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01 July, 2007:
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Learn Chinese in China - Hutong School

Introduction

Naturally, most people don’t go around calling their friends and family by their full names all the time. Just like in the West, people are called by different names according to the relationship between the named and the person using that name. In other words, parents call their child by one name, his friends call him something else, and the people who work for him have yet another name for him. These different names include titles, terms of respect, nicknames, and more.

Special terms are used to describe family members. Family terms are sometimes used in society at large. Special terms are used according to people’s occupation or status in society. Finally, nicknames are used among friends.

Family

Within a family, given names are rarely used. Chinese has a broad range of names for family members that vary based on the relationship they have to the person calling them. The benefit of this system is that you always know the exact relationship a person has to a certain family member based on how he is addressed. The disadvantage is that the system is extremely hard to learn for people who did not grow up with it.

Within the immediate family, names are rarely used. Naturally, parents are referred to as “爸爸 ba4ba” Dad, and “妈妈 ma1ma” Mom—possibly becoming “父亲 fu4qin1” and “母亲 mu3qin,”  “Father and Mother,” when the child gets too old and mature to use childish names.

Parents, in return, may simply call their children “孩子 hai2zi,” which means “Child.” This approach is especially effective if a family only has one child, which is the case in most modern Chinese families.

In families with more than one child, the children are called according to birth order. For example, in a family with five children, the middle child will call her eldest brother “大哥 da4ge1” “Big Elder Brother.” Her other older brother is “二哥 er4ge1” “second older brother,” and her younger siblings are “妹妹 mei4mei” “younger sister” and “弟弟 di4di4” “younger brother” accordingly. Parents may also use these rankings to call their children.

Another interesting characteristic of family life is that children usually have a nickname that their parents use to call them when they are small. This type of nickname is called a 乳名 ru3ming2, or “milk-name.” Often, to form a ruming, you simply put the character 小 xiao3, “small” in front of the last character in the Child’s name. So if a child were named 思明 si1ming2, then his ruming could be 小明 xiao3ming2. A ruming could also be a completely different name that bears no relation to the child’s actual given name.

The Family-at-Large: Society

When addressing any respected person without using proper names, it is acceptable to use a familial relationship. For example, you can call an elder man 爷爷 ye2ye, which literally means “grandfather.” Using this term is a bit like calling an old man, “gramps,” except it is much more respectful. Similarly, older women can be called 阿姨, ayi, which means “aunt.”

Young women can also be called by familial names. The equivalent of “miss” is 小姐 xiao3jie3, which literally means “little older sister.” This term is commonly used to call a waitress in a restaurant, or to address any young girl. However, recently the term has acquired a connotation roughly equivalent to “prostitute,” so it is not frequently used in situations where it could be taken the wrong way. Much younger girls can be called 小妹妹 xiao3mei4mei, or “little sister.” This term is not disrespectful, but only applies to very young girls. Young women can also be called 大姐 da4jie3, which is usually only used for young women who are older than the person speaking because it literally means “big sister.”

Because waitresses are no longer simply called 小姐 xiao3jie3, the term is being replaced by 服务员 fuwuyuan, which is the more proper way to say “server.”  The term is gender neutral and has no negative connotations like 小姐 xiao3jie3 does. A waiter can also be addressed as 小伙子 xiao3huo3zi, a term that essentially means “boy.”

Friends also refer to each other by familial names. A good male friend can be called 哥们儿, ge1men'r, which means brother, but translates better as "pal." A good friend could also be called 大哥, da4ge1, which also means older brother. This term is also used for high power men associated with the Chinese underground.

Respectfully: Titles

In addition to slang terms for acquaintances and people of certain positions in society, Chinese is also full of respectful titles for people of many different positions. These respectful terms can be vague titles, such as "sir" in English, or they can be specific references to job or status, such as "professor."

At one point, the only term of address used by anyone in Mainland China was 同志 tong2zhi, “comrade.” This term was applied to the highest Party officials and the lowest peasants alike. Since the ‘70s, the term is rarely used anymore to describe average people. Also, 同志 tong2zhi is a modern slang term for “gay.” Therefore to call someone “comrade,” in China is doubly insulting: on the one hand can be used to imply that someone is outdated, and on the other hand it can imply that someone is homosexual.

