Ever feel like Chinese names are impossible to remember? Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. In fact, it takes much more than a name to address your co-workers correctly, here. You’ve heard the classics: “Master,” “Comrade,” “Boss” Wang, “Little” Zhang, and wonderful “Auntie” who cleans your house every week. But the way you address someone says a lot about how you perceive your relationship, and sets the tone for any conversation that follows. To get the rules of the naming game straight, you need to take a peek into China’s culture, values, and even superstitions.
Fellow drivers, the roads are dangerous this evening. Drive carefully, and give us a call when you’ve made it home. We’d all love to know you have arrived safely.” It was a downpour of a night when I heard this on the Chinese radio. It didn’t take long for the calls to start coming in. “Hi, my name is Little Deng, and I’m home now.” It’s like we’re all part of one big family. And when you address people, that’s exactly where you want to start.
Family values run deep in Chinese culture. There are over a hundred ways to address your relatives with so-called “kinship terms.” Even referring to an uncle isn’t simple; in fact, there are up to 25 different ways to do it!
This is partially from the Confucian emphasis on hierarchical relationships, but superstition also plays a large role. In feudal times, parents worried that if their children spoke to them too intimately, the parents would age quickly. They also feared that familiarity could result in family misfortunes being passed on. Further, names were considered as much a part of the body as fingernails, or teeth, and were thought to be used in voodoo spells. Ultimately, any use of names was considered taboo, and intimate terms were avoided, so we ended up with “safer” variations created to simulate distance.
Nowadays, the use of names doesn’t actually invoke fear, but tradition has still left a mark. In place of them, terms like laoshi, or “teacher,” tongzhi, or “comrade,” and pengyou, or “friend,” are all used in daily interactions. On the street, in a cab, at a reception desk—you hear them constantly. Many of these come directly from the old kinship terms. The ayi, every ex-pat’s beloved house cleaner, is literally an Auntie. And shifu (师傅), meaning “master” or “skilled person,” but now used to address any stranger, was originally written with the character for father,父. When spoken, the fourth tone of fu was not pronounced, to hide the intimate meaning, and slowly 傅 took its place.
Similarly, you should think of your office as a “sub-family,” with its own hierarchy and rules of address. Keep this in mind, and with enough practice you’ll master the art of distinguishing seniority, equality, and formality, just through the way your colleagues refer to each other.
Before you go any further, remember that surnames in China are the first to appear in a name, not the last. So if Wang Shuo is your boss, be sure to call him Boss Wang, not Boss Shuo!
So let’s start with the bosses. We know you love them, so show you care, by giving them the right title at the right place and the right time. In formal situations, like a dinner with clients, you’d do best to call superiors by their surname and formal title. So if your manager is Wang Shuo, you can call him Wang Jingli, or “Manager Wang.” Drop his actual name to really up the ante. For example, if you’re caught stealing office supplies again, a solid “Jingli” on its own might show your appreciation of the seriousness of this, ahem, crime.
However, don’t follow this rule blindly. While your boss’ official title should be used in formal situations, in good relationships, too much politeness can be impolite. If you work closely with your boss, calling them by their surname followed by “teacher,” for example Wang Laoshi, would be more appropriate. Laoshi can be used to address any well-educated professional, such as an accountant, editor, architect, or even a secretary.
If you want to take it down a notch, and kid around a bit, tou’r is a great title. Slang for “boss,” it literally means “head,” and could get the ever-serious Wang Tou’r to crack you a toothy grin.
Head / Boss
This is our CEO, Mr. Zhang Jianguo.
zhèshì wǒmen zǒngcái， zhāng jiànguó xiānsheng。
General Manager Li, thank you for your concern.
lǐzǒng， xièxiè nínde guānxīn。
Teacher Zhao, I have a question I’d like to ask you.
zhào lǎoshī， wǒ yǒu gè wèntí xiǎng wèn nín。
Take note of age, though. In China, it is rare to have a boss younger than yourself, but if you do, they’d address you as superior in informal settings. In formal settings, standard job title rules apply.
Now let’s turn to the fun part: addressing subordinates. In general, sticking with full names is the best choice. So instead of calling your editor “Miss Zhao,” or a presumptuous “Lei,” you’d always use her unchanging full name, “Zhao Lei.”
To someone younger, you could throw a xiao into the mix. XiaoZhao, or “Little Zhao,” gives a hint of familiarity, and would be welcome.
It becomes trickier if you have someone older than you working for you. Our advice would be to call them laoshi, such as Zhao Laoshi, or “Teacher Zhao.” For a slightly more familiar nickname, you could try lao, or “old,” followed by their surname.
Old Wang, do you have any ideas?
Lǎo wáng， nǐ yǒu shénme xiǎngfǎ mɑ?
Little Li, why are you late again?
xiǎo lǐ， nǐ zěnme yòu chídào?
When it comes to your esteemed colleagues, age, rank, and relationship create the most interesting variations.
If you work closely with someone, you can use their first name. But this is a little generic. It’s much more fun to use a nickname. Pang’ge, or “fat brother,” is one of our favorites. If they’re a little older than you, and you are friends, try dage for “big brother,” or their surname plus jie for “older sister.”
If the co-worker is young, xiao followed by their surname is common. For much older colleagues, abide by the laoshi tradition. If you’re really good friends with an older male colleague, their surname followed by shu, for “uncle,” would do well.
For anyone you work with that you don’t know very well, the term tongzhi, for “comrade,” remains nice and neutral. If you are new and still don’t know anybody’s name, starting a sentence with ai, a common version of “hey,” works well in place of their name.
Wang Sister, can you help me with this?
wáng jiě， néng bāng wǒ yí gè máng mɑ？
Hey, hello, what time is the meeting?
āi， nǐhǎo， qǐng wèn jǐdiǎn kāi huì？
Finally, don’t forget the wonderful company drivers, custodians, and elevator operators. Here shifu (master), ayi (auntie), tongzhi (comrade), and siji (driver) are all great choices
Working overtime today, Master?
jīntiān jiābān ā shīfu？
Naming in Chinese isn’t straightforward, and goes far beyond what we mentioned above, so you’d better take some time to get your brain, and your tongue, around it. In fact, as you get more accustomed to your co-workers, you’ll probably find making up nicknames, and using existing kinship terms, can bring a little charm and hilarity to yet another dull day at the office.
Cover Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay