Understand Chinese names

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When I first arrived in Hong Kong I'd regularly make mistakes with peoples' Chinese names. Here's the Batgung primer to help you do better ...

Chinese names

Most Chinese names consist of three Chinese characters, eg you've probably heard of the famous businessman Li Ka Shing (李嘉誠). The main difference from Western names is that the surname (family name) comes first, then the two-character given-name. So the right way to address him is as 'Mr Li', or 'Ka Shing' if you are already a good friend of his.

Common mistakes would be to address him as:
  •  'Dear Mr Shing,', thinking that surname comes last, or
  •  'Dear Li,', thinking that given-name comes first, or
  •  'Dear Ka,', knowing that given-name follows surname, but thinking of 'Shing' as a Western 'middle-name' that is not used in a greeting. The two given-name characters should be used together.
Don't expect everyone you meet to use a three-character Chinese name though, as you'll find plenty of exceptions. In Hong Kong, many people take an English given-name at an early age. Some only use it when dealing with foreigners, while others use it to the extent that their Chinese given-name is only known by their family. If they use an English given-name they will follow the 'surname last' convention, eg Li Ka Shing's sons are usually referred to by their English names, Victor Li and Richard Li.

The use of English given-names among Chinese people in Asia is strongest in Hong Kong. In Singapore for example, almost all Chinese people just use their Chinese given-name.

Another approach is to use the initials of the given-name, followed by the surname, eg 'K S Li'. This seems most common among middle-aged men - I guess they made the choice before taking an English name became fashionable. If you'll be working with them regularly, you'll call them by their initials, eg 'K S'.

In South-East Asia, you'll find many Chinese men are called by their surname, using it like a given name. So if you call them 'Mr Li', you'll be told to 'just call me Li'.

Finally, even when people are using their Chinese names, there are variations on the three-character rule. First there are some two-character Chinese surnames, such as 'Au Yeung' and 'Sze To'. Then in Mainland China it's not unusual for people to have a single-character given-name.

If it seems a complicated business working out what to call people, it's not really that bad. If you are introduced to someone by their Chinese name, the simplest way to respond is simply to repeat Mr / Miss and their surname, 'Hello Mr Li', and wait to be corrected from there. eg 'Just call me Victor'. If there's no correction, just carry on using Mr Li. It never hurts to be a little more formal in first meetings than you would be in say the UK or the US.

Chinese titles

The examples given above assume you are dealing with a Chinese person in an English-language business setting. If you are living in Hong Kong it's also worth knowing some of the basic Chinese forms of titles, to make your life a little easier.

Where the Western norm is to use people's given names even on a first meeting, a Chinese person is more likely to use the surname plus a title. The confucian ideas of the importance of rank in the family & society probably have a part to play in this, but there's also the practical need to identify people clearly. It's commonly quoted that there are only 100 Chinese surnames. There are more than that, but the number of surnames you'll meet is still a very small number. eg the list of the 200 most common surnames covered 96% of the 174,500 people listed in a 1990 survey. So if you're having a gossip and refer to a 'Mr Wong', there's a good chance the listener will have several Mr Wong's in mind. A title helps pinpoint exactly which Mr Wong you mean...

The more formal titles follow surnames. If we assume a person's surname is 'Wong', you might hear them described as:

