/ Opinion

Time to ditch courtesy titles that discriminate
By Lisa Eklund(China Daily)
Updated: 2006-05-18 06:40

"Ladies and gentlemen" is a polite way to greet both males and females. Their equivalence is found in many languages.

In Chinese, these words are translated into nushimen and xianshengmen, which also means Ms and Mr. At first glance, this seems rather straightforward. However, if we look at the meaning behind the words, a socio-cultural dimension emerges, which is worth attending to.

Nushimen contains the words nu, "woman," and shi, "commendable person" (men indicates plural). Thus, nushimen implies that a person is both commendable and of the female sex.

Xianshengmen, however, does not reveal the sex of the person. Instead, the word contains xian and sheng, which literally means "firstborn." Hence, in Chinese, as in many other languages, words are used for women to disclose their sex, while those used for men are sex-neutral. This is noteworthy as the language signals that men are the norm and women are the deviation from that norm.

In a Chinese cultural context, age implies respect and superiority as the Confucian code places old before young. To call someone "firstborn" is a way to signify the importance of a person.

Ever since the time of Confucius and throughout imperial China, xiansheng was used only for highly respected scholars and intellectuals. Beginning with the May Fourth Movement in 1919, which witnessed an increase in the female intellectual elite, it was used for both male and female scholars. Since then, the meaning has shifted quite radically.

Only few women in China today qualify to be called xiansheng if the word's historical meaning was respected. Most of these women were active in the 1919 movement, such as the famous woman author Bing Xin.

It is unknown if she identified herself as nushi or xiansheng, or maybe both. The key point of concern is the fact that men automatically qualify for xiansheng just by being male, whereas women have to become great intellectuals in order to be referred to with the same degree of respect.

Being a product of norms and values, language is not, and can never be, neutral. Equally important, language reproduces and forms values and attitudes, especially in regard to how we perceive women and men. Perhaps one day, when the agenda for gender equality has been further advanced, we will all be called xiansheng, due to the mere fact that we are all human beings and therefore deserve dignity and respect.

The author is a PhD candidate with the Department of Sociology at the Lund University, Sweden

(China Daily 05/18/2006 page4)