terms of address

Terms of address are used to index social relations between the addresser and the addressee. Since China is traditionally known to have put much emphasis on social hierarchy, it is no coincidence that Chinese possesses a sophisticated system of address forms. In the complex Chinese system of kinship terms, many remote relationships receive lexical coding. The use of kinship terms is so pervasive that the terms are also applied to strangers. For example, a child can be expected to address a female stranger as jiejie (elder sister) or ayi (auntie).
The common prefixes of lao (old) and xiao (little/ young) in a surname mark both age relation and perceived seniority.
Perhaps the areas most clearly reflecting changes in social structure and social values are the forms of address concerning non-kin. While in the pre-1949 era honorific forms such as xiansheng (mister) and xiaojie (miss) were widespread, the Communist Party actively promoted the use of tongzhi (comrade), a term inspired by their Soviet counterparts. Tongzhi, however, like many other high-profile terms of address, has undergone changes in status along with the society in which it is used, with the most recent change being the revival of old honorific forms in place of tongzhi. While honorific terms of address come and go, a common tendency in recent Chinese history has been to use appreciative terms that refer to craftsmanship and/or educatedness. Thus, shifu (master/teacher), laoban (boss/business owner) and laoshi (teacher) are some of the recent terms employed to address strangers who are not necessarily professionals.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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