ChineseEnglishNotes
Wong Sin SaangMr WongThe shortened form 'Wong Saang' is also common.
Wong Siu JeMiss WongMeant to refer to an unmarried lady, but it also implies youth. For this reason on a first meeting most people use 'siu je' to address a lady, even if they think she is married. Better to be on the safe side with a bit of flattery.
Wong Gwoo LeungMiss WongMore formal - used to address older ladies. 'Older' is around 50+, but if you are in any doubt, it is safer to start with 'Siu Je' and let yourself be corrected!
Wong Taai TaaiMrs WongOften shortened to 'Wong Taai'. In the previous two examples, the surname is the lady's mainden name. In this case the husband's surname is used. That can lead to some confusion where you'll hear a lady apparently addressed by two different names, eg 'Wong Siu Je' at work and 'Li Taai' by her friends, ie Miss Wong but Mrs Li. It's common for women to continue to use their unmarried 'Siu je' title in business after marrying, to avoid confusion by changing names.
Wong Ging LayManager WongIf you are meeting managers in mainland China, it's common to have them introduced in English as 'Manager' then their surname, instead of using 'Mr' / 'Miss'.
Wong Si FuExpert WongSi Fu means expert, but it is commonly used to mean 'Engineer'. So if your office light/water/electricity has problems, someone will call for a 'Si Fu' to fix it.

There are some common adaptations of given-names too:

Ah-Shing You'll hear a lot of people called Ah-something. It's a shortened, familiar form of their given name, made by combining 'Ah' and the second character of their given-name.
Shing-JeElder sister Shing 
Shing-GohElder brother ShingThese two are respectful ways of referring to people, and are formed by adding -Je or -Goh to the second character of their given name. Older staff in the office are often referred to this way, especially older support staff such as cleaners and messengers.

Chinese names and your computer

If you'll need to use English-language software (eg a contact manager package), to record Chinese names, there are several conventions you can follow. I've used different approaches over the years, including typing the whole name 'Li Ka Shing' in the 'last-name' field, or putting 'Li' in the 'first name' and 'Ka Shing' in 'last name'. It means on the screen the names look to be in the right order, but then you get letters generated from overseas colleagues that are addressed to 'Dear blank', or 'Dear Mr Ka Shing'.

The approach I've ended up using is to hyphenate the given-name and type that as the 'first-name', ie 'Ka-Shing', and put the surname 'Li' in the 'last-name' field.

Also a quick reminder that if you are ever creating forms to be used in Asia that collect people's names, asking for 'first name' and 'last name' will cause lots of confusion. It is much clearer to ask for their 'given name', and 'family name'

Other info

Here are a couple of pages I used for background information about Chinese surnames:
If you have any mistakes to share that you've made, or mistakes people make with your Chinese name that annoy you, please let us know.

MrB

Comments

Addressing older folks

Thanks Mr B. One question I always have is how I should politely address obviously older people (over 75) whose name I don't know, for example what I should tell my kids to say when some nice old lady/gentleman makes a fuss of them. In the West, calling them "Grandad" would be the height of rudeness, but I have a feeling this might be the way to go in HK.

Any tips?

Aunty and Uncle

The safest is probably just to use 'suk-suk' (uncle) or 'yee-yee' (aunty), as in 'Say hello to suk-suk'. Exactly which age-range to use these with is always the tricky part, but I use them for anyone that looks 40 or above. Our daughter uses 'suk-suk' to address the guard in our building's lobby for example.

People in their 20s & 30s would probably grumble that they're not that old, and so you'd be better using 'goh-goh' (elder brother), or 'je-je' (elder sister).

If the lady really has that silver-haired look, then 'poh-poh' (granny) is well received. The equivalent for the 75+ man would be 'gung-gung' (grandpa). That also works fine, but I'm lazy and tend to use suk-suk for all older men.

Give it a try - you'll be rewarded with extra smiles!

MrB

MrB is not kidding . . .

. . . about how complicated this naming thing gets!

Just this morning Mrs Tall had a conversation with a woman we'd met casually a few times in our building lobby. She's very nice, and interested in Daughter Tall's development, so she offered to lend us some Mandarin language CDs.

A bit awkwardly, however, even at this point we didn't know her name, so Mrs Tall finally introduced herself.

This lady replied by giving Mrs Tall her full Chinese name:, i.e. 'I am "Surname + Given name first character + Given name second character"'.

Mrs Tall then said, 'So, shall I address you as "Given name second character + Jeh (i.e. 'big sister')?

The lady replied, 'No, you can call me "Surname Siu Jeh"', i.e. Miss X!

