Translating the Untranslatable: He Zhen and the Concept of ‘Nannu’ for English Readers

He-Yi Zhen, better known as He Zhen, was revolutionary, there is no denying that. As an Anarcho-Feminist, she was undoubtedly a revolutionary too, and nearly a century later her work still remains incredibly pertinent for the modern day. However, the early analysis of her work is not without criticism. In this piece, I argue that Liu, Lydia He, Rebecca E. Karl, and Dorothy Ko’s seminal work The Birth of Classical Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theories, does both He Zhen and western readers a disservice in their analysis of her created term ‘nannu’. Rather than a “mostly untranslatable conceptual totality”, I believe that the term ‘nannu’ does not need to be translated, and that efforts to do so can actually do more harm than good.1 Instead of attempting to find an accurate or comparative English translation, time would be better spent in analysis of He Zhen’s theories and their relevance for the modern day.


What is ‘nannü’? As Liu, Lydia He, Rebecca E. Karl, and Dorothy Ko state, He Zhen created the term as a combination of the characters for man and woman, or male and female, to create a singular compound concept that expressed “the category through which He-Yin Zhen understood her world as an always-already gendered timespace of social activity, production, and life.”2 They then go on to state that their original translation of ‘gender’ is unsatisfactory as, while it is useful in placing He Zhen’s work alongside western feminist theory of the late 20th century, doing so could “ensnare us in conceptual traps”.3 Here, they cite Joan Scott’s famous essay ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’, which argued that the term ‘gender’ in its modern meaning  was not used until the late twentieth century. 4 It is this argument that I think holds the greatest weight, and one that feminist academics seem to spend an unnecessary amount of time on.


Nannü as a concept has no direct translation in English. A fair statement of fact, or a much-debated topic? Probably both. However, I argue that whether the concept itself is translatable in any way, in any language, it should not matter. ‘Gender’ may be a good starting point, especially as the meaning has grown in the twenty-first century. ‘The Patriarchy’ is a close enough concept with which to discuss social hierarchical behaviour and control, especially and particularly for women. The issue, then, is not how to translate ‘nannü’, but whether it needs to be translated at all. Is it not enough to explain the concept itself, and let the reader figure it out for themselves? The debate seems almost ethnographical at heart, and has severe repercussions for readers in all disciplines. To constantly attempt to translate and compare a foreign concept to one’s own worldview is not only ethnocentric and presentist, but runs the risk of alienating and othering ‘foreign’ history, thereby deeming it only worth studying so long as it can be neatly compared to something familiar, i.e Western.


That said, I do not suggest that all foreign terms should be left untranslated for the reader to puzzle out themselves. If a term has a direct translation, then it should of course be used, simply so long as it is able to keep the meaning and concept clear. If there is not, though, a simple explanation will suffice. In the end, it boils down to the fact that on occasion, less is more, and in the case of ‘nannü’, there is no need to tie oneself up in circles attempting to find a suitable English translation. After all, we in the west are nothing if not fond of a loanword or two, and in the endless debate over the specific terminology of ‘gender’, ‘patriarchy’, ‘sex’, and other terms, one might wonder if He Zhen herself might not regard us as unnecessarily complicating things. Nannü is nannü, and that’s all there is to it.

  1. Liu, Lydia He, Rebecca E. Karl, and Dorothy Ko. The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational
    Theory. Columbia University Press, 2013, p. 10 []
  2. Ibid, p. 10 []
  3. Ibid, p. 11 []
  4. Ibid, pp. 12-13. []

Lost in translation: Implications of Ogyu Sorai’s Rejection of the Wakun Method for Modern Readers

Ogyu Sorai (1666-1728) is perhaps best known for his political writings, yet his attitude towards language and the reading of Chinese texts is arguably of equal importance to any reader. As Thomas Kasulis outlines, the predominant way of reading classical Chinese literature in Japanese was the wakun method, in which a Chinese text was read with Japanese sentence structure and grammar. In doing so, this created what Sorai called a ‘bizarre and contrived hybrid” of both Chinese and Japanese1 . This simple description neatly gets to the heart of one of the greatest barriers of learning and interpretation of any reader: that of translation. In order to truly learn and understand classical Chinese texts, Sorai argued for learning the Chinese readings first, thus becoming familiar with the syntax and flow of spoken Chinese, and only then could one begin to translate it into more understandable Japanese.

Sorai argued that this ‘Japanification’ of Chinese readings and forcibly altered sentence structure led to an overcomplication and loss of information. Furthermore, he argued that since this translation itself came from the Heian era, it was by the time of the Tokogawa Shogunate some several hundred years out of date, and therefore written in an antiquated, archaic style that most ordinary Japanese readers would find it difficult to understand anyway2 .

His solution was to learn the original language before one can truly begin to understand its meaning. However, this is problematic for several reasons. Firstly, Kasulis points out that Sorai had the benefit of a classical education under the Hayashi family, and had the ‘rare skill’ of being able to read and understand both Classical and modern forms. He was then able to set up his own school in order to teach this new method, dubbed Nagasaki after the area with the highest bilingual population at the time3 .

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, this approach has major implications for the modern reader. Learning a language outside of state-mandated education is often time-consuming and can be prohibitively expensive, whether engaging a private tutor or using some other form, such as an online service. Thirdly, there is the issue of breadth. Sorai, being first and foremost a Confucian scholar, had only to learn Classical and modern Chinese. A difficult task, perhaps, but a singular one to which he devoted himself. For those whose interests are not quite so narrowed, it could easily leave one overwhelmed, thinking that all languages of interest must be mastered before one could even attempt to study anything of note.

Fourthly, there is the simple question of whether Sorai was right at all. The Nagasaki method came under criticism even in his own lifetime, notably from another Confucian Scholar, Arai Hakuseki, who pointed out the illogicality of the method in general, since the bilingual residents, being predominantly fisherman, had learnt Chinese from sailors and so could hardly be placed in the same linguistic realm as the Sage Kings of old4 .Taking this criticism, it would seem to rather invalidate Sorai somewhat.

The final conclusion then, would seem to be a balance between Sorai and a more favourable attitude towards translation. By all means, learning and immersing oneself in a chosen language is desirable for life-long study, or even if one simply has a great love of a particular culture. However, to enforce learning and total understanding before even attempting to study a piece of literature outside of one’s native language is simply not possible in the modern world. A better way, therefore, would be to find our own Sorai, someone who has already done the difficult task of translation, and use that instead as the basis for study. Naturally there will be errors, and one may have to change or alter a sentence to fit with the individual demands and peculiarities of a different language, but this is inevitable. To reverse the well-known saying, its not the way that you say it, but what you say that is most important.

  1. Thomas P. Kasulis. Engaging Japanese Philosophy : A Short History. (University of Hawaii Press, 2018), p. 347 []
  2. Ibid, pp. 348 []
  3. bid, p. 349 []
  4. Ibid, p. 349 []