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How to Address Someone Based on Their Status in Chinese

Do people in China still use the term 同志 (tóng zhì) to address each other?

Although you may have seen people in communist China calling each other 同志 with enthusiasm in movies, the reality is that the use of this term has been declining since China’s reforms in the 1980s.

How to Address People for tongzhi

Nowadays, 同志 is mostly used to address Communist Party leaders in meetings or news reports, or to address management and staff in state-owned enterprises.

However, 同志 is now also used to refer to homosexuals, and its usage in this context has been increasing. When used to refer to someone’s sexual orientation, one would say:

XXX是个同志。(XXXshì gè tóng zhì.) XXX is homosexual.

Furthermore, movies exploring homosexuality are known as 同志电影 (tóng zhì diàn yǐng).

After phasing out 同志, some of the terms commonly used before the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 have returned to daily use. However, over time, some of these terms, like 小姐, have undergone many changes. We’ll discuss the meanings of these terms below.

How to Address People Based on Marital Status: 先生,女士,太太,and 小姐

Note that for all of these terms, in contrast to English, the surname should be placed in front. For example, Mr. Wang is 王先生, not 先生王. These titles can also be used without surnames.

先生 (xiān sheng, Mr.) is a respectful way to address a man. It could also mean “husband” depending on context, as in the following example:

这是我先生 (zhè shì wǒ xiān sheng)。 This is my husband.

先生 is also used to refer to accomplished scholars in a respectful sense, regardless of gender.

女士 (nǚ shì, Ms.) is a respectful way to address a woman.

太太 (tài tai, Mrs.) is a respectful way to address a married woman. It can also mean “wife” like 先生. In mainland China, women do not take their husbands’ surnames after marriage. Instead, they use their own surname followed by tài tai. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, some women take their husband’s surname and keep their maiden names as middle names.


小姐 (xiǎo jiě, Miss) is a respectful way to address a woman in formal settings. However, depending on the context, it can also refer to a waitress or a flight attendant. Before 1949, 小姐 generally referred to single women from wealthy or aristocratic families. However, it became associated with women from the bourgeoisie class, and it was stigmatized. The term reemerged in the 80s and became more inclusive, mostly referring to young women. Recently, in informal settings, it has been widely used to refer to female sex workers.

So this brings us to the question of how to address women in daily life.

When addressing women in daily life, you can use “女士” (nǚ shì), “太太” (tài tai), or “小姐” (xiǎo jiě) in formal settings. For informal settings, it’s common to use their full names. You can also use “小 [surname]” (e.g., 小王 xiǎo wáng) for younger people, or “老 [surname]” for older people. Close friends may address each other by first name. In the workplace, people prefer to address each other by job titles or ranks to show respect.

How to Address People in Work Settings

Jobs with Higher Social Status

Certain jobs have a higher social status in China and those who perform these jobs are usually referred to by their job titles. Examples of these job titles include 医生 (yī shēng, doctor), 护士 (hù shì, nurse), 律师 (lǜ shī, lawyer), 法官 (fǎ guān, judge), 会计 (kuài jì, accountant), 教授 (jiàoshòu, professor), 老师 (lǎo shī, teacher), and 博士(bó shì, Ph.D.). Surnames may also be placed directly before the appropriate job title.

It’s important to note that the term “老师 (lǎo shī, teacher)” has evolved from its original meaning in recent years. It is now commonly used in schools, media, and entertainment to respectfully address someone who is knowledgeable, has expertise in a certain field (such as a movie director), or simply works in an academic context (such as an administrative staff member in a school).

Titles Based on Rank

When addressing individuals who work for the government or in commercial enterprises, it’s common to use their rank. Examples include 市长 (shì zhǎng, mayor), 校长 (xiàozhǎng, school principal), 经理 (jīng lǐ, manager), and 董事 (dǒng shì, director). Surnames can also be placed before the rank when addressing these individuals.


In Chinese, 副 (fù) is used for a deputy position, such as deputy mayor (副市长) or deputy director (副主任). However, it is a sign of respect to address individuals with deputy roles by their main title. For instance, you would address a deputy mayor (副市长) simply as “mayor” (市长). This tradition may have originated from the competitive atmosphere of Chinese government offices, where deputies aspire to become principal one day and drop the “deputy” label from their title.

The term 总 (zǒng) is also gaining popularity and means “chief”. It was first used as an abbreviation for high-ranking job titles such as 总经理 (zǒng jīng lǐ, general manager), 总裁 (zǒng cái, chairman or president), and 总工程师 (zǒng gōng chéng shī, chief engineer). To show respect, such people are addressed by their surname followed by 总 (e.g., 王总 with 王 being the surname). However, the term has now expanded beyond its original meaning and is used widely to address individuals with a relatively high rank in government, state-owned enterprises, or commercial companies.

Those Who Work in Service Positions

服务员(fú wù yuán) is used to address a waiter or waitress.

The term “师傅” (shī fu, master) has evolved over time and is now commonly used in three ways:

  1. as a respectful way to address someone with expertise in a certain skill or trade, such as a chef, plumber, or martial artist
  2. as a term of respect for blue-collar workers, like cab drivers, factory workers, or sales clerks
  3. as a respectful way to address monks or nuns.

Closing Thoughts

In China, addressing people requires skill. As China underwent various political and social changes over the years, the ways of addressing people have also evolved. The use of 同志 has been mostly limited to addressing Communist Party leaders and is being replaced by other terms in daily life, whereas the use of 同志 to refer to homosexuals has become more popular. Traditional terms like 先生, 女士, 太太, and 小姐 are still commonly used, especially in formal settings. However, informal settings allow the use of full names or informal nicknames. In work settings, it is common to address people by their job titles or ranks.

Overall, the choice of how to address someone in China depends on the context, the relationship between the speakers, and the social status of the person being addressed. Share your tips with us by commenting below!

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Cheryl Zhou

Cheryl Zhou is a Mandarin tutor in Hong Kong. She enjoys helping expatriates and their children learn Mandarin. Cheryl received her Master of Chinese Pedagogy from The Ohio State University, and lived in the U.S. for over 10 years before moving to Hong Kong. She believes that culture is an inherent element in language learning, and loves to share cultural tidbits with readers. Cheryl also runs her blog about Mandarin learning at YesMandarin.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. I find the following really useful, when addressing the owner of a shop or business:
    老板 ( lǎobǎn ) – boss, male proprietor
    老板娘 ( lǎobǎnniáng ) – boss lady, boss’s wife, female proprietor

  2. Please be careful not to confuse 师傅 with 师父 (same pronunciation). Only the latter (师父) is used as a respectful term to address monks and nuns.

  3. I am getting a job a small chinese CPA firm with only three employee size.
    The lady (owner of the firm) interviewed me and never properly introduce me her name. She did mention it Chinese and it was on hurry before she left the office. Is there any title you used to address a CPA like you will mention ” Xi 律师” for lawyer. I don’t think people will normally call their accounting senior ” Xi 会计”. My boss is around 50 and is a lady. Please advise how I should address her properly. I can ask her the day I started my job but it would be embarrassing. I am not originally from China, but know some Mandarin for small chat only.

    1. Yes, we don`t really call someone “会计” nowadays. Maybe you can ask and address her English name directly. If she is your boss, you can also use “老板” or “老大” which depends on your firm`s atmosphere.

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