How Chinese ruined a perfectly good gender-neutral pronoun

One of most distinctive mistakes that native speakers of Chinese make when speaking English is to mix up the gender of the third-person singular pronoun. It is not uncommon for an otherwise fairly fluent speaker, with good accent and correct grammar, to say “she” instead of “he”, or vice versa, and not realize their mistake. It’s a difference that reveals how grammar shapes some habits of thought. English grammar requires you to hold in your mind at all times the gender of the persons you are talking about; Chinese grammar does not.

Spoken Chinese has only a single third-person pronoun, , which is gender-neutral, referring to all genders or none. Since Chinese grammar does not require speakers to mentally keep track of everyone’s gender, they often don’t. So when English forces them to make a choice, they sometimes just take a stab and get it wrong. Of course Chinese people are perfectly capable of learning the different habit of thought required by English grammar, but it’s not automatic.

It is possible to have an extended conversation in Chinese about a person who is not present without ever specifying whether that person is male or female, and indeed for the participants in that conversation to not actually know that person’s gender. This perfectly ordinary experience in Chinese can only be achieved in English by the deliberate use of unusual literary techniques. The example that springs to mind for me is Ann Leckie’s science-fiction novel Ancillary Justice, in which the narrator uses the pronoun “she” to refer to all individuals and doesn’t explicitly indicate their gender. Sometimes the reader can work it out from context, but a lot of the time you just don’t know. That’s weird experience for a speaker of a language with gendered pronouns.

What’s intriguing is that written Chinese is more like English in its use of pronouns than it is like spoken Chinese. There are three characters, all pronounced : 他 translates as “he” in both of the English senses, serving as the masculine third-person pronoun and as the (now contested) default pronoun for a person whose gender is unspecified or unknown; 她 is “she”, the specifically female third-person pronoun; and 它 is “it”, the neuter third-person pronoun usually used for inanimate objects.

Spoken Chinese is perfectly inclusive, referring to all people identically in a way that makes no presuppositions about gender. Written Chinese replicates the traditional hierarchical pattern in English, in which people are referred to as male unless there is a need to specify they are female. Yet the way that Chinese people actually speak–among other things, their distinctive mistakes in using English gendered pronouns–makes it clear they do not think in terms of those characters, and are mentally using only a single gender-neutral pronoun.

In my personal experience, this is one of the clearest demonstrations of a basic principle of linguistics: that spoken language is prior to written language. Of course this is obvious from both our personal and collective history. Every person learns to speak before learning to read and write, and humanity in general had spoken language before written language. But because of the antiquity, universality and cultural prestige of Chinese characters–the way the same writing system is used by speakers of different Chinese languages/dialects–there is sometimes a tendency for Chinese people to think the characters represent the “real” language. They don’t! The real language is what real people really speak.

The puzzle, then, is why written Chinese differs so much from the actual practice of spoken Chinese. A paper from 1997 by language maven David Moser has the answer (thanks to David for a Twitter conversation that inspired me to look up his piece). It turns out that gendered pronouns are a twentieth-century invention, introduced into the language by “reformers” who had been exposed to pronoun usage in other languages:

Prior to the May Fourth Movement [of 1919], there was only one written form for the third-person singular, the gender-neutral character 他. Later, due to the influence of foreign languages and the necessities of translation, prominent figures in the May Fourth Movement such as Lu Xun and Zhou Zuoren began to suggest creating a new character or characters to represent male and female third-person pronouns in the written language. According to Ling Yuanzheng, the first to advocate the use of 她 as the feminine written form while using the existing 他 as the masculine form was the poet and linguist Liu Bannong. Interestingly, though Liu’s proposal elicited much debate as to whether the introduction of any new characters was truly necessary, no one at the time raised the obvious possibility of creating a symmetrical character for the masculine third-person singular as well, thus leaving 他 as a gender-inclusive third-person pronoun.

The Chinese language reformers, instead of preserving the naturally gender-inclusive usage of their own language, instead grafted the hierarchical gender pronoun structure of English on top of it.

David notes that the poet Liu Dabai in the 1930s did try an alternative approach, creating new characters for both specifically male and female pronouns while preserving 他 as gender-neutral. What Liu’s scheme looked like is shown on the left in the graphic below, reproduced from David’s paper: three characters for three pronouns, each visually and semantically corresponding to the Chinese words for person, man and woman. The actual usage of modern Chinese is shown on the right: two characters for two pronouns, one that is primarily male but also gender-neutral, and one that is specifically female.

The whole episode is a fascinating example of the ways one language can influence another: not simply the ordinary one of borrowing vocabulary, but actually changing the grammatical structure. It seems fortunate that in this case the change was confined to the written language, and hasn’t altered the spoken one. Perhaps now that gender-inclusivity is more highly valued than it was a century ago, written Chinese can eventually come back into closer alignment with the spoken language.


  1. Thank you for clearing this up and for the reference to David Moser’s interesting article.
    I have been wondering about what time the new inventions came about. Thought they might have been earlier, with exposure to missionary translations. Not so long ago I came across a piece telling that some young Chinese are beginning to use pinyin ‘ta’ as a character to avoid the gender issue of 他,她,它。
    我不认识ta. Probably mostly on social media.
    Another issue is the appearance of the “three de” 的 得 地, that both foreign learners and native speakers have trouble with. In spoken language only one


    1. What is also interesting about Tage Vosbein’s observation is that using pinyin in Chinese writing for ta (which I understand is also becoming more common in other situations as well) is another example of using a Western derivative form in Chinese (albeit one created by the Chinese in China in the mid 20th century).


  2. Sometimes the Chinese now go even farther than we do in adding written gender distinctions. In English ‘you’ is gender neutral. In spoken Chinese ‘ni’ is gender neutral. But where did the written character ‘妳’ come from, the feminine ‘ni’? I had a friend who recently had to apologize for using 你 in a letter and only discovering afterwards that the addressee was a woman.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.