How to Address a Chinese

How to address a Chinese

How to address a Chinese is a complicated matter, even for a Chinese, let alone when you are a foreigner in China.

Cultural Influence on How Chinese Address Each Other

There are many factors that differentiate Chinese ways to address a person from that of the West, and here are some major ones:

Family Lineage

As Chinese culture pays more attention to family lineage, the way to address each other within family and extended family linked by blood or marriage is far more elaborate comparing to that in the Western culture.

Community Bound

As Chinese culture values community bound far more highly than the Western culture, how Chinese greet each other within Chinese society often reverberates how they do within an extended family.

Traditionally, Chinese would call an old man grandpa or older uncle (老大爷,大爷,老伯伯), and old woman grandma or older aunt (老奶奶,老大娘,大妈), a middle aged man uncle (大叔,爷叔), and middle aged woman aunt (阿姨), a young man brother (大哥,兄弟), a young woman sister (大姐,大妹子), a young boy little brother (小弟弟) and a young girl little sister (小妹妹), no matter if they were neighbours, friends or total strangers.

During the early years of CCP revolution, an endeavour to promote grassroots democracy and equal relationship between members in the society was taken place, and the ordinary workers were well respected, thus “comrade” (同志) became a universal term to address all adults in China, regardless gender, age and social position. Later, especially since the 1970s, term “master” (师傅) started gaining more popularity which is also genderless.

Nowadays, no one uses “comrade” to greet others in daily life, and “master” is only used when addressing an unrelated person such as someone on the street or at a store. In the meanwhile, uncle, aunt, brother and sister are back in fashion again.

Dressing Up

In the recent decade or so, the term “teacher” becomes quite popular, which can be used to address virtually any public figure or respected person (real or fake). Say you meet a pop singer 吴声 (Wu Sheng), you will then be expected to call her “吴老师” (Wu Teacher) even you know she has barely finished her junior high.

Surname Name and Personal Name

A typical Chinese name consists of three Chinese characters: the first is the surname (on rare occasions a surname could have two characters), the second and the third are the personal name (some Chinese only use one character for the personal name).

Chinese do not change their surname during the entire lifetime, even when a woman gets married. So when a granny is called 黄阿姨 (Huang Aunt), do not assume her husband’s surname is 黄.

Generally speaking, a Chinese will be addressed in full name on official occasions, which include at school. The classmates usually greet each other with full name because that is how a teacher addresses her students.

At workplace, Chinese are normally address each other in two ways: 1) surname plus job title – for instant engineer (工程师) 刘北 (Liu Bei) will be called 刘工 (Liu Engineer); 2) age group plus surname – if a person has no job title, or people are quite familiar with each other. For instance, 刘北 and Adam work on a same project for months and become friends, then the latter may addresses the former 小刘 (Young Liu) or 老刘 (Old Liu).

A Chinese’s personal name is more often used between family members, relatives and close friends.

It is important to remember that a junior must never address his senior with personal name, such as children to parents and older siblings, students to teachers, and subdominants to bosses.

On the other hand the seniors within a family typically call their juniors with personal name or even pet name. But a teacher will always address her students with full name (to reinforce her authority), and a boss usually greets his staff either with surname (more intimate) or full name (more formal).

Examples of How to Address a Chinese

Say you do business with a Chinese businessman 张东 (Zhang Dong), you need to deal with Chinese government official 李南 (Li Nan), you study Chinese language from a female teacher 王西 (Wang Xi), you have a Chinese friend 刘北 (Liu Bei), and you teach Chinese boy 吴中 (Wu Zhong) how to play Guitar.

The following are some examples.

When You Address Your Business Associate

In Traditional and Formal Written Form

When you addresses your business associate 张东: 张先生 (Mr Zhang), 张总 (Zhang Chief, or Zhang + other position title), 您 (a respectful term for you).

When self address: 我 (I), 本人 (I, very formal), 敝人 (I, extremely formal and humble but quite old fashioned).

In Oral and Casual Written Form

When you greet 张东: 张先生 (Mr Zhang),老张 (Old Zhang, if the two become quite familiar with each other), 你 (you).

When self address: 我 (I).

When You Address Your Teacher

In Traditional and Formal Written Form

When you address your language teacher 王西: 王老师 (Teacher Wang),您 (a respectful term for you).

When you address yourself: 我 (I), 学生 (I the student, a bit too formal and slightly old fashioned), 门生 (your student, extremely formal and old fashioned).

