Chinese honorifics

Chinese honorifics were developed due to class consciousness and Confucian principles of order and respect in Ancient and Imperial China. The Chinese polite language also affects Japanese honorifics conceptually; both emphasized the idea of classes and in-group vs. out-group. So the language used among friends would be very different from that used among businesspeople. Although most Chinese honorifics have fallen out of use since the end of Imperial China, they can still be understood by most contemporary Chinese speakers. This is partly attributable to the popularity of Chinese historical novels and television dramas, which often employ language from the classical periods. In general, language referring to oneself exhibits self-deprecating humbleness, while language referring to others shows approval and respect.

Since Chinese grammar does not employ the use of inflections, i.e., absent of grammatical conjugation or declension, the Chinese honorifics system differs from the conjugating Korean and Japanese systems. Politeness in Chinese is often achieved by using honorific alternatives, prefixing or suffixing a word with a polite complement, or simply by dropping casual-sounding words.

Contents

Example

(qǐng) (wèn) () (xìng) 甚麼(shénme) ? (Simplified: 请问你姓什么?)
"May I ask for your surname?"

The sentence above is an acceptable question when used to people of equal or lower status. But if the addressee is of higher status, or if the person asking the question wants to show more respect, then several changes may occur:

  1. The regular second person pronoun 你 (nǐ; you) is replaced by the honorific second person pronoun 您 (nín; you [honorific])
  2. The casual interrogative pronoun 甚麼•什么 (shénme; what) is dropped
  3. The honorific prefix 貴•贵 (guì; honorable) is added in front of 姓 (xìng; last name) to exalt the addressee

So the resulting sentence, 請問您貴姓?•请问您贵姓?(qǐng wèn nín guì xìng): “May I ask for the honorable surname of your honorable self?” is much more polite and more commonly used among people in formal or careful situations.

Below is a collection of some of the better known honorifics and polite prefixes and suffixes that have been used at one time or another in the Chinese lexicon. Pronunciations given are those of today's Mandarin Chinese. Wherever the Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese scripts differ, both are given, separated with a dot and with Traditional first. Many became obsolete after the end of the Qing Dynasty or during the Cultural Revolution and are no longer used.

Referring to oneself

When referring to oneself, the regular pronoun "I" was to be avoided in most situations. When addressing a person or persons of a superior status, use of a humble form of "I" was required. For example, servants and slaves must not use the pronoun "I", when speaking to their masters. The same rule applied among royalty, government officials, and commoners based on rank and status. Socially, a person may refer to him/herself humbly in formal exchanges and settings, regardless of status and rank, in order to display virtue and enlightenment. Below is a list of some of the humble substitutes, when referring to oneself or his/her own family or possessions.

For self-deprecating humbleness, commoners or people with lower status

  • 愚 (yú): I, the unintelligent
  • 鄙 (bǐ): I, the lowly/less educated
  • 敝 (bì): I, the unrefined
  • 卑 (bēi): I, from a lower class
  • 竊·窃 (qiè): I, who did not give you proper notice
  • 僕·仆 (pú): I, your servant (male)
  • 婢 (bì): I, your servant (female)
  • 妾 (qiè): I, your concubine
  • 在下 (zàixià): I, who am humbler and lower than you
  • 小人 (xiăorén): I, the insignificant (usually male)
  • 小女 (xiăonǚ): I, the insignificant and female
  • 草民/民女 (căomín/mínnǚ): I, the worthless commoner (male/female)
  • 奴才 (núcai): I, your slave/servant (male)
  • 奴婢 (núbì): I, your slave/servant (female)
  • 奴家 (nújiā): I, your wife and servant

