Addressing people in Chinese is something that isn’t really taught properly in textbooks.
You are often taught that 你好 (nǐhǎo) is ‘hello’ and 您好 (nínhǎo) is a polite way of saying hello, and that’s it, whereas in fact there is a lot more subtlety to how you address different people in Chinese to show politeness and respect.
Whether you’re travelling in China or you’re doing business in a Chinese speaking region, it’s important to know how to address people in the correct way, to avoid any embarrassing mistakes and to make sure you are treating people with the correct respect.
In this post, I want to outline the common forms of address for different people in Chinese.
The first thing you need to know is which part of the name is the family name (surname) and which part is the given name.
When names are written in Chinese, the family name always comes first, however some Chinese people will reverse the order of their names when are abroad or dealing with foreigners and put their family name at the end, to be in line with the ‘standard’ in English.
Sometimes people will write their family name in capitals on a business card or email. Also, the given name is often two syllables and the family name will often be one, which can often make it clear which name is which, but if you’re really not sure which name is the family name then you can always ask 您贵姓? (nín guì xìng?) which means ‘What is your surname’.
If you know the person’s family name, then the next thing you need to think about is their age and level of seniority compared to you, and also their position / job title. All of these things will affect how you address them.
Addressing Chinese people in formal situations
Let’s take the surname 张 (zhāng) for these examples.
张先生 (zhāng xiānsheng) is Mr Zhang.
张女士 (zhāng nǚshì) is Mrs/Ms. Zhang, and it can refer to either a married or unmarried woman.
You can add a ‘hello’ greeting to the end of these forms of address, for example 您好 (nín hǎo) – a formal way to say hello.
How to find out somebody’s title
One good way to find out the correct title to use to address somebody, if you are not sure, is to look at somebody’s business card.
If you exchange business cards with Chinese people you should always offer and accept the card with both hands. If you look on the Chinese part of the card, it will normally tell you the person’s titles, and you can use those to address them.
If you are not able to read the Chinese characters, then it is perfectly polite to ask the person the correct way to address them. You can say 您怎么称呼？(nín zěnme chēnghu?) How should I address you?
Forms of address in business
Again, I’m using the example of the surname 张 (zhāng) in all these cases.
张总 (zhāng zǒng) – President Zhang (for a CEO or somebody in a top management position)
张主任 (zhāng zhǔrèn) – Director Zhang (for example a director of a department or an organisation)
张经理 (zhāng jīnglǐ) – Manager Zhang (for a regular manager)
张部长 (zhāng bùzhǎng) – Minister/Director Zhang (for a head of a department or a government minister)
Addressing people in an academic situation
张老师 (zhāng lǎoshī) – Teacher Zhang (for general teachers – notice that in Chinese you don’t call teachers Mr. or Mrs, you always use the word for teacher when you refer to them.
张教授 (zhāng jiàoshòu) – Professor Zhang (in English you also use the title Professor, so this is similar)
张博士 (zhāng bóshì) – Dr. Zhang (for somebody who has a PhD – if you are referring to a medical doctor / dentist then it would be 张大夫／医生 (zhāng dàifu / zhāng yīshēng)
Informal forms of address for strangers
Chinese has special polite ways of addressing people who you don’t know, for example somebody that you might start a conversation with on the street.
叔叔 shūshu (for an older man)
阿姨 āyí (for an older woman)
If you are meeting the parents of your girlfriend / boyfriend for the first time you should also call them shūshu and āyí 🙂
爷爷 yéye (for an elderly man)
奶奶 nǎinai (for an elderly woman)
哥哥 gēge (for an older boy)
姐姐 jiějie (for an older girl)
The special way to address taxi dirvers / craftspeople
There is a special form of address that you use for taxi drivers, craftspeople, people who provide a service like builders, plumbers etc and also for kung fu masters 🙂
For somebody with the surname 张 (zhāng), you would cal them
张师傅 (zhāng shīfu) – Master Zhang.
Addressing people in informal situations
If you are talking to somebody of a similar age to you who you are on close terms with, you can just call them their given name, without any of the forms of address I’ve talked about so far.
For example, if you have a friend called 王少华 Wáng Shàohuá then you could simply call them Shàohuá 少华.
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.
I hope this post is useful to you if you come into contact with Chinese people on a frequent basis.
You’ll pick up how these forms of address work by listening to Chinese people and that will help to familiarise you with them. If you’ve got any more questions, then feel free to leave me a comment and I’ll help you out!