Saturday, October 4, 2008

Chinese honorifics

Class consciousness and Confucian principles of order and respect helped promote the development of an elaborate system of honorific language in Ancient and Imperial China. Chinese polite language is very similar to the Japanese system 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 many contemporary Chinese speakers. This is partly attributable to the popularity of Chinese historical novels and television dramas, which often employ languages from the classical periods. In general, language referring to oneself exhibits self-deprecating humbleness, while language referring to others shows approval and respect.

Because Chinese does not have inflections, i.e., there's no grammatical conjugation or declension, the Chinese honorifics system is not as complex as 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.

請問你姓甚麼??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 is replaced by the honorific second person pronoun 您

2. The casual interrogative pronoun 甚麼?什么 is dropped

3. The honorific prefix 貴?贵 is added in front of 姓 to exalt the addressee

So the resulting sentence, 請問您貴姓??请问您贵姓?: ''“May I ask for the honorable surname of the honorific you?”'' 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 are obsolete after the end of the Qing Dynasty and are no longer used.

Referring to oneself

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

* 愚 : I, the unintelligent
* 鄙 : I, the less educated
* 敝 : I, the unrefined
* 卑 : I, from a lower class
* 竊·窃 : I, who did not give you proper notice
* 僕·仆 : I, your servant
* 婢 : I, your servant
* 妾 : I, your concubine
* 在下 : I, who am humbler and lower than you
* 小人 : I, the insignificant
* 小女 : I, the insignificant and female
* 草民 : I, the worthless commoner
* 奴才 : I, your slave/servant
* 奴婢 : I, your slave/servant
* 奴家 : I, your wife


* 老~ , old
** 老朽 : I, who am old and unable
** 老夫 : I, who am old and respected
** 老漢·老汉 : I, who am an old man
** 老拙 : I, who am old and clumsy
** 老衲 : I, the old monk
** 老身 : I, this old body

The royal family

* 孤 : I, the ruler of a kingdom
* 寡 : I, the ruler of a kingdom
* 寡人 : I, the ruler of a kingdom
* 不穀·不谷 : I, the ruler of a dissolute kingdom
* 朕 : I, the Emperor
* 本宫 : I, the empress/concubine
* 哀家 : I, the emperor's mother
* 臣妾 : I, your concubine
* 兒臣·儿臣 : I, your son official/subject

Government officials

* 臣 : I, your subject
* 下官 : I, the low official
* 末官 : I, the lesser official
* 小吏 : I, the small scribe / official
* 卑職·卑职 : I, the humble position
* 末將·末将 : I, the lowest general
* 本官 : I, your superior

Scholarly or religious professions

* 小生 : I, who am born / grown "smaller"
* 晚生 : I, who was born later
* 晚學·晚学 : I, who started studying later
* 不才 : I, who am without talent
* 不佞 : I, who am without talent
* 不肖 : I, who did not respect you
* 晚輩·晚辈 : I, who belong to a younger generation
* 貧僧·贫僧 : I, the poor monk
* 貧尼·贫尼 : I, the poor nun

The speaker's own family

* 家~ : prefix for elder family members
* 先~ : prefix for elder family members
* 舍~ : prefix for younger family members
* 小~ : small
** 小兒·小儿 : My son, who is small
** 小女 : My daughter, who is small
* 内~ : prefix for referring to one's wife - 内人,内子
* 愚~ : prefix for referring to one's self and one's family member; 愚夫婦, 愚父子、愚兄弟, etc
* 犬子 : My son, who is comparable to a puppy
* 拙夫·拙夫 : My husband, who is inferior
* 拙荆·拙荆 : My wife, who is inferior
* 賤内·贱内 : The one within , who is worthless
* 寒舍 : my home - literally my worthless residence

Addressing or referring to others


* 萬歲·万岁 : 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 : You, the lord of ten thousand years
* 聖~·圣~ : the holy, the sacred
** 聖上·圣上 : You, the holy up high
** 聖瘛な�: a prefix indicating holiness