And we know for a fact she's married, and she looks to be in her mid to late 40s. So, as MrB has so accurately pointed out, it's all pretty complicated!

One other name note: Mrs Tall and other Hong Kong people sometimes use the 'Ah-name' form with their friends or colleagues' English names, too -- but it seems only if that English name has just one syllable. That is, 'Ah-Joe', but never 'Ah-Joseph'.

Surname in the Middle

There is another subcategory of ethnic Chinese name format that is in wide use in Hong Kong and other Southeast Asian Nations with significant ethnic Chinese populations such as Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei. The format is Non-Chinese Derived Given Name(s) - Surname - Chinese Derived Given Name(s). Examples of full names that use this format are listed in the following (For clarity I will use UPPER CASE for all letters in the Surname of respective example).

a) Oliver LOI Chee Siung
b) Yusuf LIU Baojun
c) Surya Arjunanda TAN Kah Keong
d) Shukreen MA Pin

Ethnic Chinese individuals with these names [(a) - (d)] have their Surname in between two sets of Given Names. Depending on the respective individuals, they may regard either their non-Chinese derived Given Name(s) as their First Name(s) or their Chinese derived Given Name(s) as their First Name(s). Using the provided examples, those who regard their non-Chinese Given Name(s) as their First name(s) will want their Visas (issued by countries in the WEST) to index their names in the following manner:

a) LOI, OLIVER CHEE SIUNG
b) LIU, YUSUF BAOJUN
c) TAN, SURYA ARJUNANDA KAH KEONG
d) MA, SHUKREEN PIN

and would also understand if their full legal names in the WEST become:

a 1) OLIVER CHEE SIUNG LOI
b 2) YUSUF BAOJUN LIU
c 3) SURYA ARJUNANDA KAH KEONG TAN
d 4) SHUKREEN PIN MA

and will NOT consider these forms as different names to a), b), c) and d).

However, there is another interpretation of these names by Malaysia Airlines for example. Regardless of how these names are indexed in the Visas; Malaysia Airlines will have no problem in identifying the SURNAME (Last Name) for each of the individual mentioned here but it does tend to interpret the Chinese Given Name(s) as the First Name(s) of these individuals. Therefore Airline Tickets will reflect (Malaysian Travel Agents follow this format):

a 1.1) LOI/ CHEESIUNGOLIVER MR
b 2.1) LIU/ BAOJUNYUSUF MR
c 3.1) TAN/ KAHKEONGSURYAARJUNANDA MR
d 4.1) MA/ PINSHUKREEN MS

Likewise, in the Visas, some will actually have their Chinese Given Name(s) as the First Name(s)
e.g. LIU, BAOJUN YUSUF and the full legal name in the West would therefore become BAOJUN YUSUF LIU and will be addressed as Mr Baojun Liu by authorities even though this person may have preferred to be addressed as Mr Yusuf Liu.

Multiple Interpretibility of the First Name(s) Order do and can create confusion with authorities in the West especially when passenger records of an aircraft does not match that of the Visas issued. But there are other secondary methods to verify the identity of these passengers.

I highlight these names because these names utilise a format that is quite unique to this part of the world and individuals with this name format may face difficulties when dealing with various authorities in the West especially if they are confronted with staffs who are very familiar with this name format. Typical Chinese Name Format with Surname First is actually quite well known but a Surname that occurs in the middle of a strings of name may seem to be a novelty to inexperienced officials. The difficulty arising from this situation is compounded because Malaysian, Bruneian and Singaporean Passports do not currently have differentiated fields for Given Name(s) and Surname. Names are recorded according to customary naming practice of the person in question. When individuals with this subcategory of name format immigrate, they find themselves in dillemma because they may face personal challenges in convincing authorities that their Surname(s) are indeed in the between the two sets of their given name(s). Putting the whole chunk of their Chinese name(s) in the Surname field in official database will not do justice to the main purpose of indexing name(s) according to Surname(s)/Family Name(s) as this practice potentially limit the utilitarian purpose of name indexing by authorities to start with. The difference in name order as a result of proper indexing must not be understood as name difference and their name formats as they appear in documents issued in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei must be understood as customary naming practice.

