I've been paging through this really interesting book about the meaning behind Chinese charcters. Some characters, such as the one for "li" physical strength, represent abstract ideas. In this case the character is a symbol of a man's bent forearm. Others, such as the one for "lian" rice field, represent a real physical entity.
I heard of a study in which a Dartmouth professor found that all Chinese characters that include the "nu" female radical have a bad connotation. Armed with this information and my western sensibilities, I was not surprised, but somewhat disappointed to see that the character for "qi" wife is evolved from a literal representation of a woman holding a broom. It ruffled my feathers to think that the wife is perceived as nothing more than someone to clean up after a man. A person with a broom in hand should be the character for maid, not for wife! How chauvinistic!
My Chinese friend came to lunch the other day with the same book and I thought it would be interesting to see how she would react when I told her that a wife is just a woman holding a broom. Without even taking a minute to think about it she said, "Well, in the ancient times that's what a wife was." She totally shot down my attempt to have an edgy conversation about feminism in China. But I realized she is absolutely right. It's not as if the character "qi" was invented yesterday. I suppose someone could eventually change the characters to erase these traces of varying gender roles and perceptions. I think then the language would lose some of it's richness and historical perspective. I think sometimes modern women, or any other group that feels put-upon, can overreact to a potential bias without taking the time to truly consider the background of the situation.
Afterall, the character for "nan" man is not much better than the character for wife. If you put physical strength and a rice field together, that signifies masculinity. I'm not sure 'cause I've never worked in a rice paddy, but I think I'd rather be the one inside with the broom.
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
Literally. In Beijing the traffic is so bad at times that this morning I saw a horse-drawn cart racing down the fast line. In a city where it may be faster to ride a bike so that you can pass by parked traffic, I suppose I shouldn't have been so surprised.