The royal family

  • 孤 (gū): I, the ruler of a kingdom (lit. "alone" or "orphan") - refers to the fact that a hereditary king or emperor must by definition be an orphan. (Though there were exceptions in history.)
  • 寡 (guǎ): I, the ruler of a kingdom (same as above)
  • 寡人 (guǎrén): I, the ruler of a kingdom (same as above)
  • 不穀·不谷 (bù gǔ): I, the ruler of a dissolute kingdom (literally "produces no grain")
  • 朕 (zhèn): I, the Emperor (originally a generic first person pronoun, later exclusively used by emperors from the Qin Dynasty onward.)
  • 本宫 (bĕngōng): I, the empress/concubine (when speaking to a person or an audience of lower rank or status)
  • 哀家 (āijiā): I, the emperor's mother (literally "the sad house", indicating grief for the deceased former Emperor)
  • 臣妾 (chénqiè): I, your royal concubine (Even used by empress)
  • 兒臣·儿臣 (ĕrchén): I, your son official/subject

Government and military officials

  • 臣 (chén): I, your subject (officials addressing themselves in front of the Emperor, in official writing, the character "臣" should be written half the size of normal font in front of the name. )
  • 下官 (xiàguān): I, the low official (officials addressing themselves in front of a superior official)
  • 末官 (mòguān): I, the lesser official
  • 小吏 (xiǎolì): I, the small scribe / official
  • 卑職·卑职 (bēizhí): I, the humble position (officials addressing their patrons or someone of equal rank)
  • 末將·末将 (mòjiàng): I, the lowest general (generals addressing themselves in front of superiors)

When used by a person of a higher rank to a lower ranking person or audience, the prefix "本" helps to assert that superiority.

  • 本官 (běnguān): I, your superior
  • 本帥·本帅 (běnshuài): I, the commander in chief
  • 本將軍·将军 (běnjiāngjun): I, the general

Elders

  • 老~ (lǎo), old
    • 老朽 (lǎoxiǔ): I, who am old and unable
    • 老夫 (lǎofū): I, who am old and respected
    • 老漢·老汉 (lǎohàn): I, who am an old man
    • 老拙 (lǎozhuó): I, who am old and clumsy
    • 老衲 (lǎonà): I, the old monk
    • 老身 (lǎoshēn): I, this old body (for a lady referring to herself)

Scholarly or religious professions

  • 小生 (xiǎoshēng): I, who am born / grown "smaller" (i.e. later)
  • 晚生 (wǎnshēng): I, who was born later
  • 晚學·晚学 (wǎnxué): I, who started studying later
  • 不才 (bùcái): I, who am without talent
  • 不佞 (búnìng): I, who am without talent
  • 不肖 (búxiào): I, who did not respect you
  • 晚輩·晚辈 (wǎnbèi): I, who belong to a younger generation (therefore lower/humbler)
  • 貧僧·贫僧 (pínsēng): I, the poor monk (Buddhist)
  • 貧尼·贫尼 (pínní): I, the poor nun (Buddhist)
  • 貧道·贫道 (píndào): I, the poor priest/priestess (Daoist)

The speaker's own family

Some of the following are still in use today in various Chinese dialects.

  • 家~ (jiā): prefix for elder family members (living)
  • 先~ (xiān): prefix for elder family members (deceased)
  • 舍~ (shè): prefix for younger family members
  • 小~ (xiǎo): small
    • 小兒·小儿 (xiǎoér): My son, who is small
    • 小女 (xiǎonǚ): My daughter, who is small
  • 内~ (nèi): prefix for referring to one's wife - 内人,内子
  • 愚~ (yú): prefix for referring to one's self and one's family member; 愚夫婦, 愚父子、愚兄弟, etc.
  • 犬子 (quǎnzǐ): My son, who is comparable to a puppy
  • 拙夫·拙夫 (zhuōfū): My husband, who is inferior
  • 拙荊·拙荆 (zhuōjīng): My wife, who is inferior
  • 賤内·贱内 (jiànnèi): The one within (i.e. my wife), who is worthless
  • 寒舍 (hánshè): my home - literally my poor residence

Addressing or referring to others

Just as it was important to use a humble form of "I", using a proper form of "You" was required to avoid potentially offending the addressee. For example, similar to the concept and usage of "Your Majesty" in British court, no one was allowed to use the regular pronoun "You" to address the emperor. The same concept of hierarchical speech habits and etiquette extended to people across all ranks and statuses. Often, the addressee's title or profession was used in place of the direct pronoun "You". Below are examples of proper substitutes for the second person pronouns "You" or "Your ~".

