When we tell someone to “Man up!” or “Stop being such a girl!” we are showing our culture’s inherent gender bias whether we mean to or not. Sure, when a person says, “Man up” it doesn’t mean automatically that person doesn’t value the strength of women. Most likely, it means they have never thought about what telling a person to “man up” really means and who it affects. Whether we notice or not, what we say with our gendered statements perpetuates harmful beliefs in our culture. To gain perspective outside of American culture, we can look to the Chinese word for “peace” as an example of language perpetuating harmful gender roles.
A brief lesson for those unfamiliar with Chinese. Chinese is an logographic language, which means the characters they write come from an image-based system. The character stands for both a sound and a meaning. To contrast, English is an alphabetic language and uses letters with no visual meaning.
The letter M makes the mmmm sound, but writing M is not a symbol of anything but that sound.
Unlike in Chinese, where the character for mountain has a specific sound and meaning. You’ll notice it also resembles the peaks of mountains 山。
Language of Peace
I first saw the character “安” on a police car. It is a combination of the characters for “woman/女” and “roof/宀” and is pronounced like in the name Khan.
安 (ān) is one of many Chinese words that mean peace.
My first response was excitement. Women are a part of peace! That’s a positive, right? But before visions of flower clad hippies could completely fill my mind, it dawned on me what the rest of the character symbolized.
Women At Home = Peace
This word in Chinese is the entire issue of believing women belong in the home encapsulated into six strokes of a brush. Placing the character for woman under the character for roof to define peace is saying, quite plainly, that having a woman in the home is good, stable, and the norm. Anything deviating from this model is therefore in direct opposition to maintaining peace. A woman outside the home equates to chaos and conflict. Sound familiar?
In modern China and for native speakers, they don’t really see this as “woman” + “roof” they simply see a word for peace. Much like how native English speakers see “potluck” as a church tradition and never stop to think of the words “pot” and “luck” or what they might mean independently or symbolically.
Even though it’s not overtly seen in this word, sexism is still persistent in Chinese culture (and elsewhere of course). Couples abort or put up for adoption their female babies in favor of having sons at alarming rates. Women over 27 who cannot find husbands are called “leftovers” and are seen as flawed. And gender discrimination in the workforce is a constant occurrence. Since moving here in January, I have seen countless jobs for English tutors that specifically ask that only white males apply.
How This Impacts Gender Equality
Sexism is so ingrained in world cultures that we barely notice it anymore. We don’t know why we say the words we do, we just do. They slip out of our mouths without a second thought and the system continues to perpetuate itself.
Words are in the media frequently nowadays. We argue over “all” or “black.” We disagree on which pronouns to use for people of various genders. We fight about being too PC or too bombastic. And the fact that we are so passionate about them proves that the words we say are powerful.
We are beginning to open up conversations on many formally normalized or long buried issues. Some people call this over-sensitivity, I like to think of it as boldness. The boldness to recognize the power in what we say and when we say it. And the boldness to see the potential harm this power can inflict.
Why Should Christians Care?
It is a deviation and a distorting of the perfect equality created by God in Eden. As kingdom builders and image bearers, it is our responsibility to follow Christ’s lead and work to end oppression on all fronts.
When we recognize the history and harm that our words represent and inflict, it only makes sense that we seek to change the narrative. We must acknowledge the history of systemic sexism that is alive and well in all cultures, languages, and mindsets. If we seek to foster gender equality in the world, one of the ways we do this is in the words that we speak.
To Be Clear…
This is not to point a finger at Chinese culture as the main perpetrator of sexist language. It only takes a brief look into our American English vernacular to know that isn’t the case. The take-away here is that across all borders, the plight of women is universal. Consequently, what we do and say has a real impact on the future of equality worldwide.
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
Blessed Are The Peacemakers
All Christians, not just women, are called to be gentle and cultivate peace both inwardly and in our outward lives. When we think of the word 安, we must remember that peace is not something we create with our presence (in the home or elsewhere). It is something given by God. His peace, which is beyond our wildest comprehension, will guard our hearts and minds always. “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” Romans 14:19
Peace is not made by women in the home; it is made by people in The Word.
Want to learn more about Christian Feminism? Then check out our previous posts:
- Was Jesus A Feminist?
- How Being A Feminist Made Me A Better Christian
- Resources For The Budding Christian Feminist