In the comments to "Easy versus
exact" (10/14/17), a discussion of the term "Hànzi
汉子" emerged as a subtheme. Since it quickly grew too large and
complex to fit comfortably within the framework of the o.p., I decided
to write this new post focusing on "Hàn 汉 / 漢" and some of the many
collocations into which it enters.
To situate Language Log readers with some basic terms they likely
already know, we may begin with Hànyǔ 汉语 ("Sinitic", lit., "Han
language"), Hànyǔ Pīnyīn 汉语拼音 ("Sinitic spelling"), and Hànzì 汉字
("Sinograph, Sinogram", i.e., "Chinese character"). All of these
terms incorporate, as their initial element, the morpheme "Hàn 汉 /
漢". Where does it come from, and what does it mean?
"Hàn 汉 / 漢" is the name of a
river that has its source in
the mountains of the southwest part of the province of
Shaanxi. It is the longest
tributary of the Yangtze River, which it joins at the great city of
Wuhan. The fact that Han is a
river name is reflected in the water semantophore on the left side of
the character that is used to write it.
The name of the river was adopted by Liu
BC), the founding emperor, as the designation for his dynasty (206
BC-220 AD) — more specifically, the dynasty was named after Liu Bang's
fiefdom Hànzhōng 汉中 / 漢中
(lit. "middle of the Han River"). After the
Qin (221-206 BC), from
which the name "China" most likely derives, the Han was the second
imperial dynasty in Chinese history. Because the fame of the Han
Dynasty resounded far and
near, it came to be applied to the main ethnic group of China, as well
as the language they spoke and the characters used to write it. Note
that there could have been no Han ethnicity or nation before the Han
After the Han Dynasty fell, many of the dynasties that ruled in the
of the former empire during the following centuries were non-Sinitic
peoples (proto-Mongols, proto-Turks, etc.) who actually looked down
upon their Han subjects. During that period, in their mouths, "Hàn 汉
/ 漢" became a derogatory term, especially in collocations such as
Hàn'er 汉儿 and Hànzi 汉子, which we might think of as meaning something
like "Han boy / fellow / guy". Such terms derived from "Hànrén 汉人
(漢人)" ("Han people"), which generally became a respectable designation
again after the collapse of the northern dynasties. It is remarkable,
however, that during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), when the Mongols
ruled over China, non-Sinitic peoples such as the
Khitans, Koreans, and
referred to as "Hànrén 汉人 (漢人)" ("Han
Here are some terms in Mandarin that are based on the Han ethnonym but
refer to different types of people in various ways:
hànzi 汉子 39,300,000 ghits
1. man; fellow
3. Historically, as mentioned above, during the Northern Dynasties (386-577), hànzi 汉子 was a derogatory reference for Sinitic persons
used by non-Sinitic peoples
(who were rulers in the north at that time).
nánzǐhàn 男子汉 ("a real man") 11,600,000 ghits
nǚ hànzi 女汉子 ("tough girl") 7,180,000 ghits
dà nánzǐhàn 大男子汉 ("a big guy; macho man") 53,100 ghits
Comments by native speaker informants:
In terms of nǚ hànzi 女汉子, I think your translation "tough girl" sounds good! But sometimes it conveys a slight derogation to women with traits which are conventionally attributed to men, such as strong physical strength, independent mode of life, and tough personality, etc. In this sense, I would like to say "nǚ hànzi 女汉子" might also be "a masculine woman / female".
I know all these terms and I agree with all your translations. However, I also think that nǚ hànzi 女汉子could mean "tomboy" (girls who can do things that men can do). I once saw a translation of nǚ hànzi 女汉子 as wo-man. I think that’s interesting too.
I think the term nǚ hànzi 女汉子 emerged only in the last few years in the Chinese-speaking world. So it is a bit difficult for someone like me who has been living outside for the last forty years to accurately tell its exact meaning. If it applies to young women only, then "tomboy" may not be too far off.
"What does the Chinese word '女漢子'
mean?" (Quara) [typo for Quora]
"Renewal of the race /
Joshua A. Fogel, "New Thoughts on an Old Controversy: Shina as a
Sino-Platonic Papers, 229 (August, 2012), 1-25 (free pdf)
Victor H. Mair, "The Classification of Sinitic Languages: What Is
in Breaking Down the Barriers: interdisciplinary studies in Chinese
linguistics and beyond (Festschrift for Alain Peyraube), pp. 735-754
(free pdf), esp. pp. 739-741.