This subcategory of ethnic Chinese Name(s)is quite challenging because it neither conforms to the Western Format nor to the Chinese Format. However it is also not difficult to locate which is the Surname in all Malaysian, Singaporean and Bruneian issued documents. The key is to locate the first occuring Chinese-derived element in this subcategory of name(s) and this is usually the Surname. Very often, the Chinese Given Names are usually dropped in numerous social contexts and the examples of individuals mentioned here are legitimately known by their Non-Chinese Derived Given Names and Surnames. Thus, it is appropriate to say that their Chinese Given Names actually function like Middle Name(s) in the West. Having said this of course, there are exceptions to this rule for those who interpret their Chinese Given Name(s) as their first (primary) names. Whatever the case, these individuals are not confused about their Surnames (Last Names) and are usually very proud of their family heritage and wish others to respect their Surnames by acknowledging that their Surnames can indeed occur in between two sets of Given Names.

Throughout this article, I have used the term "Non - Chinese Derived Given Names" instead of the more common term "Christian/ English Name(s)" because of religious diversity among ethnic Chinese. Some are Muslims and some are Hindus indeed. This article excludes Chinese Muslims who use the naming format of First Names - Surname "bin"/or "binti" Abdullah (usually that of Chinese Muslim Convert). I also do not discuss names with "@" (alias) in this article.

I hope this article clarifies many ambiguities associated with this subcategory of ethnic Chinese Names especially those found in Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei.

What a lot of names!

Oliver, thank you for explaining this additional format of Chinese names so thoroughly. I don't think it is as widely used here in Hong Kong. I wonder if it is more common in the S.E. Asia countries you mention because the English given-name is chosen at birth (and so recorded in the birth certificate)? Or is it just a convention that the government documents record all the names?

Here it seems that government records typically use the full Chinese name, then an English name is chosen later in life. eg MrsB's ID card and all government records just use her Chinese name that was chosen at birth. But her bank account uses her English given-name followed by her Chinese unmarried family name. (I guess it was opened when she started work in her teens, and by then she was commonly known by her English name).

All straightforward so far. But then her private email address is her English given name followed by my English family name. Finally the guards downstairs address her as '(My Chinese family name) taai-taai'.

To add to the confusion, our older daughter's ID card uses her English given name plus my English family name. But this year she started Chinese kindergarten, where they call her by my Chinese family name followed by her Chinese given name.

So many aliases - sometimes it feels like we're a family of spies.

Regards, MrB

More about 'Surname in the Middle' among Malaysian Chinese

MrB,

Thanks for the response. The situation in Hong Kong seems to be a little different from your description. But there is enough evidence to suggest that when Chinese derived Given names and Non - Chinese Derived Given Names are used together; the Surname of the person in question usually appears in the between the two sets of Given Names. I will give examples of well known Hong Kong Entertainment Stars as examples and for clarity I will capitalise all letters in their respective Surname.

a) Tony LEUNG Kah Fai
b) Leslie CHEUNG Kwok Wing
c) Anita MUI Yim Fong (Not Certain whether the Spelling of the Chinese Names are correct)

Perhaps their Non - Chinese Derived (English) Given Names are not present in their legal identity documents such as Birth Certificates, Identity Cards or Passports (I am not too sure) and therefore this practice does not have legal implications; but for Malaysian Chinese whose names are grouped in the 'Surname in the Middle Category'; this format is officially present in all their legal documents. In Malaysia, names are not differentiated into Surname and Given Names and personal names are recorded in one single data field according to the CUSTOMARY/ Cultural Format of the applicant (bearer) in question. For example my full name per Malaysian Identity Documents is: OLIVER LOI CHEE SIUNG in all documents issued in Malaysia and as of the time of writing; there is no indication in any of Malaysian Identity Documents as to which part of my name is the Surname. In my case, the Surname at the front rule does not apply at all nor does the rule of Surname last. My Surname (or Last Name) 'LOI' is in the Middle and occurs in between 'OLIVER' and 'CHEE SIUNG'. In Malaysia and Singapore as well as Brunei this name format is not an issue because official forms do not have differentiated field for Surname and Given Names but this name format does have immigration implication as regards to immigration to the WEST and Airline Tickets.

