Like many Jews in America, my family belongs to a Reform synagogue — the most progressive and liberalized of the three major Jewish schools. Every Sunday morning, all of the other Jewish kids in the greater northwestern New Jersey region and I were dragged out of bed by our parents and brought to Hebrew school to learn about Jewish history, language, and culture and to collectively complain about having to get up early on Sunday morning to learn things. One of the most memorable lessons we had dealt with what the idea of God looked like; we were instructed to draw a picture of God. There was, of course, no wrong answer: the student who drew God as an ice cream cone was as correct as the student who copied Botticelli. (NB: Someone did, in fact, draw God as an ice cream cone. I regret to say that it was not me). God was neither male nor female; tall nor short; in our teaching, the teachings and importance of God could not be simplified into a dude with a beard but rather remained an abstract concept to give life meaning and direction.
The Old Testament of the Bible, however, was written before the women’s suffrage movement and other reformers jumpstarted the still ongoing push for gender equality. It was also written before the volunteers at our community temple drafted the curriculum for Sunday school. Thus, the Bible, whether read as literature or gospel or something in between, contains not only some rather traditional views of gender relations but also plenty of gendered terms relating to reverence and God. In popular culture, the Judeo-Christian God is viewed as an old white man with an impressively long beard who bought some excellent real estate in the clouds before the housing bubble started on Earth. In the text, God is referred to as “he”, “king,” “lord,” and more, all assuming that the higher power is not only omnipotent and omniscient but has exclusively male characteristics.
Around 2008, the Reform Jewish community decided that religion ought to reflect community values of gender equality. Our religious materials were outdated. New prayerbooks were issued, and all references to God as a male were changed: “He” became “You”; the “king” became the “sovereign”; “lord” became “ruler” or “the Eternal,” etc. Some congregants viewed the changes as important manifestations of gender equality, others as awkward, grammatically questionable, surface level changes.
But in Chinese, it turns out, this problem doesn’t exist.
Unbeknownst to many, China not only has Jews – but has had Jewish residents for nearly a thousand years. A handful of Jewish traders came to China via the Silk Road and settled in the ancient Song dynasty capital of Kaifeng, along the Yellow River in north-central Henan Province. Although the community’s original language and records are in Hebrew, over many centuries, dynasties, and floods wore away language as well as many, if not nearly all, of the customs – until the opening up and reform of China starting in the late 1970s gradually led to a renewed interest in Judaism within the community and among Jews abroad. Because no residents of Kaifeng can speak Hebrew and few English, all of the prayers, explanations, and discussions are in Chinese.
For Chinese speakers learning English, one of the most difficult elements of English to remember are gender pronouns. Native Chinese speakers will frequently refer to men as “she” and women as “he”, sometimes mixing the two interchangeably in a conversation. (For example, today, from a friend: “My wife is very smart. He scored the highest on his school exams.”) This is either a language gap or the most extreme form of progressive anti-heteronormativity in existence.
In reality, spoken Chinese does not differentiate between any personal pronouns: he, she, and it are all pronounced tā. The difference comes when they are written. Each of these Chinese characters can be broken down into two parts, one of which represents part of the meaning and one of its sound. The right side of the characters for he and she are both identical: 也. But the left side varies based on the specific person being referred to. Adding the radical meaning ‘female’ (女）creates the character for she (她), while adding the character for ‘man’ （人）results in the character for he (他). (When used in combination in simplified Chinese, the man radical is slightly altered from its standalone form, hence the difference in how it looks). The character for ‘it’ is now written 它 in simplified Chinese but can be written as 牠 in traditional Chinese, composed of the character for ‘cow’ (牛）and referring to any animal or physical “it.”
Thus although spoken Chinese has no need to awkwardly but grammatically correctly include phrases like “he or she,”a speaker of written Chinese still has to deal with this issue when he or she is writing with Chinese characters. In most cases, that is — in other ways, written Chinese has managed to solve this problem. If spoken Chinese avoids the gender problem through brute simplicity – everything is pronounced tā – written Chinese avoids the problem through specificity.
The Chinese translation of ‘he’ when referring to God (上帝）is also pronounced tā, but it is written not as 他, 她，or 牠 but as 祂. As with the other third person singular pronouns, the right side of the character is the same. But the left side is neither male nor female but a radical meaning ‘spirit’ that is also used in words like 神 (meaning deity or divine). Thus, the concept of God translated into Chinese is neither ‘he’ nor ‘she’ nor an ‘it’ referring to any day-to-day object but rather a unique pronoun just for things that cannot be explained by the human world. Even though the character has to specify which third person pronoun is being used, the options are not just man, woman, or thing; the language itself reflects a differentiation between the material world and the spiritual one. When a Jew prays in Chinese, either through reading or speaking out loud, then, the pronouns are only attached to an individual’s conception of God as whatever God is. God is just as much of an ice cream cone as a man.
Of course, the rest of the translated prayers in are peppered with 王（king), 父 (father), and plenty of other references to God as an anthropomorphic masculine being. But as long as we’re not trying to talk about God in human terms, the Chinese language supplies some very helpful gender-neutral but meaning-rich pronouns. Now, instead of Hebrew, all of the Sunday schools in America can turn to teaching Chinese.