In Oral and Casual Written Form

When you greet 王西: 张老师 (Wang Teacher), 你 (you).

When self address: 我 (I).

When You Address Your Student

In Traditional and Formal Written Form

When you address your Guitar student 吴中: 吴中同学 (Wu Zhong the Student), 吴同学 (Wu the student), 你 (you).

When self address: 我 (I).

*同学 originally means the classmates, but now becomes a standard address for anyone studying in school.

In Oral and Casual Written Form

When you greet 吴中: 吴中 (full name), 小吴 (Young Wu, if he is in his late teen or older), 你 (you).

When self address: 我 (I).

When You Address a Government Official

In Traditional and Formal Written Form

When you addresses Chinese bureau chief 李南: 李局长 (Li Bureau Chief), 您 (respectable term for you).

When self address: 我 (I), 本人 (I, very formal), 敝人 (I, extremely formal and humble but quite old fashioned).

In Oral and Casual Written Form

When you greet 李南: 李局长 (Li Bureau Chief), 李总 (Li Chief).

When self address: 我 (I).

* Chief can be used on most occasions when addressee is a government official, business head or owner. It can mean chief of a department, chief of a bureau, chief manager, chief engineer or chief accountant etc..

When You Address Spouses

In Traditional and Formal Written Form

When you mention addressee’s wife: 尊夫人, 您太太 (Your respectable wife).

When you mention addressee’s husband: 尊夫君, 您丈夫 (Your respectable husband).

When you mention your own wife: 我太太 (old fashioned), 我内人 (very old fashioned), 我妻子 (most common, but less formal).

When you mention your own husband: 我丈夫 (my husband).

In Oral and Casual Written Form

When you greet 张东’s wife 杨惜惜: 杨女士 (Yang Lady, if you’re not familiar with her), 小杨 (Little Yang, if she’s young), 惜惜 (first name, if you are introduced with her first name by her husband).

When you mention 杨惜惜 to 张东: 你太太 (your wife), 你妻子(your wife).

When you mention 张东 to 杨惜惜: 你丈夫 (your husband), 你先生 (your husband).

When you mention your own wife: 我妻子 (my wife), 我太太 (my wife).

When you mention your own husband: 我丈夫 (my husband).

Lately the term 老公 (husband), 老婆 (wife) become very popular in China, particularly among young couples. But they have a touch of vulgarness.

When You Address Grandparents

In Traditional and Formal Written Form

When you mention 张东’s grandparents to 张东: 令祖父 (your paternal grandfather), 令祖母 (your paternal grandmother), 令外祖父 (your maternal grandfather), 令外祖母 (your maternal grandmother), 令先祖父 (your late paternal grandfather), 令先祖母 (your late paternal grandmother), 令先外祖父 (your late maternal grandfather), 令先外祖母 (your late maternal grandmother).

When you mention your own grandparents: 家祖父 (my paternal grandfather), 家祖母 (my paternal grandfather), 家外祖父 (my maternal grandfather), 家外祖母 (my maternal grandmother), 先祖父 (my late paternal grandfather), 先祖母 (my late paternal grandfather), 先外祖父 (my late maternal grandfather), 先外祖母 (my late maternal grandmother).

** 令 means “your respected”, 家 means “my family”, 先 means “deceased”.

In Oral and Casual Written Form

When you greet 张东’s grandparents: 张爷爷 (Zhang’s Paternal Grandpa), 张奶奶 (Zhang’s Maternal Grandma), 张外公 (Zhang’s Maternal Grandpa), 张外婆 (Zhang’s grandma), or just 老爷爷 (Old Grandpa), 老奶奶 (Old Grandma).

When you mention 张东’s grandparents to 张东: 你爷爷 (your paternal grandpa), 你奶奶 (your paternal grandma) , 你外公 (your maternal grandpa), 你外婆 (your maternal grandma).

When you mention your own grandparents: 我爷爷 (my paternal grandpa), 我奶奶 (my paternal grandma), 我外公 (my maternal grandpa), 我外婆 (my maternal grandma).

When You Address Parents

In Traditional and Formal Written Form

When you mention 张东’s parents to 张东: 令尊 (your respectable father),  令堂 (your respectable mother).

When your mention your own parents: 家父 (my father), 家母 (my mother), 家严 (my father, more formal but archaic), 家慈 (my mother, more formal but archaic).

*** 尊 means revered, 堂 originally means hall, here indicates the central position of a mother in the family, 严 originally means stern, here implies father’s rule holder status in the eye of his offspring, 慈 originally means tender-hearted, here suggests a mother’s general attitudes towards her children.

