More on Terms of Address

The owner of a small restaurant

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.

Familial Terms

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.

How do you address someone in China?

This may seem like a rather simple question, but it is important, and differs from how we address people in the US. In China, hierarchy is an important part of social interactions. That is, who you are and your position in relation to others determines to a large extent how you address them. This is why, in China, that individuals will always exchange business cards when first meet so they know how to address each other.

Terms of address, or how you address someone, depends on your level of familiarity with the person and the formality of the occasion.  Below I describe various ways to address people.

1. Surname + title

This is the most formal, and safest way to address someone. In Chinese, surnames always come first. This kind of address is appropriate in all formal occasions and whenever you are addressing someone in a position superior to your own or to someone older than you. For example, if you are a student, and your teacher has the surname 王 wáng, you would address her as:

王老师 wáng lǎoshī          Teacher Wang

Or if your boss is a manager, and is surnamed Zhang 张 zhāng, you would address him as:

张经理 zhāng jīnglǐ            Manager Zhang

2. Full name (姓名 xìngmíng)

Unlike in the US, it is very common to address a person by their full name. It does not sound strange at all. Even people that know each other well, may address each other by their full names if they are in a more formal setting. Husbands and wives will even use their full names with each other when they are in public. This term of address is common in the workplace among colleagues, as well as at school with Chinese classmates.

You will most likely use these two terms of address with the vast majority of your Chinese contacts.

3. Given name (名字 míngzi)

You have to know someone pretty well to be on a first name basis. This is quite different from the US where you can meet someone for the very first time and refer to them by their given or first name. In China it takes quite a long time to get to the familiarity level to call someone by their given name. This term of address is reserved for in-group individuals, such as friends, classmates, and co-workers that have a similar social status as you.

4. Nickname

Just as in the US, nicknames are reserved for those with whom you are very familiar, such as family members, close friends, and close colleagues. Nicknames in Chinese are often given based on physical characteristics, or personality traits. These kinds of nicknames are called 绰号 chuòhào or the more colloquial term 外号 wàihào. Here are some examples of these kinds of nicknames:

小胖 xiǎo pàng             “little fatty” for the chubby person

四眼王 sìyán wáng      “four eyes Wang” for the guy that wears glasses

书呆子  shūdāizi          “bookworm” for the person that always has their nose in a book

A Chinese associate of mine explained to me that her nickname among her friends growing up was 老五 lǎowǔ. This name came about because she had four close girlfriends and she was the youngest. In Northern Mandarin 老 lǎo refers to the youngest member of a group. Since she was the youngest of the five, they used this nickname. You could also use this term for a relative. For example, if you had three uncles, you might refer to the youngest as 老舅lǎojiù or your youngest aunt as 老姨 lǎoyí.

Some nicknames are terms of endearment, and are often a variation of a person’s name and are called 昵称 nìchēng in Chinese. I had a friend who was a bit older than her group of friends so they gave her the nickname, 姐姐 jiějie, “older sister” and called her 冯姐姐 féng jiějie(her surname was Feng). Another friend was named 吴小琪 wú xiǎoqí and her parents and grandparents called her 琪琪 qíqí.

You are quite safe addressing Chinese with surname + title or by their full name. Be careful about using given names or nicknames. Relationships in China form and develop much slower than in the US and it may take quite a bit of time to get on those very familiar terms with someone.

One final note: in the US you will undoubtedly meet Chinese who will introduce themselves with their given name, either their Chinese given name or an English name. What do you call them? The rule I generally use, is that if you are speaking Chinese with them, I go by the Chinese practice of calling them by their surname and title or by their full name. If you are speaking English with them, and they have an English name, go ahead and use the English name. If they do not have an English name, I am uncomfortable calling most Chinese by their given name, even if we are speaking English.