Terms of Endearment

A few foreigners in China have commented to me that it seems like everyone has the same name: “xiao.” Actually, that’s a kind of term of endearment or perhaps role-defining prefix that just means “small” or “young.” Here’s how it works:

Say there’s a young man named Wáng Qiáng 王强. His friends could call him:

Wang’s boss might call him “xiǎo Wáng” as a way of reminding him of his position. Or, if there are two Wangs working in the same office, one might be “xiǎo Wáng” 小王 [young Wang] and the other “lǎo Wáng” 老王 [old Wang].

But the “a” + GIVEN NAME seems to be only for good friends.

Other little pet names you might encounter are:

  • bǎobèi 宝贝 = baby / honey / darling [precious]
  • qiānjīn 千金 = darling (daughter) [1000 gold]
  • hǔzǐ 虎子 = tiger (son) [tiger son]

Did I miss any?

See also Chinese Family Tree, Mates, and Addressing Strangers

15 Replies to “Terms of Endearment”

  1. And it doesn’t even matter how old you are, you’ll still never be free of the “xiao” to some people.

    For example, even though my wife is 35, her mother will still yell out “xiao yan!!!!” to get her attention in a busy shopping mall. I cringe!

  2. um… just to point out one thing: if there are two Wangs in an office, one might be ‘xiao wang’ and another might be ‘lao wang’. i think ‘lao’ in this situation is much more usual than ‘da’. though ‘da’ can be an ‘endearment’ as well. for example i like calling one of my friends ‘da xiong’ which means ‘big bear’. but usually i think it’s common to put ‘lao’ before someone’s family name as endearment.
    personally i haven’t called anyone ‘a+given name’. but i think it differs from place to place in china.
    i just found an interesting thing here, there is a name ‘da huang’. note here huang is a family name and it’s put after ‘da’ instead of ‘lao’. but if you call someone ‘da huang’. they may think you’re calling him a dog!–becaues da huang is usually a dog’s name! another example is ‘xiao qiang’ and this is originally a cricket’s name and it’s from a film called ‘da hua xi you’.

  3. You’re right of course. I’ve changed it to be “lao” not “da.”

    And Mitch, I guess since your wife will always be younger than her mother, there’s no hope of that nickname changing…

  4. I came by my new use of the word “xiao” arose during a trip with Chinese friends. We live in Guangzhou, where you call a waitress “xiaojie,” but it’s a local thing and I’ve been cautioned not to use it in northern locales. In that case, I was told to resort to fu wu ren (sorry, I’m a character illiterate!). But I went on a trip recently with a group of Chinese friends to a different province. Whenever they needed to call a waitress, they would call for “Xiao Mei”. No matter where we were, the waitress always responded to this moniker. I think it’s kind of nice, I’ve been using it in Guangzhou now, as well!

  5. Chris, I don’t really know how that could be a term of endearment except with a sense of irony. ben dan means fool/idiot, ben meaning fool and dan meaning egg. Maybe it is, but you must have strange friends. : )

  6. I am wondering what endearments can be used towards females…? And in response to Chris and David, ben dan can be used as endearment, though it surely comes off strange to those who aren’t part of the group of friends.

  7. During my time in China some people called me ‘bendan’ mostly because of my middle name which reads like a long winded mandarin insult:
    Benjamin – which sounds like Ben Jia Men

    What can ya do? 😉

  8. Dear guys and girls,

    As far as I am concerned, I am a 100% real Chinese. Let me explain something you guys mentioned, Lao Wang, for example, is used in daily orals. What you guys said were all trues. Besides, sometimes, the word “Lao” also suggests that the speaker of the term Lao Wang and Hearer are good friends or familiar with each other, otherwise, they usually call it like”Wangshifu”(something like Mr.Wang)……looks like you guys like the Chinese language, I hope that my lousy explanations do help you, folks.

  9. Having people who actually speak the language on here has helped! I’m trying to write a character who is bilingual and uses a Chinese nickname for her goddaughter who is more like a niece than anything else. It’s been a pain cause I don’t speak a word of anything but English and some limited ASL, so I’ve been winging it off blogs like this.

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