Lovers, Pals, Strangers… Chinese Terms of Endearment for All!
Are you more of a “sweetheart” person, or do you prefer “babe”?
Perhaps you’re into millennial terms like “bae.”
Some cringe at pet names altogether, but hey, to each their own, right?
Regardless of how you feel about them, the special words we use to refer to those closest to us are a simple yet expressive way of showing affection.
So if you’ve developed a friendship (or maybe even a romantic relationship) with a native Mandarin speaker, or if you have Mandarin speakers in your family, why not flatter them with Chinese terms of endearment?
You might not be at a stage where you can give compliments, flirt with locals or even talk about your friends and family in Chinese, but these little words are a nice and easy way to show someone you care about them.
Knowing Chinese terms of endearment will boost your Chinese social skills, and improve your relationships with people who speak Chinese.
Silly Melon! A Charming Guide to Chinese Terms of Endearment
Pet Names for Your S.O.
Let’s start off with Chinese terms of endearment for that special someone in your life. There are quite a few that translate into the English pet names you already know, and there are a couple that are quite strange when translated and require a bit of explanation.
You probably have heard of the terms 宝宝 (bǎo bǎo) and 宝贝 (bǎo bèi), which both translate to “baby.” While “baby” is a common pet name in English, it’s mostly reserved for children and actual babies for Chinese speakers.
Some younger couples may still refer to each other as 宝贝, and some even use the loanword 北鼻 (běi bí).
However, most people instead use some of the following names for their significant other:
妻子 (qī zi) — wife
丈夫 (zhàng fū) — husband
老婆 (lǎo pó) — (informal) wife, wifey
老公 (lǎo gōng) — (informal) husband, hubby
老婆子 (lǎo po zǐ) — (informal) wife, old lady
老头子 (lǎo tóu zi) — (informal) husband, old man
太太 (tài tài) — Missus
先生 (xiān shenɡ) — Mister
爱人 (ài ren) — lover, spouse
情人 (qíng rén) — lover
亲爱的 (qīn ài de) — beloved, dear, darling
甜心 (tián xīn) — sweetheart
女朋友 (nǚ péng yǒu) — girlfriend
男朋友 (nán péng yǒu) — boyfriend
As you can see, lots of these describe married relationships, but these terms are popular among all kinds of couples.
Now on to those uniquely Chinese pet names.
You may have heard couples call each other names—either in public or in Chinese dramas—like 傻瓜 (shǎ guā), which means “fool,” or 笨蛋 (bèn dàn), which means “idiot.”
Obviously, “fool” and “idiot” aren’t exactly names you’d call your S.O. in English. However, it’s easy to see how the Chinese equivalents can actually be used in a playful sense when you break down the terms into their literal meanings.
傻瓜 is “silly melon,” while 笨蛋 is “dumb egg.” They’re kind of cute, if you think about them that way, or about how English speakers might tease each other affectionately with names like “silly” and “dummy.”
A couple, or even close friends, might playfully scold each other like so:
下雨的时候你穿着凉鞋，笨蛋。(xià yǔ de shí hòu nǐ chuān zhe liáng xié, bèndàn.) — You’re wearing sandals when it’s raining, dummy.
Here’s another term of endearment that definitely needs some context: 沉鱼落雁 (chén yú luò yàn) is an idiomatic expression that describes a woman being extremely beautiful, which seems rather disconnected from the literal meaning of “sinking fish, swooping geese.”
You can find the origins of the expression in stories by Taoist author Zhuangzi. One woman named Xi Shi was so beautiful that fish would forget how to swim every time she visited the pond. Wang Zhaojun was another beauty who affected geese, causing them to forget how to flap their wings whenever they were in her presence.
So when “sinking fish” and “swooping geese” are put together, you’re basically comparing someone to the two most gorgeous women in Chinese literature. 沉鱼落雁 can be used as either noun or adjective, in saying someone has this kind of extreme beauty or is just drop dead gorgeous.
You could say:
她有沉鱼落雁之貌和智力。(tā yǒu chén yú luò yàn zhī mào hé zhì lì.) — She has beauty and intelligence.
那演员真沉鱼落雁! (nà yǎn yuán zhēn chén yú luò yàn!) — That actress is insanely gorgeous!
Do you ever address your partner as “my heart and soul” or “my everything”? There’s a Chinese version of that (well, sort of). 心肝 (xīn gān) literally means “heart and liver,” and it’s often reserved for your other half, or the most important people in your life. You can’t live without them, just like you can’t live without those organs.
Monikers for Family Members
Nicknames aren’t just for your partner. Just like how some kids call their fathers “pops” and parents call their kids “sweetie” or “baby,” there are plenty of terms of endearment to go around in Chinese families.
But before we get to those, let’s quickly review names of family members:
妈妈 (mā mā) — Mom
爸爸 (bà ba) — Dad
哥哥 (gē gē) — Older brother
弟弟 (dì dì) — Younger brother
姐姐 (jiě jiě) — Older sister
妹妹 (mèi mei) — Younger sister
爷爷 (yé yé) — Grandpa
奶奶 (nǎi nai) — Grandma
Chinese families rarely call each other by their real names. While children will still refer to their parents and grandparents with the terms above, kids are usually given unique nicknames, often adding 小 (xiǎo), meaning “little,” to the last character of their name.
