Nonbinary third person pronoun in written Mandarin

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Post on Instagram:

If you click on the arrowhead at the middle right of the above panel, you will find a visual depiction of what is said in words beneath the panel.

The gist of the matter is that wú / 無 ("no; not; there is no[ne]"} has replaced the male and female semantics of tā 他 and tā 她.  As we have written in previous posts (there are also third "person" pronouns for animals and spirits (牠 祂; see "Selected readings" below), but they all have the identical pronunciation tā .

There exists another character of separate derivation, 它, also pronounced tā, for which the following usage notes apply:

  • In traditional Chinese, there is generally a distinction between and ; the former refers exclusively to inanimate objects, while the latter refers exclusively to animals.
  • In simplified Chinese, only is used for both inanimate objects and animals


Since all of the third "person" pronouns discussed above are pronounced tā in spoken language, is it possible / desirable that the new graph featured in the above panel replace all of them in written language?


Selected readings


[h.t. Jeff DeMarco]


  1. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    July 17, 2021 @ 6:17 am

    Over ten years ago I saw an album on Pinterest literally full of examples like this. Why is this one outstanding all of a suddent?

  2. N said,

    July 17, 2021 @ 8:32 am

    It says that this person "created this for the Nonbinary Chinese speaking people to express themselves". Not ourselves, themselves.

    Following the link to their twitter profile, they seem to be a Chinese person living in New York, and they are in the LGBTQI community but it's clear from their language that they didn't create a word that they personally had a need for, instead they created a word that they thought somebody else might have a use for. Did they look into what words are commonly used by non-binary individuals in China?

    Some replies to the twitter thread claim that there are already some non-binary pronouns in Mandarin:

    I am not Chinese and don't speak Mandarin, so I don't have a dog in this fight but I am non binary and Hungarian, which is a gender neutral language like Mandarin is, and if a Hungarian diaspora wanted to add a new pronoun for non-binary Hungarians to express ourselves with, I'd be pretty confused; I like ő a lot and don't need a new one.

  3. François Demay said,

    July 17, 2021 @ 8:40 am

    Why all of a sudden ?


    Dans 40 ans ??? Ainsi va la vie !


  4. david said,

    July 17, 2021 @ 8:40 am

    Tā 他 itself was ungendered until the 1920's when Liu Bannong, influenced by his linguistics studies in London and Paris, coined 她 tā.

  5. Neil Kubler said,

    July 17, 2021 @ 9:07 am

    Since spoken Chinese is, and always has been, gender neutral, write this in Hanyu Pinyin exactly as it is spoken, that is, as tā. Problem solved. PLEASE don't make up any new characters, there are already more than enough!

  6. Ken Hilton said,

    July 17, 2021 @ 9:30 am

    Missed opportunity for non-binary people to refer to themselves as deities with 祂.

  7. Ben said,

    July 17, 2021 @ 9:30 am

    Using 无 wú as a radical looks very strange to me. Indeed, according to Pleco, it never seems to be used as one.
    I have never encountered 牠 in the wild, and I've only seen 祂 used in churches. And inanimates rarely get pronominalized, at least in Mandarin speech. I think I've mainly seen 它 in translations from English.
    I really don't think it would take too much collective energy to just go back to an ungendered 他.

  8. Twill said,

    July 17, 2021 @ 9:33 am

    While we're apparently creating ever finer distinctions both for animacy and gender for the third-person pronoun, now would be a good time to start assigning possible referrents to these categories lest chaos ensue. I'll start off by suggesting boats classically ought be 她, while cars, whether of the steam or fire variety, clearly lean toward 他, whereas the clinical nature of planes suggests 它.

  9. Alison said,

    July 17, 2021 @ 10:49 am

    In China I found that most people trying to be gender inclusive just used TA, which always looked a bit funny to my native English eyes because it reads like an acronym. I do like it better than 無+也, though, because I am a big proponent of pinyinization.

    The trouble with the point that 他 was always intended to be gender neutral, is that language moved on and now it isn't. Now trying to delete 她 in favor of using 他 everywhere would probably cause more controversy than just adding a new pronoun, or at least a visibly distinct representation of tā. It's the same problem we have in English with gender neutral he, although in English at least we had an existing term (they) to fall back on.

    I think in Cantonese 佢 is still gender neutral.

  10. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    July 17, 2021 @ 11:03 am

    Etymology 2 (from Old English hīe, hī) They/Them
    Etymology 3 Alternative form of heo (“she”)

  11. Terry K. said,

    July 17, 2021 @ 11:29 am

    I get the impression the idea is "pronoun that's for non-binary" people, not "pronoun that's non-gendered".

  12. BL said,

    July 17, 2021 @ 11:30 am

    Maybe take a leaf from classical Chinese and use 其

  13. David Moser said,

    July 17, 2021 @ 12:12 pm

    I was always fond of 他 because the radical is just "human", which would have easily accommodated the new non-binary category, but Liu Bannong had to be stupid enough to coin 她。 If they were trying to solve the "he/she" translation problem, they should have created a male radical tā (男+也) and then at least the arrangement would have been symmetrical. Now it's too late, and I agree with Prof. Kubler that we shouldn't keep creating new characters. See Sino-Platonic Papers No. 74 for more on this, including Liu Bannong's incoherent rationale for creating 她.

  14. David C. said,

    July 17, 2021 @ 4:58 pm

    Similar to comments above, I also like that 他 was originally ungendered. But that ship has long sailed. At least the distinction between 妳 and 你 as used in Taiwan hasn't caught on in the rest of Chinese-speaking world.

    Japanese similarly had to invent a word in the late Edo period to translate the he/she distinction from Western literature: 彼女 (kanojo) from the existing 彼 (kare)

    Though not as popular it was a few years ago, merchants selling on online marketplaces in China resorted to addressing their customers universally with 亲 qīn (dear), supposedly shorthand for "dear customer".

  15. slz said,

    July 18, 2021 @ 1:43 am

    In mainland Chinese contexts, I often find the Pinyin "TA" (both letters capitalized, no tone mark) used instead of either 他 or 她 to express gender neutrality. This is however only for informal writing, like online or on a billboard as part of an ad campaign. Certainly yet another sign of emerging digraphia, for the interest of Professor Mair!

  16. Victor Mair said,

    July 18, 2021 @ 5:04 am


    Your observations are much appreciated!

  17. Chris Button said,

    July 21, 2021 @ 2:51 pm

    Ironically, the character 女 in 她 arguably didn’t originally depict a woman at all but was rather a genderless depiction of a slave. We discussed that here:

    Having said that, the use of 女 in 她 was specifically intended to refer to the female sex, so the possible slave origin makes for an interesting aside even if it has little bearing on the issue today.

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