugu, 6/05/12)

Dali Tan, "Sexism in the Chinese Language", NWSA Journal, 2.4 (Autumn, 1990), 635-639

David Moser, "Covert Sexism in Mandarin Chinese," Sino-Platonic Papers, 74 (January, 1997), 1-23.

Here are some examples:

jiān 奸 ("evil; treacherous; traitor; illicit sexual relations")

jiān 姦 ("adultery; debauchery; rape")

nú 奴 ("manservant; slave")

jí 嫉 ("envy; jealousy")

dù 妬 ("envy; jealousy") — cf. jídù 嫉妒 ("envy; jealously"); dù 妬 and dù 妒 are interchangeable

yín 婬 ("lewdness")

xián 嫌 ("suspicion; ill will; resentment; quarrel; dislike")

nǎo 嫐 ("frolic; play / flirt with") — the character has a man sandwiched between two women

niǎo 嬲 ("frolic; play / flirt with; tease; pester"; Cant. nau1 "get angry; take offence; detest", niu5 "tease; pester") — the character has a woman sandwiched between two men

lán 婪 ("greedy; covet[ous]; avaricious")

pīn 姘 ("have an affair; illicit sexual relations")

yāo 妖 ("monster; devil; goblin; witch; phantom; bewitching; coquettish; strange; weird; supernatural")

jì 妓 ("prostitute")

chāng 娼 ("prostitute")

biǎo 婊 ("prostitute")

piáo 嫖 ("visit a prostitute; whore")

Of course, not all characters having the woman radical are negative.  Indeed, one of the characters for "good" is composed of the elements "woman" + "child":  hǎo 好 (a word, if not the character, that everybody learns within the first week of beginning Mandarin).

xìng 姓 ("surname"); note that some of the oldest Chinese surnames, such as jiāng 姜 and 姬, have the woman radical, indicating a matriarchal society

wēi 威 ("force; might; power[ful]; dominate; pomp")

姿  ("appearance; gesture; looks; posture" [often of a majestic sort])

tuǒ 妥 ("proper; appropriate; settled; ready; satisfactory")

In general, the relatively fewer Chinese characters with a "woman" radical that have positive meanings tend to be from the earlier layers of the script.  (N.B.:  Not all older characters with the "woman" radical have positive meanings.)

For the remainder of this post, I will focus on two notorious characters with woman radicals that have been prominently featured in the news recently, which is what prompted me to write this post.


wàng 妄 ("absurd, foolish, reckless; false; untrue; preposterous; presumptuous; rash; extravagant; ignorant; stupid; wild; frantic; frenetic", etc., etc.) — all pejorative and defamatory meanings

This is an old character, occurring already in the bronze inscriptions (first millennium BC).

The character wàng 妄 readily forms various terms and collocations, all of which are negative in their connotations:

妄称 妄动 妄断 妄念 妄求 妄取 妄人 妄生穿凿 妄说 妄图 妄为 妄下雌黄 妄想 妄言妄听 妄语 妄自菲薄 妄自尊大

Source:  zdic
(the bottom of the zdic page gives links to all of these terms and expressions with links that provide full explanations and English translations)

The above list is mainly for specialists in Chinese.  Here I will only illustrate one item, namely, wàngyán 妄言 ("speak arrogantly; wild talk").  Some examples of its usage may be found here, here, and here.

This is also a popular expression in Japanese, where it is pronounced mougen もうげん.


Already noted above, jiān 姦 ("adultery; debauchery; rape") is one of the most sensitive characters with a "woman" radical that has been prominent in the news lately.  In fact, 姦 amounts to the "woman" radical to the third power, since it consists of three "woman" radicals.

"Beijing just banned an art exhibition on violence against women, but you can view the work here" (Quartz, 11/27/15)

"China: Authorities ban art exhibition on violence against women" (Artsfreedom, 12/1/15)

"A Feminism Exhibition Banned in Beijing" (WideWalls)

Gender discrimination in the Chinese character "姦" (article in Chinese).

The exhibition, "姦", the Cultural Code of Gender Violence, was banned by the PRC government (article in Chinese).

In the early days of the PRC, the government changed some characters for the names of minority ethnic groups so that they no longer had "bug" (chóng 虫) or "dog" quǎn犭/ ) radicals in them because they were thought to be pejorative.  A makeover of the Chinese script that would remove the "woman" radical from derogatory characters would be even more radical, as it were.

