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How to Address Someone in Chinese, with Cultural Explanations


称呼 ( cheng1hu0)

Language is the carrier of culture. An example of this in Chinese is the appellation system, which reflects the relationship between speakers and the cultural connotation. Compared with the English system, the Chinese system is much more complex with more types and a wider scope of application. Interestingly in China it is quite uncommon to address each other simply by names. Perhaps it can be explained by the fact that China has experienced a much longer feudalist society where every person played a certain role. All appellations in the Chinese language are still strictly regulated.

Appellations are generally divided into kinship and non-kinship. In Chinese kinship systems emphasize the distinction between junior and senior, between patriarchal and non-patriarchal, and between blood relations and relations by marriage. Chinese and English kinship appellations are similar in their basic terms, but the Chinese make much clearer distinctions. The Chinese people view the father’s side of the family as the orthodoxy, and the mother’s side as unorthodox. As we all know there are no names and appellations in English for the mother’s side of relatives. In addition, not only do the father’s side and the mother’s side relatives have different names in Chinese, but the father’s and the mother’s elder and younger relatives have different appellations as well. And every member of a family addresses another strictly according to the kinship.

I have first-hand knowledge of how confusing it could be for those who just started learning this language. I hope the table below will significantly help you to understand the family appellation in Chinese!

Grandfather 祖父  zǔfù Grandmother 祖母   zǔmǔ
Father's sister's husband 姑父gūfù Father's sister 姑姑gūgū Aunt 伯母bómǔ Uncle 伯父bófù
Maternal Grandfather 外祖父  wàizǔfù Maternal Grandmother 外祖母   wàizǔmǔ
Maternal uncle 舅舅 jìujìu Maternal uncle’s wife 舅妈 jìumā Mother’s sister 姨妈 yímā Husband of mother’s sister 姨父 yífù
Son of father's sister 堂哥tánggē Daughter of father's sister 堂姐tángjiě Father 父亲fùqīn Mother 母亲mǔqīn Maternal male cousin 表哥biǎogē Maternal female cousin 表姐biǎojiě
Younger Brother 弟弟dìdì Elder brother 哥哥gēgē Husband 丈夫zhàngfū Older sister 姐姐jiějiě Younger sister 妹妹mèimèi
Younger brother’s wife 弟妹dìmèi Sister in law 嫂嫂sǎosǎo Wife 妻子qī zǐ Brother in law 姐夫jiěfū Younger sister’s husband 妹夫mèifū
Son 儿子érzǐ Daughter 女儿nǚér Son-in-law 媳妇xífù Daughter-in-law 女婿nǚxù
Grandson 孙子sūnzǐ Daughter’s son 外孙wàisūn
Granddaughter 孙女sūnnǚ Daughter’ daughter 外孙女wàisūnnǚ

Chinese people also use some more intimate appellations in daily life. For example, they always call father  “爸爸”  (ba4ba0) which means “daddy”, and call mother “ 妈妈” (ma1ma0) as you would also use in English. Wife refers to her husband as “老公” (lao3gong1), while husband can easily call his wife “老婆” (lao3po2).

With respect to non-kinship appellations, there are some general appellations in the Chinese language as well. You always should remember how sensitive Chinese people are about subjects such as addressing a stranger. Before the reform and opening-up policies the most universal and typical address form in China was “同志” (tong2zhi4), comrade. Sometimes I notice that some of the textbooks still include this word as active vocabulary but I beg you not to use it. Nowadays it sounds not only ridiculous but also can mean something different in local dialects. Instead learn another Chinese general term ”师傅” (shi1fu0) which literally means “Master”, and is used as a respectful way of addressing people engaged in skilled trades, such as drivers, cooks, sellers etc.  However don’t be surprised if the salesman keeps on ignoring you even after you called him ”师傅” a hundred times. It does not mean he is deaf, it simply means you happened to go to the South of China. In the southern cities they stopped using this appellation a while ago. In that case, a very good substitution for ”师傅” will be “先生“ (xian1sheng0)  that can be translated as “Mister” or “Sir”. For women formal patterns of address include “女士” (nǚshi4), Ms or Mrs., “太太” (tai4tai0), Madam or Mrs., or “小姐” (xiao3jie3), Miss. Literally “小姐” means “little sister” and is usually used when addressing younger women. I think that it is the best way to address any woman regardless of her age, because women are women everywhere, and they always want to feel younger.

Chinese people tend to adopt professional titles, such as the names of their professions, positions, academic titles, and official positions, as terms to be addressed by. That’s why you will never be mistaken if you call a waiter ”服务员” (fu4wu2yuan2), a taxi driver  - “司机” (si1ji1), a salesperson – “ 售货员” (shou4huo4yuan2), and a teacher – “老师” ( lao3shi1). Titles may be also used to address colleagues. But you should be very careful in choosing a certain appellation and remember who you are addressing. It is different when you address a colleague, superior or subordinate, because the thought of hierarchy still occupies an important position in social relationships in China. Thereby, Chinese usually add the post appellation after the surname to show respect and the addressee’s identities when addressing people who have posts. For example, they introduce the superior as“这是王主任” (zhe4 shi4 wang2 zhu3ren2), this is Mr. Wang, our dean, or ”王经理” (wang2 jing1li3), Mr. Wang, our manager. Higher authorities sometimes address subordinates by their names.

Appellations in Chinese are also closely related to age. It is considered to be very rude for the younger generation to address the elder by name. In Chinese “老” (lao3), which literally means “old” represents a kind of qualification, dignity, and authority. They often use “老” with a surname to politely address others, for instance, “老张”(lao3zhang1), Mr. Zhang, or “老李”(lao3li3), Mr. Li.

“小” (xiao3), which means “young”, or “little”, is correspondingly used among the same generation to show familiarity between acquaintances and friends, for example “小张“ (xiao3zhang1), or “小陈” (xiao3chen2).  Among colleagues putting “小” before someone’s surname would not only mean that he is younger but also that the position he holds is lower than yours, or that this person does not have much experience. In this context, I can’t help but tell the story that happened to a friend of mine in China. She had just started working in a Chinese-Russian joint company when a new Chinese employee joined the team. It was a tall, slightly bald man of dignified appearance in his forties. “老王” seemed the only appropriate way of addressing him. But after one week he suddenly complained: “I wish you guys would stop calling me “老王”, I am not that old after all!”  It shows that it is really confusing sometimes even for Chinese people themselves to choose the right form when addressing others. I wish they could implement a new term, something between “老” and“小, “old” and “young”. Not everyone wants to be addressed as “old” even if it demonstrates respect, or “young” when it doesn’t. I think this is exactly the reason why nowadays calling each other by surnames and names has become quite popular among colleagues in some Chinese companies, even if it does not correspond with their traditions.


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1 comments on article "How to Address Someone in Chinese, with Cultural Explanations"

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If you address someone as 張老, it demonstrates truly respect.

老張... not so.

It's may be ok to address your peer as that, but it won't be clever to use it upon your superior.

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