Lady’s day — the holiday with the problematic name

International Women’s Day came and went about a month ago, March 8. If you are living in the US, you could be forgiven for having missed it — the holiday doesn’t have much pull there, as I remember it.

But here in China you can’t miss it. International Women’s Day everywhere. TV, subway posters, billboards…

The holiday has taken on Chinese characteristics, and that means capitalism in a big way. To observe Beijing signage, you’d think the country had outlawed all classes of shopping and spa treatments for women — except in the days leading up to March 8. Here’s a typical example, advertising winter shoes at 38% (three eight — ha ha — get it? so creative!) of the regular price.


Celebrating women. Buying shoes. Say what you will about the spirit of the thing. Apparently it works. And not just commercially. Some of my female colleagues and friends make it a girls’ night out from drinks to dinner to karaoke. Even the less social are likely to exchange best wishes via WeChat.

You’re wondering, though, what any of this has to do with naming…

Yes, naming. WeChat is the segue and the story goes like this: a young man I know was using Women’s day to work on his own personal social marketing, initiating conversations via WeChat with the female members of his recent graduating class. The hope (I suppose) was that conversations thus started might eventually turn to more interesting topics. So imagine his momentary dismay when he received back from one classmate a curt: “You’re the lady!” (你才妇女!)

Wait. So did she say “lady” or did she say “woman”? There’s the rub. The official holiday name uses the word 妇女 fùnǚ. On the surface it’s a word with reasonable neutrality, something along the lines of “women”. And yet, as you dig into language comparison you find that even the simplest words rarely have exact equivalents between languages. Years ago I had a lot of fun digging into the difference between a bowl and a plate, for example.

The tart reaction of the young woman, it turns out, was due precisely to connotations of fùnǚ that fall somewhere in the semantic space of woman-lady-matron, but don’t find any precise equivalent in English. To gals like her, a fùnǚ is certainly married already, somewhat older and has a child. Not the self-image she is looking for. Maybe “lady” is the closest choice, but without any of lady’s glamor from associations such as “lady’s night” and the like.

Like it or not, the negative connotation of fùnǚ is out there. It’s prevalent enough, in fact, that a significant number of retailers have abandoned fùnǚ in the official name and replaced it with nǚrén (女人)which also means, roughly, “women”, but seems to carry less dowdy baggage. As below, complete with 38% of original price sales, we see 女人 nǚrén instead of 妇女 fùnǚ.

It’s too early to say that the fùnǚ version of the holiday will become a dolt name. It’s hard to envision the UN taking up the topic of changing the official Chinese name. But it’s a piquant reminder that, in naming even of holidays, nuance is king queen.

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