[Thanks to Michael Carr]


  1. Gary said,

    December 25, 2015 @ 7:46 pm

    In Chinese culture, the Ying is seen as the dark, negative side; it is also female. This could give a reason why these characters carry the female radical; not to mysogynistic, but to give a nod to the ying meaning to the characters.

  2. Thomas Rees said,

    December 26, 2015 @ 12:56 am

    Gary, do you mean yīn 陰/阴?

  3. Helen said,

    December 26, 2015 @ 3:38 am

    This is so interesting! It reminds me a lot of American feminist conversations surrounding how our language influences the way we view gender dynamics. Since my Chinese is awful I was wondering if you would happen to know more of the details surrounding this conversation. I'm particularly interested in the history of feminist critiquing of the Chinese characters as well as international influence on these critiques. For example, I remember maybe 20-30 years ago there was a big push in the US for more gender inclusive terms. Ex: replacing policeMAN with police officer or fireman with firefighter, etc. And in looking at these dates… a lot of these conversation about languages are happening at similar times. Are people coincidentally coming up with these ideas independent of each other or what's the flow of information?
    haha this is probably something that involves some very deep research but who knows. China's relation to the West is a pretty popular topic.

  4. Michael Watts said,

    December 26, 2015 @ 3:45 am

    Two thoughts, apropos of nothing in particular:

    – for the curious, 好 definitely is one of the first words a student of Chinese will learn, but not for the meaning. Everyone learns it early because it's part of 你好 nǐ hǎo ("hello").

    – it seems kind of weird to object to pejorative characters having the female radical, when those characters refer to "prostitute", "visiting a prostitute", "having an affair", "lewdness", and "rape". The connection to females is fairly apparent. "Prostitute" as a concept is surely much more strongly tied to the idea "female" than it is to the idea "bad".

  5. Guy said,

    December 26, 2015 @ 8:56 am

    @Michael Watts

    Some might argue that the notion that prostitution is more connected to "female" than "male" is itself sexism present in other cultures as well that's being reflected in the character. There's really no rational justification I can think of for "lewdness" being more associated with female than male except the idea that women have gender but men do not, and so women are inherently more sexual than men by virtue of having a sex. Some might also argue that a list of ad hoc justifications for each and every individual instance wouldn't really justify the overall statistical trend, so long as similar justifications could be made for an equal number of instances on the other side but aren't needed.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    December 26, 2015 @ 11:05 am

    @Michael Watts

    When a student learns nǐ hǎo 你好 ("hello"), the teacher will almost always tell them that nǐ 你 means "you" and hǎo 好 means "good".


    By bringing up Yin and Yang, you have moved the discussion from the linguistic to the philosophical / metaphysical / cosmological foundations of Chinese civilization.

  7. Hong Zhang said,

    December 26, 2015 @ 3:49 pm

    By the way, 女 also read "ru", meaning "you", in ancient Chinese. It's not a very convincing argument if only considering the surface forms of characters but not tracing back to the origins of each part of the characters.

  8. More Cowbell said,

    December 26, 2015 @ 4:05 pm

    "Ying-yang" is a common error for "yin-yang", as Wikipedia notes
    Yin and Yang Loanwords

    Wikipedia also has redirects, like the fish in this
    Taiwanese cuisine Template

    There's a hip-hop band named
    Ying Yang Twins

    Slang usages of "up/out the [old] ying-yang" are common enough for Wiktionary inclusion

  9. liuyao said,

    December 27, 2015 @ 11:55 am

    To add to the list, 佞 ning as in 佞臣 (almost synonymous to 奸臣), was an especially bad word, though (like 奸) it was used almost exclusively for males.

    Words like 嫉妒 (envy) make a little sense, considering that the Chinese have (wrongly) associated such feelings to females. One could also cite such common phrases as 婦人之仁, 唯女子與小人難養也 (though one could argue what Confucius really meant, the phrase has been construed to equate women with xiaoren, the opposite of junzi). So it's not simply a matter of changing a few characters.

    (Using 女 to mean "you", is more likely for the sake of the phonetic. Such words were classified as 假借 in 六書.)

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