A few posts ago I talked about terms of address. I’m afraid terms of address are quite complicated in Chinese. In fact, the complexity of the system is a direct reflection of hierarchy in Chinese society. That is, it is very important how you address an individual based on your relationship with them. If the person you are addressing is in a position above your own, you will address them differently than if they are in a position perceived as below your own.
This is true for familial titles, or terms for your relatives as well. Basically, if a relative is older than you, you address them by their title. If they are younger than you, you can basically call them anything you want, from their given name to a nickname or anything else.
For a detailed list of familial terms of address, see this website. Be warned that the list goes on for pages.
In reality there are specific terms for just about every relationship you can imagine within an extended family. And the terms are different if you are addressing someone on your father’s side versus your mother’s side. It is incredibly complex. For example, last week I attended my nephew’s wedding, the son of my older brother. I was meeting with a Chinese colleague and wanted to tell him about it, but I first had to look up the term for “nephew” and not just any nephew, but the son of my brother, because the term is different if it is was my sister’s son.
Even in immediate families it is common for younger siblings to address their older siblings by a title, such as 哥哥 gēge or 大哥 dàgē for older brothers, and 姐姐 jiějie or 大姐 dàjiě for older sisters. If you had more than one older brother of sister, you would refer to them in the order of their birth. For example, your oldest older brother would be 大哥 and the others would be 二哥 èrgē，三哥 sāngē and so on.
Familiar Terms Outside the Family
Familiar terms are also used outside the family, even with people you do not know, such as with people that work in stores, restaurants, train stations, or friends of family members, such as your parents friends. For example, children will often address adults with terms like 大哥 or 大姐 for young adults, and older individuals with terms like 叔叔 shūshu (uncle) or 阿姨 āyí (auntie). In Northeastern China, the term 大妹子 dà meìzi can also be used for a young woman. For very old people, one can use the terms 大叔 dàshū or 大爷 dàyě for someone really old, or for women, 阿姨 or for a very old woman, 奶奶 nǎinai.
It is not necessary to memorize all the familiar terms. In fact, even native Chinese get confused and don’t know all the proper terms for all their extended relatives.
Other Terms of Address
A common way to address a child, whether male or female is 小朋友 xiǎo péngyǒu（literally “little friend”).
A fairly common term used to address people in the service industry, or those considered skilled workers or experts, such as drivers, coaches, and so on, is 师傅 shīfu. This term means “master” but is used beyond that specific meaning.
The term 服务员 fúwùyuán is also a term used in the service industry and is specifically used for waiters and waitresses, clerks, salespeople in stores, and so on. The term literally means “service personel.”
If you take the time to learn how to address people in China it will go a long way in showing respect to those with whom you associate. It will also make those with whom you communicate feel comfortable, especially when dealing with a foreigner. Remember that the goal is for people to feel comfortable communicating with you, for you to communicate the way Chinese expect people to communicate.
Here is an interesting thing. In one city called “Ningbo” 宁波, its familiar terms outside the family is “laoshi” 老师 (teacher.) It is the same meaning of “师傅.” Can you believe everywhere is full of “teachers” in Ningbo. lol
Well that sounds like a life long task, but as the author pointed out worth the effort. Plus I think it’s very interesting that these cultural structures are so old that they’ve been build into the language like this. And more to that point I wonder how that will change over the next century.