Language has power. The way we use words not only issues from our beliefs about what we consider to be true, but shapes them. Thus feminists in mid-twentieth-century America looked closely at the ways in which common parlance belittled, excluded, ignored, and made invisible women’s experience and very existence. Language changed: now American journalism and publishing stylebooks have dropped the denigrating “ess” suffix (women are poets, not poetesses) and insist upon gender-inclusive pronoun usage and references, cumbersome as that may be. If the way we use language has an enormous impact on our world view, not only representing it but influencing it, how much more so when the very structure of each word reflects embedded bias — when hostility toward and fear of women is literally at the root of a

language! Lorraine Huang, in this fascinating and important study of the radicals that make up Chinese characters, leaves no stroke unexamined in her unearthing of the way women are portrayed. She writes in her moving Introduction of her painful awakening to the recognition that nearly every time a negative word is encounter in Chinese, it contains the symbol for woman; and that positive references to women are always about physical beauty and vulnerability—woman  as delicate adornment, as an unthreatening accessory used to augment a man’s worth. As an artist, Huang was doubly mortified, since the calligraphic written language is

considered “an expression of the highest art form…a gateway into the soul of the individual.”

    The Woman Radical, with its scholarly section on early Chinese social mores and provocative dictionary of characters, is a major contribution to Asian Feminism, and functions as a fascinating complement of the many fine works of fiction and poetry being written in English by Asian women living in America today. I’m reminded of lines from a poem by Fay Chiang called “Chinatown”: “There is a popular spirit and movement/growing and pushing/rearranging the order of things/that nothing can hold back.” Thank you, Lorraine Huang, for bringing this deeply personal and essential investigation into “the order of things” to fruition. Thank you, too, for daring to do so in a format that matches the import of each radical: using newspaper, toilet paper, and other “throw-away” materials and intentionally clumsy brushwork to represent “the many women who were deemed unworthy, used up and discarded by this traditional society.” Like the reclaiming of the word “queer” by the lesbian, homosexual, bisexual and transgendered community, these pages cut through centuries of shame and self- mortification. Huang wounds the ground of patriarchy to heal the root of humanity, and leaves us with a new character for woman, a new nu that is “the embodiment of the power and strength of both earth and heaven, the power of peace and cooperation, the manifestation of feminine integrity.”

Roko Sherry Chayat


Syracuse, N.Y.


Excerpts from

Encyclopedic Dictionary of Characters


This 291 page softcover book  has 74 pages of calligraphy that illustrate 144 Chinese characters containing the woman radical.

The Woman Radical is available from Llumina Press and Amazon at list price of $24.95. However, a 30% discount (plus shipping, handling and sales tax where applicable) is given when purchased directly from the author.

Yao, the word for a demon, is one of the twenty words in the book that describe women in a negative manner.

CHANG E is a mythical goddess known for her great beauty. If you look carefully at the Chinese characters, you will see the woman radical on the left side. The presence of the woman radical in a word always identifies a connection to the female: physical appearance, behavior, characteristic, attributes, role in society, and emotional make-up. Chang E is listed in the section titled “Beauty.”

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