Culture and Oppression Through Language

December 18, 2009

I’ve been thinking about the Chinese language (Mandarin, specifically) a lot lately. Of course. I’m studying it, trying to speak and understand it, going to classes, trying to figure out how to read it, etc. Hard not to think about it.

And, often, it’s fascinating to me. Because, as I’ve said before, I believe that the only way to truly understand a different culture is to speak the language (literally and figuratively). Language is the true doorway to the human mind, and if you can’t speak like another person, then you certainly can’t ever think like them (or have an idea of how they think).*

When I was living in Tanzania, it wasn’t until I started thinking in Swahili** that I felt fully comfortable – like I could live there and feel normal about it. It wasn’t until then that I could have real conversations with my friends and "family." It seems obvious when stated like this, but language really does change everything (because even if everyone there was fluent in English – I wouldn’t have been able to connect the same way, and feel the culture in the same way, if that’s the language we used).

Of course, I am so very very far from being fluent in Mandarin. And I am therefore very very far from really understanding Chinese culture – but I have been getting glimpses. My current focus, however, is not in general culture, but specifically how language relates to systems of oppression.

It goes something like this:

We all "know" how the Chinese don’t value women as much as they value men. Sons are more important, gender roles are clear and prevalent, and only very recently have women began to have even slight opportunities at "doing whatever they want if they put their minds to it." Okay. That’s all fine and dandy.

But let’s look into the language for some more focus. There’s a word for "son." Okay. The word for "daughter"? More or less translates to "female-son." Hmmm . . . There’s the word for "Emperor," and then there’s the word for "Emperor’s wife." If a man is marrying a woman, there’s a specific term that translates to something like "he took his bride."*** The woman "gives her family" to the groom. There’s a "boss." And then there’s a "female boss" (although this might not be as common, anymore). It keeps going from here, but I imagine you get the picture.

And this is where systems of oppression come in. Because, if you are aware of some basic tenets of social psychology (or if you read my post on it), you know about "priming" and how huge a role it plays in our perceptions and assumptions and prejudices. So the question is: if – every single day – you use a language that explicitly places women in a lesser role (as property, or second-class), how likely is it that you’re going to be able to think of the two sexes as equal? Language equals thought, and so if you have no other way to express yourself (and, therefore, think) than to use words that diminish females, how can a culture change its thoughts about equality and opportunity?

The reality? It just can’t. Not until the language actually changes.

If you’re a U.S. citizen around my age, you’ll remember being a kid and talking about "policemen","firemen", and "stewardesses." You know that now we have "police officers," "fire-fighters," and "flight attendants." You can think about how we still have "male nurses." And now you can realize that the "PC police" have actually waged a legitimate battle against oppression. So many people like to run their mouths and make fun of attempts to make references such as these gender-neutral, but it is important. As long as we said that police were "men," we could not honestly think that a woman could have any role in society.****

Our language is our thought, and really examining it – all the way – is important to understanding our core beliefs and prejudices.*****

And so I am fascinated by my opportunity to examine Chinese language and see how that plays out in different areas. And, beyond spoken Mandarin, there is the written Chinese language – which is equally fascinating (and even harder to learn), because of all the connections and roots within the images. There may not be a "masculine" and "feminine" assigned to all nouns like the Romance languages (how might that play on gender roles and inequality?), but I have noticed how certain characters have "male" aspects (like the character for "strength") while others have "female" parts (like "peace"). At some point, am I going to be able to literally see racism in Chinese characters, or hear it in the Mandarin language? Will I get a sense of progress in the form of words and phrases that have been changed over time to be more inclusive?

I imagine so. And as that particular journey continues, I will share it with you all, and I hope some of you can chime in on equivalents in other languages – linking systems of oppression (or uplift) with the actual words used.

Just make sure you word it carefully . . .

* I’ve heard about studies linking a larger language vocabulary to being able to more creatively think and solve problems – anybody actually have any of those?

** If you’ve never had the experience of obtaining fluency in a new language, I can’t even begin to describe how cool it is to think in a different language.

*** Not too different from English-language traditions, no?

**** There’s that riddle involving a doctor claiming a patient as "son" when we know the father has died . . . no riddle at all if we didn’t automatically assign a male role to "doctor."

***** And it certainly isn’t just about gender, either. "Eenie, meenie, miny, mo . . . " That wasn’t a tiger back in the day. Kids still commonly refer to something they don’t like as "gay" (maybe more so now than calling it "retarded"). When somebody just doesn’t get something, we ask them if they’re "blind" or "dumb." See what I mean?



  1. I’ve heard some people theorize that since the character for “family name” (xing4 姓) has the woman radical, it means that Chinese families were originally matrilineal.

  2. Oh yeah, on re-working language. During Mao’s time, the Govt. promoted changing the words for husband and wife from the old phrases that promoted the old social relations to new words. So, when I first studied Mandarin I learned that the word for husband and wife were inter-changeable “ai ren” (爱人) which literally means “lover”.

    (Because in the new society, marriages were to be freely entered into and with no property considerations).

    But, zhangfu (丈夫) seems to be more popular for “husband” now. Or, “xiansheng” (先生) which also means teacher or doctor. Maybe because “ai ren” was too recent and nebulous to take root?

    Casually, people will refer to husbands and wives as “lao gong” 老公 (old man) and “lao po”老婆 (old woman) – even if the people are in their twenties. This kind of reminded me of people my dad knew in the 70’s who referred to their s.o.’s in English as “my old man” or “my old lady”.

    It’s also interesting “Xiao Jie” (小姐) is considered a polite form of address to a woman you don’t know, but calling a man you don’t know “Xiao di” (小弟) or didi (弟弟) seems impolite.

    It’s a lot about age and hierarchy – so you’ll have to put age and power along the grid along w/ gender and race or ethnicity.

  3. Hi. I agree with you about the language (including Mandarin), and oppression. But it’s late, so I’ll just jump straight to the other stuff. It’s interesting that you and I have noticed completely different things about China. When I went there (out of fascination with my ancestral country of origin – this was back in the mid and late 1990s), the things I noticed were the opposite of what you’re noticing. I was surprised that they had more female bus drivers than I’ve seen in other countries. I thought, wow, cool, because in my mind it’s a very male role (especially when I saw that it takes their whole upper body to turn those big steering wheels).

    I also noticed that I could walk through a construction site and I didn’t notice any of the male construction workers look at me, let alone make inappropriate comments. That was liberating. (In the country where I grew up, it’s practically impossible to pass by a construction site without the men making inappropriate comments.)

    I was actually amazed at the strides in equality that Communism achieved in China. (And I was amazed at how orderly the roads were. How they actually had sidewalks! This is something that other developing countries in Asia don’t have…but I am going off topic.)

    Plus, in the spoken language, there is no difference between ‘he’ and ‘she’. It’s just pronounced as ‘ta’.

    This shouldn’t diminish your argument at all. It’s just that I found it interesting that we may have noticed different things partly due to our different countries of reference, and perhaps the age that we went there (I was probably younger than what you are now – I’m guessing your in your late twenties?).

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