Pronoun politics and their questioning of gender binaries in language are a familiar debate of our time, one that raises the question of gender-inclusive writing. Across various languages, the past two decades have seen the emergence and popularisation of forms as varied as they singular in English, iel in French, elle in Spanish, and many more. But all too often, these debates have been misunderstood as predominantly 'Western' battles of the twenty-first century, as issues taken up by cohorts of young queer and feminist activists for lack of a better thing to do.
Highlighting the importance of non-Eurocentric language histories, my research uncovers quite a different story: today’s societal feuds around non-sexist language and gender-inclusive pronouns were effectively preceded by other debates which took place in China, one century ago.
To this end, I work with a wide array of literary and historical sources including textbooks, grammar books, linguistic policy guidelines, and personal diaries from the late imperial period through to the early years of the People’s Republic of China. Indeed, there was no third person feminine pronoun in Chinese as an unequivocal translational equivalent for 'she' prior to the late 1910s. Gender-differentiated pronouns were introduced into the language by Chinese reformers who came to make their own the missionary assumption that gender marking was a teleological pathway to linguistic progress, one that was still 'lacking' for achieving linguistic modernity. At the same time, and as early as 1920, many Chinese writers and activists were appalled by the hierarchies that the new set of gender-differentiated pronouns introduced in the name of modernising the language. Many saw this pronominal hierarchy as intrinsically sexist, even asking whether marking linguistic gender was warranted at all. Charting the circumstances of these debates, my research illustrates their significance – not only for our understanding of Chinese history and literature, but also in rethinking familiar debates of our time beyond Eurocentric understandings of gender and language.