Reclaiming "他" as a gender-inclusive pronoun

Article ID: 23

English 中文

tl;dr: "他" uses the "人" (person) radical, and should cover all people, because not all people are male.

In contemporary English, the traditional plural pronoun "they" is often used as a gender-inclusive singular pronoun, alongside the feminine singular "she" and the masculine singular "he". However, there is no equivalent in Chinese. "他" is considered a masculine pronouns in contemporary Chinese, despite its "人" radical and its history of traditionally being a gender-inclusive pronoun until the 1920s. This article argues for the reclaiming of "他" as a gender-inclusive pronoun.

Prior to the May Fourth Movement and the broader New Culture Movement, "他" was a generic pronoun for all entities, including people of any gender, and inanimate objects. In the movements’ efforts to "modernize" the Chinese language and culture, a separate feminine pronoun "她" was created by the poet and linguist 刘半农, becoming an established linguistic norm after the Chinese Civil War. (A separate "它" was created for inanimate objects; however this has little relevance to the arguments in this article.)

A distinct feminine pronoun "她" along with "他" being a masculine pronoun poses three problems: (1) the annoyances caused by the lack of a inclusive placeholder pronoun, (2) the reinforcement of gender binary normatives and the lack of a neutral pronoun, and (3) the marginalization of the feminine from the concept of personhood.

When referring to a placeholder of unknown gender in contemporary English, singular they pronouns are often used, such as in "someone left their laptop here". Such colloquial conversations are generally unproblematic as all normative third-person pronouns in Mandarin sound the same: tā. However, in written contexts, many use "他/她" resembling "he/she". Aside from how this reinforces gender binary and alienates women (see the next two paragraphs), it is visually unappealing (as half-width slashes look particularly distinct from full-width CJK ideographs and break typographical uniformity) and adds unnecessary syntactic sugar.

Individuals who are not comfortable with any gendered pronoun (such as me until this commit) often prefer singular they pronouns. (I do not wish to turn this article into a detailed discussion of non-binary gender, please read Leah Rowe’s article "Better respect for non-binary people, in defense of human rights" if this concept seems unfamiliar.) The status quo of "她" being solely a feminine pronoun and "他" being solely a masculine pronoun reinforces gender binary and leaves no gender-neutral/inclusive pronoun for non-binary people who would prefer such pronouns.

The more fundamental issue with "他" as a masculine pronoun lies in its character composition and etymology. "他" is a compound character consisting of a "人" (person) radical and "也", while "她" consists of a "女" (female) radical and "也". Limiting "他" as a male pronoun assumes the male gender as dominant in "people", and marginalizes other genders, most prominently the female gender, as groups distinct from "people". This aligns with the development of the "她" pronoun as a distinct subset of what used to be covered by "他". I believe that a character’s composition should not be deceptive to its meaning, and therefore, the "他" with the "人" radical should describe any person, not just any male person.

While I believe that "他" should be truly gender inclusive, its current masculine standing does make it similar to Generic he to some extent. I dislike generic he as it reflects bias towards men, but an inclusive "他" does carry these risks. Therefore I propose that those who prefer a unique masculine pronoun may choose to use one with a "男" (male) radical instead. While "男也" (read that as one character) has not been given a Unicode code-point yet, I find this solution to be much more ideal than stereotypical generalizations with "他".

Please share your thoughts.



现代英语中,传统的复数代词 "they" 常用作性别包容的单数代词,伴以 "she" 作阴性单数代词及 "he" 作阳性单数代词。然而,汉语中却没有等效的词语。现代汉语将"他"视为阳性代词,尽管其偏旁为单人旁,且在二十世纪二十年代以前,其曾有过用作性别包容性代词的历史。本文的论点为,将"他"恢复为性别包容性代词。

在五四运动及更为广泛的新文化运动以前,"他"曾通用作所有实体的代词,包括任何性别的人,及无生命的物体。这场运动为中国语言和文化的"现代化"做出了许多努力,其中之一就是单独创造了一个阴性代词 "她"。这个字由诗人、语言学家刘半农创造,并在国共内战后成为了公认的语言规范。(对无生命的物体,也创造了一个单独的"它";但这与本文的论点无关。)


现代英语中,常常使用单数 they 代词来充当未知性别的占位词,例如 "someone left their laptop here"。这种口头对话一般不会出现问题,因为普通话中所有规范的第三人称代词发音都相同:tā。然而,在书面语中,许多人会像 "he/she" 一样使用 "他/她"。除了强化了性别二元论、排斥了女性(见后两段)外,这在视觉上也不显美观(在全角 CJK 象形文字中插入半角斜杆尤显突兀,且破坏了排版的一致性),还添加了不必要的语法糖。

有些人并不喜欢分性别代词(我在这个 commit 前亦是如此),所以他们常偏向使用单数 they 代词。(我无意图在本文详细讨论非二元性别,如果你不熟悉这个概念,请阅读 Leah Rowe 的文章 "Better respect for non-binary people, in defense of human rights")"她"单独用作阴性代词,同时"他"单独用作阳性代词,这种现状强化了性别二元论,并使得偏好性别中性或性别包容性代词的人无法使用这类代词。


虽然我认为"他"应该要具有真正的性别包容性,但这个词目前男性化的程度,使得它在某种程度上类似于将 he 通用化了。我并不喜欢通用化的"他",因为这体现了对男性的偏见,但包容性的"他"确实也有这些风险。因此,我提议,偏好使用单独的阳性代词的人,可以转而选择一个有男字旁的字。虽然"男也"(读成一个字)目前还没有 Unicode 码点,但比起刻板地将"他"字一般化,我认为这才是更加理想的解决方案。

This Chinese translation was translated from the English original by Peaksol. Thanks!