In the article "Mysogyny as reflected in Chinese characters", Victor Mair wrote:

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/ 犬) 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.

Removal of radicals or components which seemed pejorative sounds quite similar to the Western style of, so-called, "political correction".

Which got me wondering which characters, in general (minority ethnic groups and everything else), have been "politically corrected" before?

I know the characters for Jewish people still contains the "dog" quǎn犭/犬 radical: in 犹太人. I guess PRC's PC movement would be to make Chinese minority groups feel better, but I have no way of proving that.

  • 4
    Interesting question. But I don't like the "political correctness" idea because the derogative degree is often overestimated and the modification may cause some problems in consistency. Like 犹太人 you mentioned, if we use another character for 犹, then what about the translation for Judah? Well on our side, I don't feel the -ese suffix of Chinese sounds unpleasant. – Stan Dec 27 '15 at 5:19
  • Good point about 犹太 and 犹大。 – Wang Zong'an Jan 21 '16 at 3:49

The question of Chinese minority nationalities' names is a bit more complex than that. Many of these minorities did not have a single, fixed name before they were catalogued in the 20th century. In fact, the definitive list of minorities was not fixed until the 70s. The Chinese writing system also underwent huge changes in the 20th century.

Thus, many minority names could be spelled in a variety of ways, or the characters for them were not part of the Chinese standard in the first place. Under these circumstances, it's not surprising that the government would choose to write the names of minority groups with characters that had positive connotations. I assume the groups themselves also preferred a positive name. The description

the government changed some characters for the names of minority ethnic groups

is somewhat misleading.

That said, here are some examples:

苗 (Miao) could be spelled a number of ways, one of them being 猫 with the dog radical. Since this character already means "cat" and is then pronounced máo, reducing it to 苗, which means "young plant", is less confusing.

瑶 (Yao) used to be written as 猺, which also means "jackal". Again, changing the character is not only friendlier, but also less confusing.

(Qiang) is a good example of a character that has always been written a variety of ways. One of them was 猐, again with the dog radical. I don't think it's too weird to choose a different spelling.

Also, many Chinese minorities were called 蛮 (barbarians) in Chinese historical sources. One example is the 布依 (Buyi), who were referred to as 仲蛮 (Zhongman) in Qing dynasty texts. In such cases, it's not so much that the characters were changed, and more that the government began to use the name by which members of that group referred to their own group.

Ideology may have also played a small part in the way that Chinese characters were simplified into 简体字 (Jianti zi). I've always suspected that some Chinese anti-monarchist took some joy from replacing the character 後 (behind, after, later) with 后 (queen).

The character 他 was used as a third-person pronoun for both genders well into the 19th century. I assume this was split into 她/他 to conform to European languages.

There is some movement in China to change the characters with negative meanings that have the "woman" radical. However, this is limited to a relatively small group, maybe comparable to the number of people who wish to use "xe" as a gender-neutral pronoun in English.

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    regarding "character 他 was used as a third-person pronoun for both genders well into the 19th century" how about 20th instead of 19th?, cf. wikipedia on 刘半农:1920年9月,时在英国伦敦的刘半农写了一首《教我如何不想她》的著名情诗,推广了“她”字(中文本无这种用法,刘半农模仿西方语言而推广),第一次将“她”字入诗。 – user6065 Jan 6 '16 at 0:03

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.