I am now residing in New Zealand and when I have to write my name in full, I write my name as OLIVER CHEE SIUNG LOI because of the design of many official and unofficial forms itself. Forms in Western Countries usually asks for Surname/ Last Name and Given Names/ First Names and almost by default Surname is standardised or streamlined as a LAST part of a legal personal name. It is a direct consequence of the many softwares in use and other official name recording practices in the WEST itself.

In the context of my name, I can not see that OLIVER LOI CHEE SIUNG (per Malaysian Identity Documents) and OLIVER CHEE SIUNG LOI (NZ Format) are two different names because there are two distinct rules that governs my name order in both environments. In Malaysia, the current official name recording practice allows people like myself to have their names recorded according to Cultural practice but in New Zealand the streamlining of Surname as Last part of a legal personal name makes it necessary to have my name retransposed and reordered in accordance to official practice. In Singapore, occasionally, the additional Non - Chinese Given Name or English Given Name are recorded after the whole set Chinese Names and therefore the Surname First applies to this individual. Example: TAN Kok Wah Stephen. But this format is usually the exception rather than the rule.

Earlier this year, I had trouble convincing Land Transport New Zealand Driver Licensing that my Surname is indeed 'LOI' although I showed to the Driver Licensing representative and later faxed my NZ Immigration Issued Work Visa (I now hold a Returning Resident Visa - In all my NZ Immigration Visa, my name is indexed as LOI, OLIVER CHEE SIUNG to reflect 'Family, Given Names:') to the Land Transport Authority that 'LOI' is my Family Name (Surname). Initially they insisted that they can only use the Identity Page of the Passport and the problem was that my name was recorded in a single data field (as Malaysian Passport does not currently have differentiated fields for Given Names and Surnames) as: OLIVER LOI CHEE SIUNG. I was constantly irritated and angered that they insist that my Surname is either 'LOI CHEE SIUNG' or 'CHEE SIUNG' or 'SIUNG' or more bizzarely because they reckoned that since ethnic Chinese have Surname First or the fact that many International Passports have Surname field first; my Surname is OLIVER! In my opinion, common sense was not at work here! I had to supply additional documents to prove that my Surname is 'LOI' and went to seek help from many sources and the issue of my surname was only resolved after approximately 2 weeks of waiting agony while they deliberated on the question of whether I could use 'LOI' as Family Name (Surname) in the Driver Licence. It was an extremely tough moment of my life and I vowed from then onward to help other ethnic Chinese with similar name formats to clarify issues surrounding their names as satisfactorily as possible. I searched extensively regarding this issue on the net but to my dismay this issue is not discussed throroughly and a lot of the anecdotal reports on Chinese names centred around the Surname First / Surname Last issue and nothing on Surname in the Middle except for an article written by Dr. Peter Tan Kok Wan (Dr. Peter K.W. Tan) of National University of Singapore on "Englished Names" - I recommend this article for those who are doubting that a Surname (Last Name/ Family Name) can occur in between two set of Given Names. Dr. Peter Tan's and my names are examples of this format! Also check Joseph C. Lin's published journal article on cataloguing publications of authors who have Chinese Names with Non - Chinese Given Names. Joseph Lin highlighted three major patterns of this name type. They are Surname in the Middle like my example, Surname First like traditional Chinese Name Formatting and Surname Last for those who are educated or immigrated to the West. People with Surname in the Middle will by system default; have to write their names with Surname Last format when they immigrate to the West because that's the prevalent system anyway.