In Oral and Casual Written Form

When you greet your friend 刘北’s parents: 大伯 (Older Uncle, if you think 刘北’s father is older than your own father) 大叔 (Younger Uncle, if you think 刘北’s father is younger than your own father), 阿姨 (aunt) or 大妈 (big mama, mostly used in northern China, especially in rural areas, now less popular).

When you mention government official 李南’s parents: 你父亲 (your father, a bit formal), 你母亲 (your mother, a bit formal).

When you mention your colleague 刘北’s parents: 你爸 (your dad), 你妈 (your mom).

When you mention your own parents to 李南 or other seniors/juniors: 我父亲 (my father), 我母亲 (my mother).

When you mention your own parents to 刘北 or other friends: 我爸 (my dad), 我妈 (my mom).

When You Address Siblings

In Traditional and Formal Written Form

When you mention 张东’s siblings: 令兄 (Your old brother), 令姐 (your old sister), 令弟 (your younger brother), 令妹 (your younger sister).

When you mention your own siblings: 家兄 (my older brother), 家姐 (my old sister), 舍弟 (my younger brother), 舍妹 (my younger sister).

****舍 originally means a dwelling, a less formal term for family.

In Oral and Casual Written Form

When you greet 张东’s siblings: 张大哥 (Zhang’s Older Brother); 小张 (Young Zhang), or his personal name (in this case, he must be younger than 张东); 姐姐 (Older Sister), 小张 (Younger Zhang), or her first name (in this case she must be younger than 张东).

When you mention 张东’s sibling: 你哥哥 (your older brother), 你姐姐 (your older sister), 你弟弟 (your younger brother), 你妹妹 (your younger sister).

When you mention your own siblings: 我哥哥 (my older brother), 我姐姐 (my older sister), 我弟弟 (my younger brother), 我妹妹 (my younger sister).

When You Address Juniors

In Traditional and Formal Written Form

When you mention 张东’s juniors: 令郎 (your son), 令爱 (your daughter).

When you mention your own juniors: 小儿 (my son), 小女 (my daughter).

In Oral and Casual Written Form

When you greet 张东’s children:小张(Young Zhang, if they are grownups), or personal name. 小弟弟 (little brother, If he’s a little boy), 小妹妹 (little sister, if he’s a little girl), or personal name, petname.

When you mention 张东’s children: 你儿子 (your son), 你女儿 (your daughter).

When you mention your own children: 我儿子 (my son), 我女儿 (my daughter).

When You Address Relatives

In Traditional and Formal Written Form

When you mention 张东’s relatives:

令伯 (your father’s older brother), 令叔 (your father’s younger brother), 令婶 (the husband of your father’s brother), 令姑母 (your father’s sister), 令姑父 (the husband of your father’s sister), 令舅父 (your mother’s brother), 令舅母 (the wife of your mother’s brother), 令姨母 (your mother’s sister), 令姨父 (the husband of your mother’s sister).

令嫂 (the wife of your older brother) , 令姐夫 (the husband of your older sister), 令弟妹 (the wife of your younger sister), 令妹夫 (the husband of your younger sister).

令堂兄(your old paternal male cousin), 令堂姐(your older paternal female cousin), 令堂弟(your younger paternal male cousin),  令堂妹 (your younger paternal female cousin), 令表哥 (your older maternal male cousin), 令表姐 (your older maternal female cousin), 令表弟 (your younger maternal male cousin), 令表妹 (your younger maternal female cousin).

令媳 (your daughter-in-law) 令婿 (your son-in-law), 令侄 (your brother’s son), 令侄女 (your brother’s daughter), 令甥 (your sister’s son), 令甥女 (your sister’s daughter).

令岳父 (your wife’s father), 令岳母 (your wife’s mother), 令大舅 (your wife’s older brother), 令小舅 (your wife’s younger brother), 令大姨 (your wife’s older sister), 令小姨 (your wife’s younger sister), 令亲家 (your wife’s parents).

When you mention 王西’s relatives: 

令公翁 (your husband’s father), 令婆母 (your husband’s mother), 令大伯 (your husband’s older brother ), 令小叔 (your husband’s younger brother), 令大姑 (your husband’s older sister), 令小姑 (your husband’s younger sister), 令亲家 (your husband’s parents).

