Cultures all over the world have different ways to address family members, friends, and new acquaintances. In some countries, how people address each other can be paramount to showing respect. In Korea, many people maintain the use of titles when addressing one another in order to be polite. Using the wrong name could cause offense, and so it is extremely important within Korean culture to learn and use correct titles. Although not as traditional as Korea, there are similar expectations within Chinese culture, based on a person’s age, status and job.
Below is a list of Chinese family names from ‘father’ to ‘great-granddaughter’ and also a list of terms that we, as foreigners might use to address certain people in China. You will also find some useful questions for asking a person’s name and how to respond.
Asking Someone’s Name
These are the commonly used words for ‘name’ in Chinese.
姓名 (xìng míng) – Full name
姓 (xìng) Family name
名字 (míng zi) Name
Informal: 你叫什么名字？(nǐ jiào shén me míng zi) What are you called?
Informal: 我叫。。。(wǒ jiào…) I’m called…
This is the most common and polite way to ask someone’s family name in Chinese, however, in general it is not customary to simply ask for the family name:
Polite: 你贵姓？(nǐ guì xìng) What is your family name?
Polite: 敝姓王。((bì) xìng wáng) My humble family name is Wang.
怎么称呼你？ (zěn me chēng hu nǐ) What should I call you?
Traditionally, in Chinese, the family name, which can also be one or two characters, comes first, followed by one of two characters for the given name.
There are over 3500 Chinese family names, but only 100 are widely used. The most common family names can be found in the book named 百家姓 (bǎi jiā xìng) ‘The Book of Family Names’. The three most commonly used Chinese surnames are 李 (lǐ), 王 (wáng) and 张 (zhāng).
Chinese given names often have a special meaning for the family, or express characteristics the parents wish their child to have. In ancient China, the first character of a given name would be the ‘generational’ name. This means that all children in a family of the same gender and born in the same generation share the same first character. The second character would be a personality trait. Given names are quite personal, and are only used by good friends and within a setting such as a family, class or office, where there is a well-defined group.
Immediate Family Names
Most of the time, people use kinship terms instead of names when talking to each other.
父亲 (fù qīn) Father
爸爸 (bà ba) Dad
哥哥 (gē ge) Older brother
弟弟 (dì di) Younger brother
母亲 (mǔ qīn) Mother
妈妈 (mā ma) Mum
姐姐 (jiě jie) Older Sister
妹妹 (mèi mei) Younger sister
老婆 (lǎo pó) Wife
老公 (lǎo gōng) Husband
未婚夫 (wèi hūn fū) Fiancé (man who will be married)
未婚妻 (wèi hūn qī) Fiancée (woman who will be married)
男朋友 (nán péng you) Boyfriend
女朋友 (nǚ péng you) Girlfriend
婆婆 (pó po) Mother-in-law (husband’s mother)
公公 (gōng gong) Father-in-law (husband’s mother)
岳母 (yuè mǔ) Mother-in-law (wife’s mother)
岳父 (yuè fù) Father-in-law (wife’s father)
儿子 (ér zi) Son
女儿 (nǚ ér) Daughter
侄女 (zhí nǚ) Niece (brother’s daughter)
甥女 (shēng nǚ) Niece (sister’s daughter)
侄子 (zhí zi) Nephew (brother’s son)
外甥 (wài shēng) Nephew (sister’s son)
孙子 (sūn zi) Grandson (son’s son)
外孙 (wài sūn) Grandson (daughter’s son)
曾孙 (zēng sūn) Great-grandson
孙女 (sūn nǚ) Granddaughter (son’s daughter)
外孙女 (wài sūn nǚ) Granddaughter (daughter’s daughter)
曾孙女 (zēng sūn nǚ) Great-granddaughter