Even though some actually suggested to me so that I write my whole Chinese Name: "LOI CHEE SIUNG" as Surname in forms (I mean Forms issued in the West), I do not agree with this suggestion based on the principles below:

1) This practice may potentially suggest that my Surname is different from my siblings and father as all of them have different Chinese Given Names.

2) I do not want to be addressed as Mr. LOI CHEE SIUNG but simply Mr. LOI in official or formal setting because LOI is indeed my Surname and I do not need people to tell me otherwise.

3) That in the context of my name, the two apparently different name orders do not amount to name difference BUT is a result of two distinct governing rules in naming practices. Therefore to the question of 'Have you used other name?' in many forms in New Zealand, I will consistently say 'NO'.

If New Zealand and various other systems in the West does not officially index name according to Surname (Family Name); and personal names are recorded in undifferetiated name data field (in one single line like Malaysian Identity Documents); I guess I would have written my full legal name as OLIVER LOI CHEE SIUNG but because the practice of differentiated Name Data fields are present in numerous settings in the West, I am just exercising my right to have my names recorded in accordance to my NZ Immigration Service issued Visa(s). When I write my name as OLIVER CHEE SIUNG LOI and when my name is indexed as LOI, OLIVER CHEE SIUNG in NEW ZEALAND and OTHER SIMILAR ENVIRONMENTS: they are entirely free of fraudulent intent! I want to shout: "It's the same name as 'OLIVER LOI CHEE SIUNG' on Malaysian Identity Documents!!!"

p/s: When I went back to Malaysia recently, I went to an Immigration Branch to ask if they could produce a letter stating that my Surname is 'LOI'; they found it difficult to understand why Land Transport New Zealand had difficulty initially to believe that my surname is 'LOI' when it is clearly stated in my Visa. However, they stopped short at expressing their regret over what have happenned and insisted that Surname Verification is not their jurisdiction and maintained that Surname system is not officially in use in Malaysia any way. Fortunately I went to a National Registration Department and one officer issued a letter stating that my surname is indeed 'LOI' and that my full legal name as it appears in all Malaysian identity documents reflects customary naming practice. What's in a Surname? It definitely affects many aspects of my life as an immigrant in a Western country.

Mr. B, I hope that I am not

Mr. B, I hope that I am not asking too personal a question but when you chose your Chinese surname did you borrow that of your wife for the sake of an easy decision or did you select an original one for yourself. Also do you or your wife know much about the extent to which Chinese names maintain the significance of their original meaning. That is to say our name Michael comes from Hebrew meaning "who is like God" but of course today I would say the vast majority of parents do not name their sons Michael for the purpose of calling to remembrance the greatness of God. Have Chinese names undergone a similar effect or are names chosen based on their literal meaning? My former putonghua tutor named her son Xiao Zhu (Little Pig)...would school children laugh at this seemingly bizarre appellation or is it as innocuous as Danny or Tom?

My Chinese surname was

My Chinese surname was chosen for me by a colleague soon after I arrived in Hong Kong, and long before I met MrsB. If you are an expat and want help chosing a surname (and probably given name too), it seems to be a task that local friends are very happy to help with.

Chinese given names are still very literal. There are some words used that seem to be rarely used outside of names, but many given names are made up of commonly used characters, and I think in just about all cases people will know the meanings of their given name. So yes, if the 'Xiao Zhu' was their given name (not just a nickname the family used), and the characters were 'small' and 'pig', expect teasing at school.

eg When I first met one of MrsB's brothers, I was surprised he was introduced with an English given name (all his family call him by it), though he doesn't speak much English at all. It was later explained to me that he didn't like the meaning of his Chinese given name, so when he was old enough he chose an English one and only uses that instead.

There's some related info here.

Regards, MrB

Married women

Fantastic information here.

