Using 人 (rén) and 男人 (nánrén) - "man" - correctly in Mandarin Chinese

The words 人 (rén) and 男人 (nánrén) in Chinese are sometimes misused by English speakers. There are probably two main reasons for this:

  • The English word “man” can mean “the human race”, whereas 男人 in Chinese cannot.
  • In English, it is common to refer to a man as “a man” rather than “a person”, but in Chinese 男人 tends to draw attention specifically to the person’s gender.

Let’s look at these two differences between the languages in turn. The main point to remember here is that 男人 in Chinese is often quite different from “man” in English.

These differences might be obvious to some people, but depending on your linguistic background and experience it might be helpful to have these differences pointed out.

男人 ≠ “the human race”

The first difference between “man” and 男人 is probably the most straightforward. English can use “man” to refer to “the human race” as a whole. Although this usage is becoming less common, a lot of fairly recent texts and films from the twentieth century use “man” and “men” this way, and we still use words like “man-made”.

In Chinese, though, you absolutely cannot use 男人 to refer to “the human race”. It specifically means “male person”, and can only be used to refer to males.

To speak about people in general Chinese, you should just use 人 on its own. The word “man-made” in Chinese is 人为 (rénwéi) or 人造 (rénzào). Literally these are “person-made” - no gender involved! Similarly, “humans” or “the human race” are 人类 (rénlèi) - “human kind”.

Let’s have a look at some example sentences in Chinese using 人 in this general sense:

人类不断地犯错误。

Rénlèi bùduànde fàn cuòwù.

Human beings constantly make mistakes.

人类会永远生存下去吗?

Rénlèi huì yǒngyuǎn shēngcún xiàqù ma?

Will the human race survive forever?

许多人造卫星已经发射到地球轨道。

Xǔduō rénzào wèixīng yǐjīng fāshè dào dìqiú guǐdào.

Many man-made satellites have already been put into orbit.

人造的纺织品通常比天然的纺织品还要坚韧。

Rénzào de fǎngzhīpǐn tōngcháng bǐ tiānrán de fǎngzhīpǐn hái yào jiānrèn.

Man-made fabrics are often more durable than natural ones

As you can see, whilst you could translate the Chinese sentences into English using “man” or “men”, there is no use of 男人 at all.

男人 and 女人 draw attention to gender

This difference is far less concrete than the one above, and is probably quite debatable. However, it’s often that case that the words 男人 and 女人 (nǚrén) in Chinese are used when the person’s gender is particularly relevant. Otherwise you just say 人.

In other words, in English we often refer to people as “a man” or “a woman”, and less often as “a person”. In Chinese, though, you can often just say “a person”.

For example, in English you would probably say “he’s a very popular guy”, and less commonly say “he’s a very popular person”. Again, this may differ from person to person. In any case, it’s usually better to say “person” in Chinese unless the gender is very relevant.

Some examples:

他是一个备受欢迎的人。

Tā shì yīgè bèi shòu huānyíng de rén.

He's a very popular guy. (person)

她是个很有成就的人。

Tā shìgè hěn yǒu chéngjiù de rén.

She is a very successful woman. (person)

前门有个人来找你。

Qiánmén yǒu gèrén lái zhǎo nǐ.

There is a man / a woman / someone to see you at the door.

Again, you could of course say “person” in each of the above sentences in English. Happily, this practice is becoming more and more common in English as people put less emphasis on gender. The point here is that it’s usually better to use 人 in Chinese.

The situations where you should use 男人 and 女人 in Chinese are when you really are singling out men or women and not including both genders. Some examples:

女人一般比男人长寿。

Nǚrén yībān bǐ nánrén chángshòu.

Women usually live longer than men.

男人工作时受伤机率比女人的大。

Nánrén gōngzuò shí shòushāng jīlǜ bǐ nǚrén de dà.

Men are injured at work more often than women.

女性的平均工资仍然没有男性的高。

Nǚxìng de píngjūn gōngzī réngrán méiyǒu nánxìng de gāo.

The average salary of women is still not as high as that of men.

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