What’s in a Name? The Art of Addressing Chinese Officials

May 12, 2014

What’s in a Name? The Art of Addressing Chinese Officials

By Yiyi Lu

Long gone are the good old days when everyone simply called one another “comrade,” and no other titles were necessary.

Nowadays, understanding the proper way to address officials of various ranks is essential for anyone who comes into contact with Chinese officialdom. It is particularly important for insiders themselves, and many newly minted civil servants who haven’t yet learned the rules “cause offense the moment they open their mouths.”

Chinese media recently have run some interesting articles on “the study of terms of address for government officials.”

One basic rule is to “always use the higher title when addressing officials with two possible titles”—and while it sounds simple enough, it isn’t always as straightforward as it seems. To apply the rule correctly, one must have a certain degree of familiarity with the civil-service ranking system and the relative power of different post holders.

In simplified terms, Chinese civil-service posts are divided into “leadership” and “nonleadership” roles. The ranks corresponding to the leadership posts are, in descending order:


State councilor

Minister/provincial governor

Bureau chief/mayor

Division chief/county magistrate

Section chief/township magistrate

Here are a few examples to illustrate what is meant by “always using the higher title”: In the central government, some ministerial-level agencies are actually called “bureaus” in Chinese. While they have the rank of a minister, the officials who head these agencies are literally “bureau chiefs.” But to avoid confusing them with lower-ranking officials, one must address them as “ministers.” On the other hand, many agencies at the county-government level are also called “bureaus.” The heads of these county-level bureaus hold the rank of section chief, but should be addressed as “bureau chief,” which sounds much grander than the literal title of section chief.

There also is a category of officials with the title of “inspector.” They are usually of the same rank as bureau chief, but as holders of a nonleadership post without any specific bailiwicks, they have less power than bureau chiefs. For this reason, “inspector” is considered a less dignified title than “bureau chief,” so  one must take care when addressing inspectors to call them “bureau chief” to avoid causing offense. A novice journalist once made the mistake of addressing an official as “inspector” during an interview and immediately saw the official changing countenance. For several years afterward, the journalist’s newspaper used the anecdote as a lesson for rookies.

In addition to using formal titles, it has become fashionable in many local governments for subordinates to call their superiors “boss” or “big man.” The use of these informal terms also follows rank-conscious rules. As an official explained to Southern Weekend journalists, “boss” is more commonly applied to officials at the mayor rank or above. For subordinates to call a county or township magistrate “boss” would seem ridiculous, as they are too junior in rank. The more rugged “big man” is more appropriate for officials at these lower levels.

Reading media stories on the compellations for Chinese officials, I am reminded of an anecdote I heard some years ago from a researcher at a central government think tank: The think tank was asked to give a briefing to Ms. Wu Yi, who was a state councilor at the time. The title “state councilor” in Chinese—Guo Wu Wei Yuan—is too long, so the convention is to address state councilors with the abbreviated “Guo Wei. However, the think tank’s leaders learned from reliable sources that Ms. Wu did not like the sound of Wu “Guo Wei.” They fretted over how to address her in a manner that would please her, considering various options. Because Ms. Wu was a minister before becoming state councilor, some of her subordinates had continued to call her “Minister Wu,” which she reportedly liked. This option, however, was only viable for people who had served under her while she was a minister, and others had no ground for using an old title lower than her current rank.

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Many female Chinese officials work in the Women’s Federation at some point in their careers, where junior staffers sometimes address senior cadres as “Elder Sister.” It remains acceptable for others to address the women in this way even when they no longer work at the Women’s Federation. Unfortunately for the think tank, however, Ms. Wu had never worked at the Women’s Federation, so “Elder Sister Wu” was also out of the question.

The researcher told me his think tank actually held two meetings before the briefing to discuss how to address Ms. Wu and ultimately found no good solution. In the end, they decided to try not to address her at all and if they must, to use the vague term “the leader.”

Recognizing that the fine tradition of Party members calling each other “comrade” regardless of rank and seniority has been replaced by vulgar practices that reinforce a sense of hierarchy and encourage subordinates to fawn on their superiors, the Party has from time to time exhorted members to revert to the old way. However, since the term “comrade” has been adopted by China’s gay community after Party members effectively abandoned it, it is hard to imagine that the word’s old usage would be restored any time soon.

While allowing cadres to be called boss and big man may seem incongruous with the Party’s official ideology and propaganda messages, perhaps it is better to just let language reflect reality. Despite the rhetoric that government officials are equal comrades to ordinary citizens and to each other, if commoners and low-level civil servants fail to show those higher in rank the respect due to one’s boss, they may well regret it later.

Yiyi Lu, an expert on Chinese civil society, is currently working on a project to promote open government information in China. She is the author of “Non-Governmental Organisations in China: The Rise of Dependent Autonomy” (Routledge 2008).


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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