Just one more of the combinations, married ladies who keep their maiden names. Eg:

IP Lau Suk Yee. Her late husband was Mr. Ip, her maiden name is Lau Suk Yee.

Anson Chan Fang On-shan would be another one. The 'Anson' being her English name.

English names for Chinese people explained

This article in Slate magazine by one Huan Hsu (an American-born Chinese from Utah) is hilarious. He goes to work in Shanghai, and assumes that his lack of an English name will finally be a non-issue. He couldn't have been more wrong.

He then provides a great deal of insight into how Chinese naming, both traditional and contemporary, really works.

My favorite bit: Huan's coworkers Alpha and Beta, and their son . . . well, you can just about guess . . . .

Re: English names for Chinese people explained

Hi there,

And I thought Alpha Beta Gamma.... are Greek alphabets......  gosh!   These days, if you click open your email address book in the office, you would find a great deal of weird names none the less.

Best Regards,

T

Gwoo Leung

With regards to the original post, using 'Gwoo Leung' as an example of an older woman. I have only used this term with someone who is in a supervisory role - is this correct? I thought it actually meant (female) 'Supervisor'.  Certainly the ladies it referred to have not been even approaching the age (50+) mentioned.

Re: Gwoo Leung

Hi Philk,

That very much depends on the location and venue.  If you use the term in a clinic and refering to each and every female nurse disregarding their age, that should be very acceptable.  But that Chinese term with a different meaning is also applicable in a brothel........

So you see, even we natives are having a very difficult time learning the language when we were young.  :-)

Best Regards,

T

a Brothel...

Thanks for clearing that up for me T.

So it refers to all nurses, I had assumed it was just the 'head' nurse. There is the second-in-command at my kids' school (top lady being 'Hau Jeung' of course) called Ng Gwoo Leung. It was about 6 months before I realised the 'gwoo leung' referred to her position at the school and wasn't her actual name :-)

As for brothels, I can only guess what it may refer to there, but it wouldn't surprise me if my guess was still wrong ;-)

Phil

Brothel?! My gosh!

Brothel?!  My gosh!  This is a usage for 'gwoo leung' that I never learned growing up here in the States.  From what I grew up with, 'gwoo leung' was for an unmarried older woman -- perhaps the equivalent of a spinster but more polite.  For a young woman who is unmarried, 'siew jeh' is used, especially if she is younger than you are or is a young adult.  'Gwoo leung' is used for a lady who is not your relative but an aquaintence or friend who you know well enough to know that she is unmarried.  For an older woman who is a stranger to you and older than your father, we would use the title 'mou'; for a woman who is younger than your father, we would use 'sum'.  These titles are as if these women are related to your father, which I suppose makes that more polite and respectful.  And they are used for women who are your friends (or same age group), too.  Similarly for men, title depends on whether they are older or younger than your father -- and, I almost forgot, obviously older than you but not older than your parents.  If they are your grandparents' age (i.e., have white hair and wrinkles) then you'd use the more general titles you use for your maternal grandparents.  The titles you use for your father's parents are reserved exclusively for them -- respect your ancestors...

The above certainly does not explain it all, as I was taught, but it's really a matter of knowing your place within the current social circumstances.  Quite confusing sometimes, too, but I actually enjoy Chinese titles and I get a kick out of figuring out a distant relation's title especially when my older relatives can't figure it out.  Hopefully this did not confuse anyone!!  ;)

 

Gwoo-leung, etc

T, thanks for the clarification. The brothel-usage of Gwoo leung is a new one for me!

Phil, I had a similar muddle. Among a group of older ladies I knew, most were something-taai, but with just one something-gwoo-leung. I'd heard that 'gwoo-leung' meant 'nurse', so had a very confusing conversation with them asking which hospital she worked at. When they finally worked out what I was on about, that's when I was introduced to the 'spinster' use of the word!

