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。Human beings constantly make mistakes.
人类会永远生存下去吗？Will the human race survive forever?
许多人造卫星已经发射到地球轨道。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。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.
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:
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