When you mention your own relatives:

家伯 (My father’s older brother), 家叔 (your father’s younger brother), 家伯母家婶母 (the husband of your father’s brother), 家姑母 (your father’s sister), 家姑父 (the husband of your father’s sister), 家舅父 (your mother’s brother), 家舅母 (the wife of your mother’s brother), 家姨母 (your mother’s sister), 家姨父 (the husband of your mother’s sister).

家嫂 (my older brother’s wife) , 家姐夫 (my older sister’s husband), 舍弟妹 (my younger brother’s wife), 舍妹夫 (my younger sister’s husband), 家堂兄(my older paternal female cousin), 家堂姐(my older paternal female cousin), 舍堂弟(my younger paternal male cousin), 舍堂妹 (my younger paternal female cousin), 敝表兄 (my older maternal male cousin), 敝表姐 (my older maternal female cousin), 敝表弟 (my younger maternal male cousin), 敝表妹 (my younger maternal female cousin).

小媳 (my daughter-in-law) , 小婿 (my son-in-law), 舍侄 (my brother’s son), 舍侄女 (my brother’s daughter), 舍甥 (my sister’s son), 舍甥女 (my sister’s daughter).

家岳父 (my wife’s father), 家岳母 (my wife’s mother), 家翁公 (my husband’s father), 家婆母 (my husband’s mother), 敝内兄 (my wife’s older brother), 敝内弟 (my wife’s younger brother), 敝小姨 (my wife’ sister),家大伯 (my husband’s older brother ), 舍小叔 (my husband’s younger brother), 家姑 (my husband’s sister, 敝亲家 (my spouse’s parents).

In Oral and Casual Written Form

When you mention 张东’s relatives:

你大伯 (your father’s older brother), 你叔叔 (your father’s younger brother), 你婶婶 (the husband of your father’s brother), 你姑妈 (your father’s sister), 你姑父 (the husband of your father’s sister), 你舅舅 (your mother’s brother), 你舅妈 (the wife of your mother’s brother), 你阿姨 (your mother’s sister), 令姨父 (the husband of your mother’s sister).

你嫂子 (the wife of your older brother), 你姐夫 (the husband of your older sister), 你妹夫 (the husband of your younger sister).

你堂兄(your old paternal female cousin), 你堂弟(your younger paternal male cousin), 你堂姐(your older paternal female cousin), 你堂妹 (your younger paternal female cousin), 你表哥 (your older maternal male cousin), 你表姐 (your older maternal female cousin), 你表弟 (your younger maternal male cousin), 你表妹 (your younger maternal female cousin).

你儿媳 (your daughter-in-law) 你女婿 (your son-in-law), 你侄子 (your brother’s son), 你侄女 (your brother’s daughter) 你外甥 (your sister’s son), 你外甥女 (your sister’s daughter).

你岳父 (your wife’s father), 你岳母 (your wife’s mother), 你大舅子 (your wife’s older brother), 你小舅子 (your wife’s younger brother), 你大姨子 (your wife’s older sister), 你小姨子 (your wife’s younger sister), 你亲家 (the parents of your wife/husband).

When you mention 王西’s relatives:

你公公 (your husband’s father), 你婆婆 (your husband’s mother, 你大伯 (your husband’s older brother ), 你小叔 (your husband’s younger brother), 你大姑 (your husband’s older sister) 你小姑 (your husband’s younger sister), 你亲家 (the parents of your wife/husband).

When you mention your own relatives:

我伯伯 (my father’s older brother), 我叔叔 (my father’s younger brother), 我伯母 (the wife of my father’s older brother), 我婶娘 (the husband of my father’s younger brother), 我姑妈 (my father’s sister), 我姑父 (the husband of my father’s sister), 我舅舅 (my mother’s brother), 我舅妈 (the wife of my mother’s brother), 我姨妈 (my mother’s sister), 我姨父 (the husband of my mother’s sister).

我嫂子 (my older brother’s wife), 我姐夫 (my older sister’s husband), 我弟媳 (my younger brother’s wife), 我妹夫 (my younger sister’s husband), 我堂哥 (my old paternal male cousin), 我堂姐 (my older paternal female cousin), 我堂弟 (my younger paternal male cousin),  我堂妹 (my younger paternal female cousin), 我表哥 (my older maternal male cousin), 我表姐 (my older maternal female cousin), 我表弟 (my younger maternal male cousin), 我表妹 (my younger maternal female cousin).

