The Search for Non-Binary Pronouns in Chinese

As businesses strive to reach wider audiences, gender-inclusive language has become imperative. Businesses have learned that any association to bigotry, racism, or sexism, however unintentional or even well-intentioned, could tarnish brand image and hinder product success. The use of gender-inclusive language in localization nevertheless creates new sets of challenges language industry experts are eager to solve. This essay focuses on the challenges associated with localizing non-binary pronouns in Chinese.

A Very Brief History of Pronouns in Contemporary Chinese

Contemporary Mandarin Chinese uses 他 (tā) for he/him and 她 (tā) for she/her. The accusative of “he” and “she” in Chinese does not take a different form, and the possessive merely adds an additional letter (的 de) to the pronouns, so neither objective nor possessive pronouns cause issues.

The use of contemporary Chinese pronouns is relatively new. In Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a novel published in the early 14th century, 他 was used as a third-person pronoun, denoting any third person. Similar usages can be found in the Dream of the Red Chamber, another novel first published in the mid-18th century, where both male and female characters would be referred to as 他 in the third person.

Along with the practical examples above, from a character etymological perspective, 他 was originally constructed to be gender-neutral. Its radical, or indexing component, 人, carries the meaning of “human.” Hence, one can say that 他 was not exclusively a male pronoun—until around 1920.

The Herstory of Chinese Female Pronouns

After the Qing Dynasty was overthrown, Chinese intellectuals embraced Western culture during the New Cultural Movement. This included language. In 1920, Liu Bannong wrote a poem called “How Can I Not Think of Her.” He borrowed 她, a variant for a character that means “older sister” but otherwise defunct, and used it to denote the female third person. This was part of the effort to emancipate Chinese women from Confucian patriarchy.

Picture of Liu Bannong

Translators had been struggling to translate she/her into Chinese: they wanted separate pronouns instead of a pronoun agnostic to genders. The logic was straightforward. As a genderless language, Chinese cannot be as precise as most indo-european languages. In addition, not having female pronouns reflects the lack of recognition of female accomplishment in Chinese culture; hence, the Chinese language would benefit from the adoption of female pronouns.

Not everyone agreed. Some male critics pointed out that 他 already encompassed both genders: inventing new pronouns would introduce a new linguistic distinction between men and women. Other female critics went further to argue that by replacing the radical for human (人) with the radical for women (女), 她 would imply that women are less human than men. Still, 她 emerged as the definitive character for the third person female pronoun, while 他 transitioned from a universal third person pronoun to a more exclusive male pronoun.

The Predicament of Transgender Identities in China

As previously noted, translators from the last century were more concerned about the accuracy of the Chinese language, but as realities change and values progress, the challenge today is about making the language more inclusive, which has become a prominent value in the West. As a result, localization also involves the introduction of Western values to different cultures, including cultures wanting in the reality that nourished these values.

The transgender community in China is still not widely recognized. A 2016 survey showed that 43% of the respondents surveyed in China consider being trans as having a form of mental illness. Although there are notable exceptions such as Jin Xing, her recognition is accompanied by a total embrace of traditional gender norms. One might say that transitioning from one gender to another in China is less problematic — as long as the norms of the other gender are still observed. When non-binary people consider themselves to be binary, non-binary pronouns become a less urgent issue.

Non-Binary Pronouns in Contemporary Chinese

There isn’t a universally agreed-upon non-binary third person pronoun among Chinese-speaking transgender communities, but there are candidates. Some have replaced the radicals of 人 and 女 with X, making a new word “x也.” This is a viable option once font major software companies add it to the list of Chinese characters, but this would have to be a top down process since all tech companies in China have to answer to the government.

Inventing new non-binary pronouns in Chinese

The Transgender Resource Center in Hong Kong advocates using “TA,” also pronounced “tā,” as the non-binary pronoun in Mandarin Chinese. The origin of “TA” as a gender-neutral pronoun is rather obscure. It is speculated that “TA” emerged as internet slang for contexts where gender information is considered either irrelevant or too revealing. Merits of this candidate include its pronunciation — identical to that of male and female third-person pronouns. In addition, many Chinese netizens already use it.

As much as “TA” is a sound candidate, it comes with several challenges. The first challenge is its register: “TA” is internet slang absent from formal discourse. A second challenge is its linguistic origins: “TA” is not a Chinese character. The third and perhaps most serious challenge is that while Chinese netizens use it extensively, we cannot say for certain that “TA” is the preferred pronoun of the majority of non-binary Chinese people. This is partly because the development of their communities is still relatively nascent.

If non-binary Chinese communities have not reached a consensus on their preferred pronouns, no foreign agent is in the position to tell them what to use. The tricky part is that requiring non-binary pronouns to be localized into Chinese is akin to seeking a solution where one does not exist.

Advocates of gender-neutral pronouns often argue that the binary understanding of gender is associated with Western colonialism. The problem of requiring non-Western languages, like Chinese, to adopt gender-inclusive language, is that it compels other cultures to confront their own treatment of non-binary persons, which can be an invasive process. Given that domestic LGBTQ+ rights groups in China are already at risk of being branded as agents of foreign influence, businesses that intend to profit from the Chinese market cannot bear the risk of being charged as Western agents working to subvert the nation’s values and social order. After all, if the Chinese government ever decides to add LGBTQ+ to its ban-list, companies would face the dilemma of either giving up their profits in China or dropping LGBTQ+ content but alienating customers from other locales.

But What If I Need My Content Localized?

There is a way out of this dilemma: allow users to customize their own pronouns, especially when the local audience has not developed any definitive pronouns. One concern is that trolls might abuse this mechanism. But trolls have been abusing self-naming mechanisms forever, and the gaming industry has developed mitigating practices that may help when it comes to customizing pronouns. In the end, we must be versatile when it comes to solving dilemmas in the language industry.




William Dan
William Dan is an MA student at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, where he studies Translation and Localization Management. Unlike many in the language industry who describe themselves as language nerds, he thinks of himself as more of an "ideas person" because of his long-standing interest in political theory and intellectual history.

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