The addressee's family members

* 令~ : The beautiful
** 令尊 or 令尊翁 : the beautiful and respectful
** 令堂 or 令壽堂 : the beautiful and dignified
** 令閫·令阃 : the beautiful door to the woman's room
** 令兄 : the beautiful elder brother
** 令郎 or 令公子 : the beautiful young lord
** 令愛·令爱 : the beautiful and beloved
** 令千金 : the beautiful of a thousand gold
* 尊~ : The respectful
** 尊上 : The respectful above
** 尊公 , 尊君 , 尊府 : The respectful lord
** 尊堂 : The respectful and dignified
** 尊親·尊亲 : The respectful related
** 尊駕·尊驾 : The respectful procession
* 賢~·贤~ : the virtuous
** 賢喬梓: you
** 賢伉儷: you
** 賢昆仲: you
** 賢昆玉: you

One's own family

* 賢~·贤~ : the virtuous
** 賢妻 : you, my esteemed wife
** 賢棣·賢弟·贤弟 : you, my esteemed younger brother
** 賢侄·贤侄 : you, my esteemed nephew
* 夫人 : you, my wife
* 夫君 : you, my husband
* 郎君 : you, my husband
* 官人 : you, my husband
* 相公: you, my husband
* 仁兄 : you, my kind older brother
* 愛~ 爱~ : prefix for beloved family members, e.g. 愛妻,愛姬,愛妾,愛郎


* 賢~·贤~ : the virtuous
** 賢家·贤家 : the virtuous house
** 賢郎·贤郎 : the virtuous young man
** 賢弟·贤弟 : the virtuous younger brother
* 仁~ : the kind
** 仁兄 : You, the kind older brother
** 仁公 : You, the kind lord

Elders or the deceased

* 丈~ : prefix for old people
* 太~ , 大~ : prefix for elders
** 太后 : Dowager Empress
** 太父 : father
** 太母 : mother
* 先~ : prefix for deceased elder people
** 先帝 : dead emperor
** 先考 , 先父 : dead father
** 先慈 , 先妣 : dead mother
** 先賢·先贤 : dead knowledgeable person
* 亡~ : prefix for deceased younger people; 亡弟、亡兒 etc

Compare the above few with:

顯考 honorable deceased father

顯妣 honorable deceased mother

These last two are considered more elegant and literary than the two synonyms above, and are commonly found in spiritual tablets and gravestones in Taiwan and overseas Chinese who were not affected by the Cultural Revolution.

Strangers or social encounters

* 貴~·贵~ - the honorable
** 貴子弟·贵子弟 : your son
** 貴家長·贵家长 : your parent
** 貴公司·贵公司 , 貴寶號 : your company
** 貴國·贵国 : your country
** 貴姓·贵姓 : your surname
** 貴庚·贵庚 : your age
* 寶~·宝~ - precious, valuable
** 寶號 : your valuable business
* 相公 : term of address for any young gentleman
* 府上 : your home

Other prefixes and suffixes

* 阿~ : intimacy prefix; for example: 阿伯,阿妹,阿哥,阿爸
* 本~ : prefix. this
* 為~·为~ : prefix. I
* 敝~ : prefix. my, our; for example: 敝校,敝人
* ~君 : for a male friend or a respected person
* ~姬 , 姑娘 : for a female friend, maiden
* ~郎 : for an intimate male friend or husband
* ~子 , 夫子 : for a wise man
* ~兄 : for a friend
* ~公 : for a respected person
* ~足下 : for my friend
* ~先生 : for someone in a profession
* ~大人 : for a higher ranked official
* ~兒·儿 : for a young person
* ~哥 : for an elder male friend or relative
* ~弟 : for a younger male friend or relative
* ~姐 : for an elder female friend or relative
* ~妹 : for a younger female friend or relative


is used at the beginning of a speech or a letter to address the audience or recipient. 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... : Dear ...
* 尊敬的... : Revered ...
* 敬愛的... : Dear esteemed ...

Slang Honorifics

It has been a tradition for many years in China to address oneself colloquially using honorifics, or a pronoun in place for "I". These include:

* 老子 : I, your dad
* 爷 : I, your lord. Used in parts of Northern China

When used towards a person less well known or formal occasion, both terms are considered to be incredibly rude, and usually used to purposely disgrace the addressee. However it is less of an issue when spoken among close friends, though depending on person, some can still get offended.

No comments: