Regardless of the language, the number of words used to refer to the two sexes is vast and their meaning can change according to context. Using the improper word may cause not only misunderstandings but also embarrassment.
For example, once an American couple invited their son’s Chinese teacher to dinner. The hostess was very pleased to introduce her family, “我有三个孩子，两个男人，一个女人。(Wǒ yǒu sān gè háizi, liǎng gè nánrén, yí gè nǚrén.)” The teacher couldn’t help but laugh under her breath. Since the three children were all young, the hostess should have said, “我有三个孩子，两个男孩，一个女孩。 (Wǒ yǒu sān gè háizi, liǎng gè nánhái, yí gè nǚhái.)” What’s the difference between these words in Chinese? How do you use them properly? Today’s newsletter will introduce you to the gendered words of 男(nán) and 女(nǚ).
男(nán) and 女(nǚ)
There are many words in Chinese that specify gender. Let’s get a feel for their usage. If you’re opening a new bank account in China, you might see the following choices to mark your gender: 男人(nánrén)/女人(nǚrén), 男孩(nánhái)/女孩(nǚhái), 男性(nánxìng)/女性(nǚxìng), 男士(nánshì)/女士(nǚshì) or 男生(nánshēng)/女生(nǚshēng), but which is correct? In this context, you would simply write “男(nán)” male or “女(nǚ)” female. Knowing these words will also be helpful when in public and you need to use the restroom, instead of waiting to see which sex goes where, you can just read the sign on the door “男(nán)” or “女(nǚ).” These are the most direct characters for representing gender, but when they’re put together with other characters they take on different meanings, some being relatively subtle. Such is the magic of Chinese!
Words connected to 男(nán): 男性(nánxìng), 男士(nánshì), 男人(nánrén), 男孩(nánhái), 男生(nánshēng)
男性(nánxìng) defines the male from a biological or cultural perspective, so in some business situations, it’s inappropriate to call a male 男性. Instead, as in English, people use “先生(xiānsheng) Mr.” to show respect or address males in a formal situation.
“男士(nánshì)” is commonly used for men’s products, such as 男士洗面奶(nánshì xǐmiànnǎi) men's facial cleanser, 男士鞋(nánshì xié) men’s shoes, etc.
男人(nánrén) is frequently heard in daily speech which is roughly equivalent with the English word “man.” It’s used to describe a grown-up male. However, if someone were to say “that woman’s 男人(nánrén),” it specifically means that woman’s husband.
For little boys, we call them 男孩(nánhái) to convey their cute and naïve characteristics. 孩(hái) means kid. Some parents also call their sons “男孩(nánhái)” to express their deep love for him. For example, a mother can say there are two “男孩(nánhái)” in her family, meaning she has two sons.
男生(nánshēng) is a term of address reserved for schoolboys. Usually, girl students will call their male schoolmates “男生(nánshēng).” For example, we can say “这个男生是我们班长(Zhè ge nánshēng shì wǒmen bānzhǎng.) This boy is our monitor.”
Words connected to 女(nǚ): 女性(nǚxìng), 女士(nǚshì), 女人(nǚrén), 女孩(nǚhái), 女生(nǚshēng)
Like the word 男性(nánxìng), 女性(nǚxìng) refers to the adult female in the view of biology and culture. We can say that there are many excellent “女性(nǚxìng)” workers in the workplace nowadays. The situation is unlike the male “男性(nánxìng)” dominant business world of the past.
Once on a train, a conductor asked the man next to him “这位女士是您妻子吗？(Zhè wèi nǚshì shì nín qīzǐ ma?) Is the lady your wife?” The man answered “没错，是我女人。(Méi cuò, shì wǒ nǚrén.）Exactly, she’s my woman.” Most Chinese will laugh at such rough or unsophisticated language. The word “女人(nǚrén),” though able to convey the meaning of “wife,” is a harsh way to say so. When the conductor used the word “女士(nǚshì),” which is a very polite and elegant address for an adult female, the conversation is seen as not as casual as one with friends.
女孩(nǚhái) has a similar meaning with the English word “girl,” which usually refers to unmarried young women, while 女生(nǚshēng) refers to girl students in Chinese. Nowadays, the word 女生(nǚshēng) has gradually broadened its meaning and sometimes can replace the word 女孩(nǚhái) as well. For example, a student might say “这个女生是我同学。(Zhè ge nǚshēng shì wǒ tóngxué.) or 这个女孩是我同学。(zhè ge nǚhái shì wǒ tóngxué.) This girl is my classmate.”
Can you use the many variations and compounds of 男(nán) and 女(nǚ) properly now? Let’s look at the following exercises to hone your skills.
1. Imagine you are in a trade exhibition, your business partner introduces you to a young woman with the family name 王(Wáng), how do you greet her?
Nín hǎo! Wáng nǚrén Nín hǎo! Wáng nǚhái
Nín hǎo! Wáng nǚshì Nín hǎo! Wáng nǚxìng
Zhè ge______ yǒu liǎng gè háizi, yígè shì______, lìng yí gè shì_______.
The woman has two kids, one is a boy and the other is a girl.
nǚrén, nánhái, nǚhái nǚshì, nánshēng, nǚhái
nǚshēng, nánshì, nǚhái nǚshì, nánshì, nǚshì
Correct Answers: 1. C 2. A