Emperors

  • 萬歲·万岁 (wànsuì): You, of ten thousand years. Here "ten-thousand" is a marker for a large number, much as "million" is used figuratively in English. "Years" here refers specifically to "years of age."
  • 萬歲爺·万岁爷 (wànsuìyé): You, the lord of ten thousand years
  • 聖~·圣~ (shèng): the holy, the sacred
    • 聖上·圣上 (shèngshàng): You, the holy up high
    • 聖駕·圣驾 (shèngjià): You, the holy procession
  • 天子 (tiānzǐ): The son of heaven (when referring to the Emperor in a third person)
  • 陛下 (bìxià); literally "beneath your ceremonial ramp"; used when addressing the Emperor directly;
  • 龍~·龙~ (lóng): literally "dragon", used as a prefix, e.g.:
    • 龍體·龙体 (lóngtǐ): the dragon's body (emperor's body, health)
    • 龍顏·龙颜 (lóngyán): the dragon's face (emperor's face, mood)

Important people

  • 殿下 (diànxià): literally "beneath your palace"; for members of the imperial family
  • 王爺·王爷 (wángyé): You, the princely lord; for kings and princes
  • 爵爺·爵爷 (juĕyé): You, the noble lord; for dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts and barons
  • 麾下 (huīxià); literally "beneath your flag"; for generals
  • 卿 (qīng): literally "official"; address to officials by the royal family
  • 節下·节下 (jiéxià): literally "beneath your ceremonial banner"; for ambassadors

The following are commonly used today.

  • 閣下·阁下 (géxià): literally "beneath your pavilion"; for important people
  • 前輩·前辈 (qiánbèi): literally "you who belong to an older generation"
  • 同志 (tóngzhì): literally "you who share the same ambition with me"; comrade, used by parties of the Nationalist Party of China and the Communist Party of China to address fellow members of the same conviction; also used by some older citizens of the People's Republic of China to address strangers. However, now among the younger and more urban Chinese, 同志 has definite implications of homosexuality (not necessarily in a pejorative way, however, as it has been adopted by the gay community, and thus is more analogous to the English term queer than faggot).
  • By titles:
    • 先生 (xiānshēng): Mister
    • 小姐/姑娘 (xiăojiě)/(gūniang): Miss
      • The usage of Xiaojie is taboo in some parts of China since it may refer to prostitutes. In Suzhou 小姐 is substituted with '丫頭·丫头' which in turn is considered offensive in other parts of China because to them it is used to refer to a 'dumb girl'.
    • 女士 (nǚshì): Madam
    • 夫人 (fūrén): Mrs
    • 博士 (bóshì): Doctor (PhD holder)
    • 醫生·医生 (yīshēng) or 大夫 (dàifū, mainland China only): Medical doctor
    • 老師·老师 (lǎoshī): Teacher
      • The usage to address someone a teacher has evolved to a polite reference to an educated person rather than an indication of the person actually being a teacher.
    • 師父·师父 (shīfù) or 法師·法师 (fǎshī): Monk (Buddhist)
    • 修士 (xīushì): Monk (Catholic)
    • 神父 (shénfù): Priest (Catholic)
    • 執士·执士 (zhíshì): Deacon (Christian)
    • 牧師·牧师 (mùshī): Pastor (Christian)
    • 主教 (zhǔjiào): Bishop (Christian)
    • 師父·师父 (shīfù) or 法師·法师 (fǎshī): Priest or Priestess (Daoist)
    • 仙姑 (xiāngū) or 道姑 (dàogū): Priestess (Daoist)
    • 道長·道长 (dàozhăng): Monk or Nun (Daoist)
    • 爵士 (juéshì): Sir (Knighthood)
    • 圣·聖 (shèng): a prefix indicating holiness; Saints