我儿媳妇 (my daughter-in-law), 我女婿 (my son-in-law), 我侄子, (my brother’s son), 我侄女(my brother’s daughter), 我外甥 (my sister’s son), 我外甥女 (my sister’s daughter), 我岳父 (my wife’s father), 我岳母 (my wife’s mother), 我公公 (my husband’s father), 我婆婆 (my husband’s mother), 我大舅子 (my wife’s older brother), 我小舅子 (my wife’s younger brother), 我小姨子 (my wife’ sister), 我大伯 (my husband’s older brother ), 我小叔 (my husband’s younger brother), 我大姑 (my husband’s older sister),我小姑 (my husband’s younger sister), 我亲家 (my wife/husband’s parents).

 

21 comments

  • If a Chinese person introduces themselves to you using an English name, even if they are in a very similar position, then normally this is an invitation to bypass all of the formalities in Chinese, and you shouldn t feel uncomfortable about just using the English name. Later on, if you don t know their Chinese name, you can always ask somebody else at a later time.

  • BMarie

    Wow! You are doing a great service to bridge the gap between western and eastern language barriers (or at least for English speakers interested in Chinese!). What an excellent, rich resource for anyone learning Chinese! It would be great to include a recording of the pronunciation too if possible?! Good work!

  • Cj

    Hi Awen (and friends),

    This is probable the most interesting niche I have read about. This is not something I will use everyday, but is definitely very helpful for when you will be going to China. The fact that you put the English word next to the Chinese one helps a lot and this way it is much easier to learn the language.

    Really enjoyed reading your post

    • Awen

      Thanks Cj, it’s great if it can be a little help. Best wishes for your happy trip to China when you go 🙂

      • Dhanya

        Nice article.When I was about 11, I had a family tree school assignment which was soon followed by interviewing my three living grandparents. I gathered names, dates, and places. They volunteered a bit more, but I didn’t write down everything and I didn’t think to record them.

        When I got back to genealogy as an adult, I still had the data that I had written down from that time.

        So even though I did get an early start with three grandparents, I didn’t know the rules. I didn’t record them, didn’t ask the right questions, and didn’t write down every word they spoke. (I know my grandmother told me an uncle changed the name. She didn’t know which person that uncle was, but I’m certain she told me the name. Frustrating not to remember or have written it down!)

        Still, it was a good start and a lot more information than my parents could have ever provided. It’s a good thing some of my grandparents’ siblings were still around and I got to talk to them. Have you looked up your great-uncles and great-aunts?

        • Awen

          Yes, Dhanya, how complicated the way of addressing each other between family members do reflect how important a culture view the bonds within family.

          Thanks for sharing your personal experience 🙂

  • Frank

    I love all the examples you give in this post. it’s like “the fools guide to greetings in Chinese”! it seems like such a practical language, you address each other by full name and/or job title. in the beginning you mentioned the CCP revolution and I’m not sure what that is or what it means. could you expand on that a little?

    • Awen

      Yes Frank. The CCP revolution originally aimed to establish a society that respects working class people and view all jobs as being an essential part to the wellness of the nation, therefore everyone was considered as equal and working for a common goal, which is why they addressed each other either as comrade or master.

      But of course now in China money rules everything so no longer has comrades :D, but master, to some extend, stays.

      Thanks a lot for your wonderful comment Frank. 🙂

  • bow

    Never knew there can be so many different ways to address family members and relatives. Interesting.

  • gdy

    The general description is most useful, but the second half regarding relatives are too confusion. I may just stick to general part lol.

    • Awen

      Yes, to make things worse, the ways to address family members and relatives differ from region to region. For instance, many people in China like to address President Xi Jinping as “Dada”, which in his native province Shaanxi may mean older uncle, but in some other part of China could mean father (LOL). And during the Ming Dynasty, “dada” was also used as an intimate address for husband by a lesser wife (concubine). If you read Chinese classical novel Golden Plum (in original Chinese version), you’ll notice Golden Plum, the temptress, called her man “Dada”.

  • dorito

    I enjoy this article.
    It’s practical and helpful to regular China visitors like me.

  • doritos

    Very useful information. I experienced some problems when I was in China last year, I didn’t know how to address them property even though I can speak reasonable Chinese ..

    • Awen

      The truth is nowadays many native Chinese also don’t know how to address each other properly. Glad it helps.

  • melanie

    Oh that’s very handy, next time when I go to China again I will know how to surprise them. haha..

  • beachastuce

    This will definitely help when I visit China which I’m planning to do with my family in near future? Thanks for sharing.

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