爷爷 (yé ye) Paternal Grandfather
奶奶 (nǎi nai) Paternal Grandmother
伯伯 (bó bo) Uncle (older brother of father)
伯母 (bó mǔ) Aunt (older brother of father’s wife)
叔叔 (shū shu) Uncle (younger brother of father)
婶婶 (shěn shen) Aunt (younger brother of father’s wife)
姑姑 (gū gu) Aunt (father’s side)
姑父 (gū fu) Uncle (father’s sister’s husband)
堂哥 (táng gē) Older Male Cousin (father’s side)
堂弟 (táng dì) Younger Male Cousin (father’s side)
堂姐 (táng jiě) Older Female Cousin (father’s side)
堂妹 (táng mèi) Younger Female Cousin (father’s side)
外公 (wài gōng) Maternal Grandfather
外婆 (wài pó) Maternal Grandmother
舅舅 (jiù jiu) Uncle (mother’s side)
舅妈 (jiù mā) Aunt (mother’s brother’s wife)
姨妈 (yí mā) Aunt (mother’s side)
姨父 (yí fu)Uncle (mother’s sister’s husband)
表哥 (biǎo gē) Older Male Cousin (mother’s side)
表弟 (biǎo dì) Younger Male Cousin (mother’s side)
表姐 (biǎo jiě) Older Female Cousin (mother’s side)
表妹 (biǎo mèi) Younger Female Cousin (mother’s side)
If there is more than one uncle who is older or younger in the family, they become 大 (dà) + uncle.
For example, if your father has two older brothers, you would call the eldest brother 大伯 (dà bó), ‘big uncle’ and the next eldest 二伯 (èr bó) ‘2nd uncle’.
Titles refer to gender, marital status, education, and profession. You would use these titles when introducing your husband or wife at a formal event.
Family name + given name + title
先生 (xiān sheng) Mr.
太太 (tài tai) Mrs.
小姐 (xiǎo jie) Miss
医生 (yī shēng) Doctor
大夫 (dài fu) Doctor
护士 (hù shi) Nurse
师傅 (shī fu) Master (skilled worker)
老师 (lǎo shī) Teacher
教授 (jiào shòu) Professor
律师 (lǜ shī) Lawyer
法官 (fǎ guān) Judge
主席 (zhǔ xí) Chairperson
校长 (xiào zhǎng) Principal
警察 (jǐng chá) Police officer
秘书 (mì shū) Secretary
主任 (zhǔ rèn) Director of a government department
司机 (sī jī) Driver
总统 (zǒng tǒng) President
经理 (jīng lǐ) Manager
总经理 (zǒng jīng lǐ) General Manager (shortened to 总 (zǒng))
博士 (bó shì) Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D)
Friends and Acquaintances
Close friends would address each other using given names:
[given name], 最近怎么样? (…zuì jìn zěn me yàng) How’re you doing?
Within a family, given names are sometimes replaced with kinship terms, but these can also be used with people who are not relatives.
大哥 (dà gē) Older brother (close to your age, but older)
大姐 (dà jiě) Older sister (close to your age, but older)
叔叔 (shū shu) Uncle (title for a man of around your father’s age)
阿姨 (ā yí) Aunt (title for a woman who is around you mother’s age)
爷爷 (yé ye) Grandfather (title for a man who is around your grandfather’s age)
奶奶 (nǎi nai) Grandmother (title for a woman who is around your grandmother’s age)
Titles are a common way to address people and can be used along without knowing the person’s family name. 先生 (xiān sheng), 太太 (tài tai), 小姐 (xiǎo jie),阿姨 (ā yí), 大爷 (dà ye) and 师傅 (shī fu) can be used to address a stranger.
师傅 (shī fu) and 大爷 (dà ye) are informal terms and can be used in many different contexts, including taxi drivers and maintenance workers. 小姐 (xiǎo jie) would be used to address a young woman in a service job and 阿姨 (ā yí) would be used to address an older one.
It is becoming more common for customers to refer to their servers as 美女 (měi nǚ), meaning ‘beautiful woman’ and occasionally 帅哥 (shuài ge), for ‘handsome guy’ to get the attention of a waiter or shop assistant. In a restaurant, you can also use the term for waiter, 服务员 (fú wù yuán).