The addressee's family members

The following are also in use today:

  • 令~ (lìng): The beautiful
    • 令尊 (lìngzūn) or 令尊翁 (lìngzūnwēng): the beautiful and respectful (i.e. your father)
    • 令堂 (lìngtáng) or 令壽堂 (lìngshòutáng): the beautiful and dignified (i.e. your mother)
    • 令閫·令阃 (lìngkǔn): the beautiful door to the woman's room (i.e. your wife)
    • 令兄 (lìngxiōng): the beautiful elder brother (your brother)
    • 令郎 (lìngláng) or 令公子 (lìnggōngzǐ): the beautiful young lord (your son)
    • 令愛(or 令嬡)·令爱(or 令嫒) (lìng'ài): the beautiful and beloved (your daughter)
    • 令千金 (lìngqiānjīn): the beautiful of a thousand gold (your daughter)
  • 尊~ (zūn): The respectful
    • 尊上 (zūnshàng): The respectful above (your father)
    • 尊公 (zūngōng), 尊君 (zūnjūn), 尊府 (zūnfǔ): The respectful lord (your father)
    • 尊堂 (zūntáng): The respectful and dignified (your mother)
    • 尊親·尊亲 (zūnqīn): The respectful related (your relatives)
    • 尊駕·尊驾 (zūnjià): The respectful procession (you, the guest)
  • 賢~·贤~ (xián): the virtuous
    • 賢喬梓·贤乔梓: you (father and son)
    • 賢伉儷·贤伉俪: you (husband and wife)
    • 賢昆仲: you (brothers)
    • 賢昆玉: you (sisters)

One's own family

  • 賢~·贤~ (xián): the virtuous
    • 賢妻·贤妻 (xiánqī): you, my esteemed wife
    • 賢棣·賢弟·贤弟 (xiándì): you, my esteemed younger brother
    • 賢侄·贤侄 (xiánzhì): you, my esteemed nephew
  • 夫人 (fūrén): you, my wife
  • 夫君 (fūjūn): you, my husband
  • 郎君 (lángjūn): you, my husband
  • 官人 (guānrén): you, my husband (archaic)
  • 相公 (xiànggōng): you, my husband (obsolete: now refers to a male prostitute)
  • 仁兄 (rénxiōng): you, my kind older brother
  • 愛~ 爱~ (ài): prefix for beloved family members, e.g. 愛妻,愛姬,愛妾,愛郎

Friends

  • 賢~·贤~ (xián): the virtuous (for people who are younger)
    • 賢家·贤家 (xiánjiā): the virtuous house (i.e. you)
    • 賢郎·贤郎 (xiánláng): the virtuous young man (i.e. your son)
    • 賢弟·贤弟 (xiándì): the virtuous younger brother (either addressing one's own younger brother, or referring to the listener's younger brother)
  • 仁~ (rén): the kind (for people who are older)
    • 仁兄 (rénxiōng): You, the kind older brother (older male friend)
    • 仁公 (réngōng): You, the kind lord (when addressing to someone senior)

Elders or the deceased

  • 丈~ (zhàng): prefix for old people
  • 太~ (tài), 大~ (dà ): prefix for elders
    • 太后 (tàihòu): Dowager Empress
    • 太父 (tàifǔ): grandfather
    • 太母 (tàimǔ): grandmother

The deceased

  • 先~ (xiān): prefix for deceased elder people
    • 先帝 (xiāndì): dead emperor
    • 先考 (xiānkǎo), 先父 (xiān fǔ): dead father
    • 先慈 (xiāncí), 先妣 (xiān bǐ): dead mother
    • 先賢·先贤 (xiānxián): dead knowledgeable person
  • 亡~ (wáng): prefix for deceased younger people; 亡弟(deceased brother), 亡兒 (deceased child), etc.

