I never really liked being referred to as “ma’am.”
It always makes me feel old.
Although it sure beats hearing people shout “lady” to get my attention. It might not be rude in every culture, but it definitely isn’t polite in my book!
When it comes to learning Chinese, it’s vital that you take the time to figure out what’s okay and what’s not okay to call strangers and acquaintances.
The last thing you want to do is accidentally offend someone, either by addressing them with a title too formal or too casual.
In China, honorifics play a huge role in society, so if you really want to reach a high level of fluency (or simply sound more natural), you need to start incorporating them into your daily language practice.
Exactly How Important Are Chinese Honorifics?
Just like in English, Chinese people also refer to each other with Chinese pronouns, like “you,” “he/she,” “we” and “they.”
But that’s not always the case, and there are many situations where using these pronouns is simply unnatural, unnecessary or just flat-out rude.
The last thing you want to do is offend someone.
And when in Rome, do as the Romans do, right?
In many circumstances, the “Romans” (or in this case, Chinese speakers) use honorifics instead of pronouns.
Honorifics are deeply embedded into the culture, first manifesting in Imperial China when it was used by non-royals to address their superiors. While linguistic politeness has evolved over time, honorifics are still prevalent in Chinese today for many reasons.
But just how important are honorifics, and why do Chinese people use them so often?
They’re a Polite Way to Address Strangers, Acquaintances and Colleagues
Similar to other East Asian counterparts, Chinese people place high social value on strangers. It heavily relates to the concept of maintaining face, which involves showing respect to the people you encounter on a day-to-day basis, from that stranger you bumped into on the subway to a new colleague at work.
They’re a Way to Recognize Professionals
Whether you want to politely address your cab driver or speak to the owner of an establishment, it’s important that you talk to people with humility and respect, especially towards those who are serving you in some sort of way.
They’re a Sign of Respect for the Elderly
In many Asian cultures, elders are considered respected members of society who have helped shape the current and continue to shape the future generation. Even if you know their name, it’s considered impolite to address elders outside of their appropriate honorifics, which we’ll discuss later on.
They’re a Way to Show Affection to Loved Ones
There are lots of ways that native speakers show their love without saying, “I love you.” They do so with actions, terms of endearment and you guessed it—honorific substitutes. While these family terms do indicate rank in the family, certain honorific prefixes also signify closeness in the relationship, to show how they’re all near and dear to each other’s hearts.
30+ Must-know Chinese Honorifics for Being Polite Like a Pro
Now let’s move on to those Chinese honorifics so we can improve your linguistic fluency, as well as help you become more respectful of Chinese culture!
Chinese Honorifics for General Titles
Just like how you might address others as “Sir” or “Ma’am” if you don’t know the other person’s name, Chinese speakers also use similar titles when speaking to strangers.
先生 (xiānshēng) — Sir
夫人 (fūrén) — Madam
If you know the person’s last name, you could address them by their surname + their appropriate title.
先生 also translates to “Mr.,” but the correct way of addressing someone in Chinese with the last name of 李 (lǐ) would be 李先生 (lǐ xiānsheng).
Addressing the ladies, on the other hand, is not as straightforward.
Unmarried women would carry the title “Miss” or 小姐 (xiǎojiě), thus someone with the last name 张 (zhāng) would be referred to as 张小姐 (zhāng xiǎojiě). One thing to note is that the term 小姐 on its own is slang for “prostitute” in some parts of China. It’s also sometimes used to call a restaurant waitress, though it’s best to err on the side of caution.
Because it’s not common practice to take the husband’s last name in China, the Chinese version of “Ms.,” which is 女士 (nǚshì), actually refers to a married woman that uses her maiden name. So if her maiden name is 陈 (chén), you could call her 陈女士 (chén nǚshì). 女士 is sometimes used to refer to older single women, so whenever you’re in doubt, go with that title.
Now if the woman you want to address is married and has taken her husband’s last name, you could refer to her in one of two ways:
太太 (tàitai) — Mrs. (informal)
夫人 (fūrén) — Mrs. (formal)
太太 (tàitai) is used in personal relations. So in casual, everyday situations, you would say 李太太 (lǐ tàitai) when referring to Mrs. Li in Chinese. In formal or business contexts, you would address her as 李夫人 (lǐ fūrén).
Chinese Honorifics for Family Members
You might know all the vocab for different members of the family, and might’ve even mastered the family introductions in Chinese. However, depending on who you are in the family, or whether you’re referring to your own household or someone else’s, the name or title of each member can vary.
Sounds a little complicated, I know. Just think of it like having pet names for your loved ones. You might call your partner “baby,” but you wouldn’t necessarily refer to him or her as “baby” when you’re speaking to others, especially with acquaintances or someone like your boss.
Talking Among Family Members
As previously mentioned, honorifics are sometimes used among family members to show not just rank but also affection among one another, and they’ll do so by using a certain prefix + position in the household.
As a respectful way to address your parents, you could use the prefix 老 (lǎo), which in this instance means “elder” rather than “old.”