Vinnie, some good extra tips there. Regarding 'mou', would you use it as a suffix, ie 'surname-mou'? I haven't heard that use, but quite often hear 'baak-mou' used as a polite address to an older lady. Is that the same 'mou'? ('mou' rhymes with the english word 'toe').

Re: Gwoo Leung

Hi there,

To simplify matters, let look at the term Gwoo Leung this way.  It is a generic term for adult females, usually unmarried.  It's just the application of it under different circumstances that might be confusing.  But that is basically what Chinese Language is in general.  For each word or phrase, there are usually more than one definition and maybe even quite a few different pronounciations of the same written word.

In some other circumstances, a female outreach social worker might also be called Gwoo Leung to some.  There might be more of this, but I could not recall as for the time being.

Best Regards,

T

Re: Ng Gwoo Leung (Taboo, PG-rated)

Hi Philk,

Since you mentioned 'Ng Gwoo Leung', I couldn't resist putting this up.  :-P

The 'Ng' you mentioned is a surname.  It could be 伍 or 吳 and it is strickly a Cantonese phonetic resemblance.  That is fine.  However The 'Ng' I want to mention is of the Proper Chinese numeric five 伍.  If a Cantonese speaker talks about going to get Ng Gwoo Leung (伍姑娘) to fix things up and if the usage condition is right, it would be a slang with a meaning of masturbation.

Still confused?  Ahem.  One thumb and four digits make up the five.........

Best Regards,

T

PG rated!? should be CAT III

heheh ;-P. Thanks for that T. You do realise I will never be able to look her in the face again without giving a bit of a chuckle.

I remember a similar English saying about paying a visit to Mrs Palm and her five daughters. Thankfully, I don't know anyone called Mrs Palm...

<< blush >>

Thanks, T, for helping me increase my Cantonese vocabulary.  I don't think I will be asking my folks about this idiom!  ;)

Mr. B, yes, my 'mou' rhymes with 'toe' and it can be used as a suffix, like Wong-mou, Mrs. Wong (whose husband is older than your father).

More often, you would use lau-Wong-mou, where 'lau' means old.  This does not mean 'old Mrs. Wong' but it would be interpreted as 'Mrs. Wong of the old, respected, prestigious Wong family'.  Her husband would be 'lau-Wong-bahk' where 'bahk' is your father's older brother (your uncle).  The 'lau-<surname>-<position>' might be used in the third person to distinguish between people but would still be the more polite form to address them in person -- and still be a personable way to address them (as opposed to Wong taai-taai or Wong seen-saang which are formal, yet colder in my opinion).

The 'baak-mou' I have never heard before.  Perhaps it is a HK thing because it does not make sense to me.  If 'baak' means white, then it would be reserved for a very old woman or man (with white hair), someone of your great-grandparents' generation.  So 'baak-gung' is your great-grandfather or great-grand-uncle and 'baak-poh' is your great-grandmother or great-grand-aunt.  I would not use 'baak' as an adjective for a stranger since that might be insulting.  They might put up with 'poh' or 'gung' but probably not 'baak-...'.  But 'mou' or 'bahk' (or 'suuk' or 'sum') would be safer, perhaps, depending on which age group you are in relative to the person in question.

Compare to 'bat-gung' and 'bat-poh'.  Never call a woman 'bat-poh' unless you're ready to take the heat!!!  ;)

 

 

Mou

As a native Cantonese speaker (grown up in Hong Kong), I can tell you that "mou" is not a very polite way to address a woman.  It is usually used to refer to an older woman, at least in her 40's.  You usually will not refer to someone in her face with that title.  However, you can use it among friends, with implicit permission.  "Gwoo leung" is an old fashioned way to refer to unmarried woman or the professional title of nurses.  This was used prior to "siu je" becoming popular.  So most of the "gwoo leung"s are old.  A young chic girl will not appreciate your calling her "gwoo leung".

The way we address each other is a means to confirm our relationship with each other.  It tells how you are related in terms of family, power, age, familiarity and others.  It is a very subtle way to identify how you are related to the other person.