The following are commonly found in spiritual tablets and gravestones.

  • 顯考·显考 (xiǎnkǎo): honorable deceased father
  • 顯妣·显妣 (xiǎnbǐ): honorable deceased mother

Strangers or social encounters

  • 貴~·贵~ (guì) - the honorable (still in use)
    • 貴子弟·贵子弟 (guìzǐdì): your son
    • 貴家長·贵家长 (gùijiāzhǎng): your parent(s)
    • 貴公司·贵公司 (guìgōngsī), 貴寶號 (guìbǎohào): your company
    • 貴國·贵国 (guìguó): your country
    • 貴姓·贵姓 (guìxìng): your surname
    • 貴庚·贵庚 (guìgēng): your age (e.g., 敢問貴庚幾何?·敢问贵庚几何? "May I please ask how old you are?")
  • 寶~·宝~ (bǎo) - precious, valuable
    • (貴)寶號 (bǎohào): your valuable business
  • 相公 (xiànggōng): term of address for any young gentleman (obsolete: now refers to a male prostitute, depending on the occasion )
  • 府上 (fǔshàng): your stately residence
  • 貴府 (guìfǔ): your noble residence

Other prefixes and suffixes

  • 阿~ (ā): intimacy prefix; for example: 阿伯,阿妹,阿哥,阿爸
  • 本~ (bĕn): prefix. this (person, organization)
  • 為~·为~ (wéi): prefix. I
  • 敝~ (bì): prefix. my, our; for example: 敝校,敝人
  • ~君 (jūn): for a male friend or a respected person
  • ~姬 (jī), 姑娘 (gūniang): for a female friend, maiden
  • ~郎 (láng): for an intimate male friend or husband
  • ~子 (zǐ), 夫子 (fūzǐ): for a wise man
  • ~兄 (xiōng): for a friend
  • ~公 (gōng): for a respected person
  • ~足下 (zúxià): for my friend (used in letters)
  • ~先生 (xiānshēng): for someone in a profession
  • ~前輩·前辈 (qiánbeì): for an elder or someone who has been in a profession longer
  • ~大人 (dàren): for a higher ranked official
  • ~氏 (shì): suffix after a surname to address someone not of personal acquaintance.
  • ~兒·儿 (ér): for a young person
  • ~哥 (gē): for an elder male friend or relative
  • ~弟 (dì): for a younger male friend or relative
  • ~姐 (jiĕ): for an elder female friend or relative
  • ~妹 (mèi): for a younger female friend or relative

Salutations

Salutation is used at the beginning of a speech or a letter to address the audience or recipient(s). In the English language, salutations are usually in the form "Dear...". However, the Chinese language has more variations for salutation, which are used in different situations. Here are a few examples in modern Chinese:

  • 親愛的...·亲爱的... (qīn'aì de): Dear (beloved) ...
  • 尊敬的... (zūnjìng de): Revered ...
  • 敬愛的...·敬爱的... (jìng'aì de): Dear esteemed ...

Pejorative slang

It has been a tradition for many years in China to address oneself colloquially using these pronouns in place of "I" to indicate contempt for the listener, to assert the superiority of oneself, or when teasing:

  • 老子 (Laozi, not to be confused with Laozi the philosopher, written the same way): I, your dad (referring to oneself as superior)
  • 爺·爷 (Ye): I, your lord. Used in parts of Northern China
  • 恁爸 (Hokkien: lín-pē): I, your dad (referring to oneself as superior).

When used towards a person less well known or on formal occasions, both terms are considered to be incredibly rude, and are usually used to purposely disgrace the addressee; however, it is less of an issue when spoken among close friends, though even some friends might still be offended by their use.

See also

References


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