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A couple of years ago I wrote this comment below an answer:

On mainland China 他 is used for both male and female. I've only seen 她 used as a stylistic thing for advertising and some old formal writing.

Since I wrote that comment I have had a few people ask about whether or not this is true. When I think about it today I am not sure what my original thinking was and I am doubting myself over whether or not this is a true statement.

I haven't been back to China in 3 years (going in September, yay!) and I haven't picked up a newspaper in a while. What I do recall is seeing 她 used in social media (微信 posts) which has only become mainstream in the past few years.

Here is what Wikipedia says on the subject:

In 1917, the Old Chinese graph tā (她, from nǚ 女, "woman") was borrowed into the written language to specifically represent "she" by Liu Bannong. As a result, the old character tā (他), which previously also meant "she" in written texts, is sometimes restricted to meaning "he" only. In contrast to most Chinese characters coined to represent specifically male concepts, the character tā is formed with the ungendered character for person rén (人), rather than the character for male nán (男)."

So how correct is my original statement and has social media and the internet caused an increase in the use of 她?

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Check out this interesting article on the matter: slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2013/12/26/… –  amateur Feb 20 at 1:59
    
It's ridiculous but "ta们" has over 200 million results in Google... –  amateur Feb 20 at 2:01
    
@amateur I think it dosen't matter. Cause you will find "wo们" has over 46.3 million results in Google –  zz22 Feb 20 at 8:19
    
I have never seen 他 used to refer to a female third person unless it's written by a non-native speaker. –  deutschZuid Feb 20 at 23:02
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6 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

In my experience, when referring to a single subject, I have never seen used as a female pronoun. is used for females, and used for non-gendered or non-human subjects.

Do note that 他 has meanings outside pronouns; it can have the meaning of "other". In these cases, 他 is used and never 她. Examples include 他人 (other people), 他乡 (a place far away from home), 他日 (future).

There are two interesting cases for the 他/她 question though: in the group pronouns 他们/她们 and when the gender is unknown.

For 他们/她们, 他们 is indeed the gender-neutral term. Use this when referring to a group of people (other than yourself and your subject, i.e. "they" or "them"), where their genders are either mixed or not relevant. If you are specifically referring to a group of females though, use 她们. Here's some discussion on this matter. This is in contrast to English which has no gendered "they" or "them".

When gender is unknown, it is more proper to use 他. This is similar to older English style which considered generic he proper usage. Use 他 when in English you would have used "he / she". Note that some people use "他/她" which is perfectly understandable but less proper.

So to summarise:

  • 他 is gender neutral, except in two cases where you would use 她 instead:
  • When referring to a single female of known gender
  • When referring to a group of females
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+1, this concurs with my own learning, and of the mainland Chinese teachers I've checked with. –  Ming Feb 24 at 0:24
    
+1. Totally agree. –  Stan Feb 27 at 1:34
    
Mostly agreed but as a native Chinese I've never seen anyone using 他 as gender neutral to specify someone whose gender is unknown. 他 has a strong feeling that the person IS MALE. In this case, 他/她 is a much better expression. –  charlee Feb 27 at 5:16
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for the third party, we always use 他 for male person, 她 for female person. 它 for animals both female and male.

but it's a little tricky when talking about "YOU", in mainland, we use 你 for both male and female, however you may encounter “女尔” mentioning "YOU" if you are female in tai wan and hong kong

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As a matter of fact, (exactly as OP mentioned in the post), the character 她 has a history of fewer than like a hundred years. Therefore, it is actually kind of natural to use 他 when the person referred to is not so apparent. (Although not that politically-correct, phrases like his-or-her are rare in Chinese.)

By the way, in places other than mainland China, they differentiate 你/妳/祢、他/她/牠/它/祂。

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+1, good point for related pronouns outside mainland China. –  Stan Feb 27 at 1:35
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As a local Chinese, I'd suggest @sotondolphin 's answer. Forget about the history usage, in my opinion, the key point is the target you would like to express to. For the modern Chinese people, "use 他 for male person, 她 for female person. 它 for animals both female and male." when you want to express a few people including both male and female, use 他们 as 'them'.

The stuff above fits for both written and oral Chinese.

Feel free to ask me anything about Chinese. I am glad to help you guys :)

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just remember this and you won't make any mistakes.

他 = he 他的 = his

她 = she 她的 = her

它 = it 它的 = its

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Very interesting question. We use 他 for male, 她 for she male. But there are some tricky situations.

  • When we do not know the gender, yes, we will use 他

  • 她 means female, but it often suggest youngness and beauty. For example, simply write the character 她, most Chinese will picture a beautiful girl in their minds. That's probably the reason why so many poets and singers will use 她 in their poems and lyrics.

  • We do not have a common picture for 他
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