Nowadays, there are many more commonly used titles. A generic title that has roughly the same meaning as “Mr.” is 先生, xian1sheng1. This term literally means “first born.” Technically it is a gender neutral term, but it is rarely applied to women. 先生 xian1sheng1 can be used to address a teacher, a new acquaintance with whom you are unfamiliar, or anyone with whom you are not on a first-name basis.

Another commonly used title is 老师, lao3shi1. Literally, this term means “Old Master.” It is used for teachers of any kind. A teacher who’s surname is Li, 李, would be called 李老师 li2lao3shi1, by his students. Even after students move on, they will always refer to their old teachers as 老师 lao3shi1. This title can also be used for any respected older person who is somehow academically inclined. A professor at university gets an even more respectful title: 博士 bo2shi4. This is basically the equivalent of calling a PhD holder “Dr.”

You can call your boss “老板 lao3ban3.” You can also use this as a term of respect to call another person’s boss. For example, I might call my manager “李老板 Li2lao3ban3,” or “Mr. Li.” I would also call the owner of a restaurant “老板 lao3ban3,” or “Boss.” This is an interesting term because it literally means “old board.” Probably it means to imply that the people who set the rules are generally rigid in maintaining them.

A Chairman is called 主席 zhu3xi2. I mention this because in the West we often refer to Mao Zedong as “Chairman Mao.” In Chinese, the former leader is known, among other things, as “毛主席 mao2zhu3xi2.” It is interesting that outside of China, Mao is the only Chinese chairman who we call “chairman.” When English newspapers refer to the current Chinese “president,” they are in fact talking about someone whom the Chinese still refer to as the chairman of the Communist Party.

An unknown person such as a cab driver or street tailor can be addressed as 师傅 shi1fu. The term means “master.” It shows respect for someone whose name you do not know. This title is also gender neutral, but like 先生 xian1sheng1, it tends to imply a man.

Nicknames

Nicknames, 绰名 chuoming,  are an notable characteristic of Chinese life. Beginning in childhood with a 乳名 ru3ming2, people often have several nicknames throughout their lives.

Nicknames vary depending on the environment and relationships between people. A boss might have a nickname for his employee, but and employee would never call his boss by an abbreviated name.

Some of the most common ways to nickname are just to add modifiers to a person’s given name. For example, 老 lao3 “old,” and 小 xiao3 “small” are common additions to names. If someone is named 王宝华 wang2bao3hua1, then his childhood friends might call him 小华 xiao3hua1. His high school friends might call him 老华 lao3hua1. Whatever nickname is established amongst a certain group of friends will last forever. In the case of someone who is more deserving of respect, 老 lao3 can be used in front of the surname. When Mr. Wang gets a older, his young acquaintances might decide to call him 老王 lao3wang2. In China, getting old is not seen as a bad thing—elders are considered wiser, so calling someone “old Wang” is a sign of respect.

Along the same line of reasoning, nicknames are often given on the basis of physical characteristics. It is not unusual for Chinese to refer to a friend as 胖李 pang4li2, or “Fat Li.” Unlike in American culture where a name like this would probably be given to an ironically skinny person, Chinese have no problem with identifying people by seemingly embarrassing characteristics.

Another common way of nicknaming is simply to repeat a syllable of the given name. In this way, 晓静 Xiao3jing4 becomes 静静 jing4jing to her friends. This is a very common form of nickname in China, but it is usually reserved for girls—repeated names are much too feminine for men to use.

Similar to nicknames, many writers and artists take pen names, 笔名 bi2ming2. This practice is also common in the West, but particularly widespread in China. Some pen names are unassuming: the writer Lu Xun 鲁迅 was actually named 周树人 zhou1shu4ren2, but he took his mother’s surname and created a pseudonymn. Some writers prefer to use a more biting nom de guerre: another famous contemporary of Lu Xun was Shen Dehong 薛德红, but he is only known as 矛盾, maodun, which means “contradiction.”