Addressing People through Courtesy Titles- “Surname + Title”

Once you have mastered this unit, you will be able to use several titles to address people appropriately.

Using people’s entire names is a basic way to address people. However, sometimes it is not proper for social activities because it is too direct and even rude. Now, we are going to introduce a solution —“Surname + Title,” in which family names precede the official title or other forms of address.

Chinese titles function as nouns and are placed after a person’s surname — the opposite order from English. Titles are also sometimes used alone, without any surname. Such usage is considered especially respectful. These forms of address vary according to the age and preference of the speaker as well as the status or relation of the person spoken to, and usage has very much been in flux. Once you have mastered this unit, you will be able to use several titles to address people appropriately. Here are some examples of courtesy titles introduced in this unit:

Xiānsheng (/xiānshēng) vs. xiǎojiě
(Mr./sir/husband/teacher vs. Miss/Ms./young lady)

Xiānsheng (generally pronounced “xiānshēng” in Taiwan) is a polite way to address a man, like Mister (Mr.); *xiǎojiě is for addressing a lady politely, like Miss, Mrs. or Ms. When addressing strangers, it is proper to say xiānsheng or xiǎojiě following their family names or on its own. Although you can address the other party with their profession, like yīshēng (doctor), jǐngchá (police), etc., xiānsheng and xiǎojiě are the preferred terms of address in almost all contexts for adults.

Referring to the term xiǎojiě, it is commonly used in Taiwan and Hong Kong as a term of address. In addition, xiǎojiě doesn’t necessarily refer only to unmarried women; another general term used to refer to married women specifically is tàitai (wife or Mrs.). Because xiǎojiě used to have a bourgeois connotation, this title was for political reasons seldom used in China from 1949 until the 1980s. Now it is once again common in larger cities in China. However, in some parts of China, it sometimes is used to refer to prostitutes. Therefore, learners have to carefully observe actual usage and follow suit.

*Note that the term xiǎojiě is a word with two third-tone syllables. The tone sandhi rule applies, thus making the first third tone, xiǎo, a second tone, so that the proper pronunciation is “xiáojiě.” The second syllable, jiě, can also be pronounced in the neutral tone, yielding “xiáojie.”

shúshu vs. āyí
(uncle vs. aunt)
How do you address a man or woman to whom you are not related, but with whom you want to indicate the relationship is closer, for example when you go to a friend’s house to attend a party or visit them and meet their family members? If the person is about the age of your parents, you can call him or her shúshu or āyí. These two terms literally mean uncle and aunt respectively; here, they are like “Mr.” and “Miss/Ms.” in English. You can also address him or her as bóbo (/bófù) or bómǔ when the person looks older than your parents. But, no matter how old the person is the former expression is sure to be more meaningful. And these respectful forms of address can be used even toward strangers.

dàgē vs. dàjiě
(eldest brother/gang leader/boss vs. eldest sister)

Literally, dàgē and dàjiě are used to address the eldest brother and sister in a family. (Èrgē and èrjiě are used to address the second eldest one.) However, both can be used in some social situations. For example, when you are visiting your clients, or you are working at your office, dàgē or dàjiě are polite forms of address for a man or a woman who is somewhat older, especially when the relationship is not so formal, or you want to render it so.

* Note that in Mandarin Chinese, people often do not include the family name alone when addressing each other, but instead merely use the first name. However, have you noticed the form of address “Xiǎo Xiè” in the video for this unit? Adding the prefix xiǎo (small, little) or lǎo (old) to a family name is a familiar and affectionate form of address for men and women whom you know well, of course including friends. Xiǎo is used for people who are younger than or about the same age as the speaker, as in Xiǎo Wáng (Little Wang), while lǎo is used for people who are older than oneself, like Lǎo Wáng (Old Wang). However, such terms are rarely used to address a relative or a superior, and are commonly used together in informal, colloquial conversation to address people or to refer to them. These terms are especially common in China, where they are used for women as well as men; in other Chinese-speaking areas they are used less often, and usually for men only. It is best for non-native speakers not to use these terms until invited to do so by native speakers.

lǎoshī vs. tóngxué
(teacher/professor vs. classmate/schoolmate/fellow student)

Lǎoshī is both the word for “teacher” and the title for someone who is a teacher. In English, when speaking to a teacher named Chen, in ordinary American usage we would say “Mr./Mrs./Ms. Chen, …” or “Professor Chen, …” As noted above, in Mandarin Chinese a title always follows the family name, and one would say “Chén lǎoshī ……”. Furthermore, if only one teacher is present, it is considered more respectful to use the title without the surname, i.e. “lǎoshī ……”. In Chinese culture, the position of teachers in Chinese society is higher than in American society. Therefore, always address your Chinese teachers as lǎoshī or nín deferentially. Don’t use the pronoun and never address them by their given name.

By the way, most recently, lǎoshī has come to be used as a respectful form of address for people in the arts (such as actors, writers, painters, etc.) on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, regardless of whether they teach professionally.

Just as, unlike “Professor,” “Teacher” (as in “Teacher Smith”) is never used in English, it would be strange for a teacher to call someone “student/classmate Gao” by a teacher in English. But in Chinese this is the expected form of address.Tóngxué refers to students who are (or at some point in the past were) in the same class or school as you. This term can also be used by a principal, teacher, or guest speaker when addressing students — even though the students are not their classmates.

Tóngxué can be also be a title and a form of address used in speaking to a student by anyone. In Chinese society, the concept of tóngxué is a long-term relationship. If two people have at one time been tóngxué, even if it was a very long time ago, then the relationship is still ongoing.

Chén (noun): Chen (a Chinese surname)
(adjectival verb): big
(ge) (noun): older brother
jiě(jie) (noun): older sister
Gāo (noun): Gao (a Chinese surname)
hǎo (adjectival verb): fine, good, nice, okay, it’s settled
(noun): Li (a Chinese surname)
(pronoun): you (second person singular)
nín (pronoun): you (a polite expression of “nǐ”)
xiǎo (adjectival verb): small, little
Xiè (noun): Xie (a Chinese surname)
Wáng (noun): Wang (a Chinese surname)

Posted by BOLICC

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