In Wired (2/1/16), Liz Stinson has an article titled “This Little Red Book Confronts Sexism in the Chinese Language” (the text is accompanied by a total of 8 slides).
Activism can take many forms. In the case of Women’s Words, it takes the form of a little red dictionary. The tiny book is the work of Karmen Hui, Tan Sueh Li, and Tan Zi Hao of Malaysian design collective TypoKaki. On its pages you’ll find made-up words and phrases—Chinese characters that, through their unusual arrangement and alteration, subvert the sexism ingrained in Mandarin.
One entry combines the female radical nǚ 女 on the left with máo 毛 (“hair”) on the right, while adding an extra stroke to the latter component. “It indicates that a woman can be hairy, which is a word that doesn’t exist in the Chinese vocabulary,” Tan says.
Another newly invented character has the designers inserting a female radical in tòng 痛 (“pain”), whereby they mean to indicate the pain of menstruation. “We are now gendering the word pain itself,” Tan explains. “We wanted to create words related to a woman’s experience.”
One of the most expressive characters has the designers splitting the two sides of xíng 行 (“walk”) and putting nǚ 女 between them to convey the notion of “flâneuse,” the feminine equivalent of flâneur, indicating that a woman should be free to move around beyond the house in which she lives.
Looking at the slides, I note that each entry has Mandarin pronunciations indicated in pinyin and in bopomofo phonetic symbols, both with tonal diacriticals. Some of the pronunciations follow the phonophores, more or less, but others seem to be arbitrarily assigned. This is a phenomenon that we have previously addressed in posts about the invention of new characters by artists and others (i.e., how to determine the pronunciation of newly minted characters). See, for example, “How to generate fake Chinese characters automatically” (12/30/15).
What the authors of Women’s Words have done is turn the customary misogyny of Chinese characters on its head and use the female radical to create philogynous terms.
For the old, negative stereotypes, see:
“Misogyny as reflected in Chinese characters” (12/25/15)
David Moser, “Covert Sexism in Mandarin Chinese,” Sino-Platonic Papers, 74 (January, 1997), 1-23.
Here’s the last paragraph of the article in Wired:
Neither TypoKaki nor Moser believes Women’s Words is anything other than an artistic provocation. “In a way it’s not a serious language project because there’s no way in the world these are ever going to be adopted by an ordinary person writing every day.” Moser says. “But as an art project it makes people who look at it suddenly start to see language in a new way and start asking questions.”
As pointed out in earlier posts, what’s interesting is that it’s the artists who are willing to experiment with the fundamental nature of the script, not linguists or language workers
[h.t. Michael Carr, John Rohsenow]