So if a kid’s name is 王伟 (wáng wěi), his family might call him 小伟 (xiǎo wěi), or they might just call him 小 + a completely different character altogether. Just as in English, there aren’t any rules when it comes to Chinese nicknames.
Members of a family may also address each other using Chinese terms of endearment. Remember the term 心肝 (xīn gān)? Parents sometimes combine it with 宝贝 (bǎo bèi), calling their kids 心肝宝贝 (xīn gān bǎo bèi), or their “heart and livers.”
If there’s only one kid in the family, the parents might call her 孩子 (hái zi), which means “child.” Of course, this nickname only really works when there’s only one child, or only one child present at the time.
Other than 心肝宝贝, a lot of the terms above are a little more formal in the sense that they don’t show a huge amount of emotional connection between family members.
To express more affection towards each other, parents and siblings might use any of the following:
宝宝 (bǎo bǎo) — lit. baby, darling
宝贝 (bǎo bèi) — lit. treasure, treasured object; baby, darling, treasure
虎子 (hǔ zǐ) — lit. tiger cub; tiger son, brave young man
千金 (qiān jīn) — lit. 1000 gold; darling daughter
阿 (ā) + given name — nickname among siblings
Terms of Endearment for Your Closest Pals
Obviously, you don’t have to be in a relationship or have kids in order to use Chinese terms of endearment. Some of the usual familial nicknames can be used among friends, too, such as 哥哥 (gē gē) and 妹妹 (mèi mei), which would translate as “pals” in that context.
阿 (ā) + given name is another way friends can address each other.
Using 小 (xiǎo) + given name is also popular among friends, especially if there’s a younger one in the group (or one’s who just generally smaller than the rest).
大 (dà) + given name might be used once the young friend gets older.
If there are two friends with the same given name, they could also be differentiated by 小 (xiǎo) / 大 (dà) + given name, just like how you might call your buddies Little John and Big John.
For female members of a group, a possible nickname is doubling their given name, so a girl with the name 王芳(wáng fāng) could be called 芳芳 (fāng fāng).
In the same vein as those seemingly insulting terms like 傻瓜 (shǎ guā) and 笨蛋 (bèn dàn), another way that friends might refer to one another is by certain characteristics that we wouldn’t necessarily get away with referring to so bluntly in English-speaking cultures.
Many Chinese are very comfortable identifying one another as fat, using the character 胖 (pàng) as a prefix to one’s given name.
Or if they don’t end up using 胖 (pàng) + given name, they might say 小胖子 (xiǎo pàng zi), or “Little Fat One, ” or compare the friend to an animal like 小猪 (xiǎo zhū), meaning “Little Piggy” or “Piglet.”
This might seem pretty mean, especially to those outside of the friend group, but it might just be a case like that of Fat Amy from “Pitch Perfect,” who gave herself the nickname.
Other Names and Respectful Titles
Chinese terms of endearment aren’t just about showing love and affection—they can also be about showing respect.
A teacher might talk to or about his students by saying 亲爱的同学们 (qīn ài de tóng xué men), meaning “dear students,” while students will call their teachers (in both the conventional and unconventional sense) 老师 (lǎo shī), which literally translates to “old master.”
They could refer to them as their surname + 老师, or simply as 老师.
Normally, you wouldn’t use terms of endearment with people you don’t know, but it also helps to know what some respectful titles are so you can politely address both acquaintances and strangers.
For example, when you want to address a (male) cab driver, you could use 师傅 (shī fù), which literally means “master” but is more generally used as “qualified worker” referring to professions like tailors and cab drivers, and is reserved for male workers.
So when you want to tell your driver to stop, you could say, “师傅这里可以了 (shī fù zhè lǐ kě yǐ le),” which is a nice way of saying, “Driver, we can stop here.” Others might just say, “stop here,” but we know that a little bit of courtesy goes a long way.
If you’re at a restaurant, the waitstaff are normally referred to as 服务员 (fú wù yuán), a non-gender-specific term.
To call people the equivalents of “Mr.” or “Ms.,” you would use surname + 先生 (xiān shēng) for “Mr. + Surname,” and surname + 小姐 (xiǎo jiě) for “Ms. + Surname.”
Here’s an example of how you could use one of these titles:
王小姐在哪里？(wáng xiǎo jiě zài nǎ lǐ?) — Where is Ms. Wang?
Please note that although 小姐 (xiǎo jiě) means “Miss,” it’s best not to use that term on its own in mainland China, as it’s slang for “prostitute.”
With the exception of the idiomatic expressions, the above Chinese terms of endearment are very much like the ones you already use in English, which makes it a lot easier to remember them in the long run.
Now that you’ve gotten to know all the different pet names, it’s time to start charming your way into the hearts of your Chinese friends!