Week 1 lesson - 人, 女, 牛, 也, 他, 她, 牠, and 它

The first character to be featured is a simple two-stroke character meaning “man” or “person”, 人 ( rén ).

This character falls within the pictograms school of character formation, and in ancient script was a pictorial depiction of a man.

In terms of remember the character in its present day form you can look at the character as a stick figure with no head or arms, so just the legs. Or a stick-figure representation of someone’s legs when walking, viewed from the side.

The second character for this week is the character for a “woman”, 女 ( ).

This is another character which derives from the pictogram school of character formation, and in one of its ancient forms looked like a stick-figure representation of a woman.

If you have a look at the ancient form depicted above, it is clear how the character has developed visually. One way which you could remember the modern form is to think of it like a stick figure with a head at the top, arms to the side, and wide hips before moving down to the legs, the wider hips of 女 to indicate a woman rather than 人.

For the third character for this week, I want to introduce the character for cow, 牛 ( niú ).

This character is another pictogram character, with the ancient form depicting a cow or bull from the front. The character has somewhat developed to its present form, but it is clear from one of the ancient forms depicted below that the original character was that of a frontal depiction of the bovine creature in question.

Because these characters are quite simplistic in their basic forms, there’s not really much you can do apart from simply commit them to memory.

The forth character for this week is the character for “also”, 也 ( ).

Unfortunately the etymology of this character seems to be a little confused between 它, 㐌, and也, so there isn’t really much historical context to go on for learning this, save by simply memorising it by rote.

The last few characters have a very interesting history between them, and I guess there’s something to be said about saving the best until last for this week. The last characters for this lesson form the various third person pronouns, 他, 她, 牠, and 它. They are all pronounced as . Because of the corruption / confusion of the etymology of 也 being mixed with 它, and 㐌 these characters will need to be committed to memory, but you only really need to commit the 也 side of the character to memory, because the left radical for 他, 她, and 牠 follows quite logically. The remaining form of the third person pronoun, 它, will need to be memorised as well.

Starting with 他, this is the third person pronoun relating to males. The left side of this character is 亻, which is known as the rén radical, as it derives from the character 人. Since 人 is the character for person, and not a female specifically, the use of 亻 helps to suggest that 他 relates to a male.

The character 她 uses 女 as the radical on the left side of the character to indicate that the pronoun in this case refers to someone who is feminine, as opposed to 他 for the masculine.

Some say that 牠 and 它 can be used interchangeably as the third person pronoun for non-human related subjects, although others maintain that 牠 should only be used as a pronoun for animals, whilst 它 is used for inanimate subjects. The reasoning for this is that the left radical of 牠 is clearly indicative of a relationship with an animal, considering the radical is of a direct derivation of 牛.

On top of the confusion for the roots of 也, 他, 她, 牠, and 它 there is another reason why there is no real etymological history for 他 and 她. Although English has had a distinction between male and female third person pronouns since the 12th century. But in Chinese, there was no distinction in terms of the concept between male and female third person pronouns until 1823, when the usage of “他男·” and “他女·” came into being. It was not until 1917 that 她 started being used as a character to act as a third person pronoun in the female gender!


Thanks @ZhengHaohua. I learnt 2 things thanks to this post:

  1. 牠. I didn’t know it existed. I always used 它 for animals and objects.
  2. I didn’t know that the distinction between male and female is so recent and that 他男 and 他女 existed before 他 and 她. Can I find that in classical Chinese literature that I obviously haven’t read yet?

@fabiothebest Thank you. Glad you learnt something and found the post helpful. I should clarify that the usage of 他男 and 他女 came about in the 1823 edition of a book on English language 《英国文语凡例传》 so you’re not going to find it in literature. In that book, “it” was defined as 他物.

Thanks for the clarification.

@fabiothebest Oh by the way, I don’t think you can say 他男 and 他女 existed before 他. The word 他 has always been used, but it’s just that 她 is the new creation from 1917.

The use of 他男, 他女, and 他物 in that book, I feel, came about only as a way to explain the entirety foreign concept (literally) of “he, she, and it”.