老妈 (lǎo mā) — Mom
老爸 (lǎo bà) — Dad
Another prefix family members may use is 阿 (ā), meaning “to flatter.” It’s commonly used with grandparents. “Grandma” would be 阿婆 (āpó) and “Grandpa” would be 阿公 (āgōng). You can also use this prefix with other family members.
To differentiate between siblings, the prefix 大 (dà) meaning “big” may be used for the oldest brother or sister, as seen below.
大姐 (dàjiě) — Big/Oldest sister
大哥 (dàgē) — Big/Oldest brother
As for the youngest siblings, the prefix 小 (xiǎo) meaning “small” or “young” can be added to the terms for little brother and sister.
小妹 (xiǎo mèi) — Little/Youngest sister
小弟 (xiǎodì) — Little/Youngest brother
Referring to Your Family with Others
Normally when talking about your family members with others, the common family terms are fine to use. But a polite way to refer to older family members and relatives would be to use the prefix 家 (jiā), which translates to “home.” Though as a prefix, it manifests as the possessive pronoun “my.”
家母 (jiāmǔ) — My mother
家父 (jiāfù) — My father
家姐 (jiājiě) — My older sister
家兄 (jiāxiōng) — My older brother
Do note that these are formal titles, and that it’s perfectly acceptable to use common family terms, introducing your father as 我爸爸 (wǒ bàba) and your mother as 我妈妈 (wǒ māma), as indicated in the dialogue below.
In this conversation, a man introduces his family members by saying 我 (wǒ) rather than 家 to say “my.” To learn more about the vocab and grammar in the video, the clip is also available on FluentU, complete with audio transcription and interactive subtitles.
Rather than studying from a textbook, the platform immerses you in real-life scenarios to get you speaking more naturally, whether you’re just a beginner and can only introduce your mom as 我妈妈 or more advanced in Mandarin and refer to your mother as 家母.
Talking About Someone Else’s Family
Now if you’re speaking about someone else’s family and want to acknowledge them politely, you could use 令 (lìng), which ordinarily means “to command” but translates as “your” when used as an honorific prefix. These terms are all quite formal but are still used in contemporary speech.
令堂 (lìngtáng) — Your mother
令尊 (lìngzūn) — Your father
令爱 (lìng ài) — Your daughter
令郎 (lìngláng) — Your son
Another way to say “your son” is 贤郎 (xiánláng), which literally means “young, virtuous man.” This can be used when talking about a friend’s son.
If you don’t know the person you’re speaking to very well, you have the option to use the formal prefix 贵 (guì), normally meaning “expensive” but translates to “your” when used as an honorific.
贵家长 (guì jiāzhǎng) — Your parents
贵夫人 (guì fūren) — Your wife
贵丈夫 (guì zhàngfū) — Your husband
贵子女 (guì zǐnǚ) — Your children
贵子弟 (guì zǐdì) — Your sons
Chinese Honorifics for the Elderly
Most of the time, people address their elders according to their familial relationship and not by their name. For elder family friends, you could call them by their surname + 叔叔 (shūshu) or 阿姨 (āyí), meaning “Uncle” and “Auntie” respectively. If you’re addressing other people’s parents that are around the same age as your parents, you may also refer to them as 叔叔 or 阿姨. You can use those titles with strangers as well, so long as they’re close to your parents’ age.
If the elders in question aren’t necessarily seniors but just a bit older than you, you can call them 大哥 (dàgē) for “big brother” and 大姐 (dàjiě) for “big sister,” even if you aren’t related.
General titles like 先生 (xiānsheng) for “sir” or 夫人 (fūrén) for “ma’am” are fine as well if they’re close to your age. If you know their occupation, you may use the honorifics in the next section.
Chinese Honorifics for Professionals
In the Workplace
If you’re speaking to someone in the workplace that you don’t know well, may that be a subordinate or boss, feel free to use the format of surname + appropriate general title, as shared above.
For colleagues that share the same last name, a respectful way to differentiate between them would be to use the prefixes 小 and 大 + surname to indicate who is younger and who is older. For example, two coworkers with the last name of 王 (wáng) would be called 小王 (xiǎo wáng) and 大王 (dà wáng). The older coworker could be even called 老王 (lǎo wáng) as an indication of seniority.
To address your boss, you can call him or her by the surname + 总 (zǒng), which is also the term for “chief.” So Mr. Huang or would be 黄总 (huáng zǒng).
Professional titles are also a respectful way to address the people you interact with on a daily basis. Here are some other common occupational honorifics:
老师 (lǎoshī) — Teacher, old master, an educator of sorts
师傅 (shī fu) — Master/qualified worker, i.e. tailor, taxi driver
服务员 (fúwùyuán) — Waiter, waitress, attendant
老板 (lǎobǎn) — Boss (informal), manager, proprietor
大夫 (dàifu) — Doctor, physician
Wow. That was a ton of honorifics to get through! With these new Chinese honorifics under your belt, you’ll be able to show respect to native speakers like a native yourself.
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