Honorifics in China, Japan and Korea

What is an honorific?

How do you want to be addressed? It’s a big question. Let’s attack it from the point of view of honorifics.

An honorific is a word or a title attached to a person’s name in order to express respect. For example, while referring to a King or a Queen, the most common honorific used is “Your Majesty.”

Honorifics are a simple language mechanic that allow us to express esteem or respect for the person we are speaking to. Most languages use honorifics up to some extent. But at the same time, in many languages, the need to use honorifics dissipates when we know someone well. For example, some languages like English consider it acceptable to address a senior without any title.

There are situations where one generally uses an honorific outside of official environments. For example, it wouldn’t be acceptable to call a teacher by their first name whilst in school but it may not be acceptable either to call them by their first name outside of school.

In languages such as Japanese, forgetting to use an honorific when it’s required is a real faux-pas.

Use of honorifics in Asian culture

Honorifics are most traditionally attributed to Asian culture. For one, they are an interesting longstanding component of many Asian languages and observance of their role in society continues into the modern era. Moreover, honorifics have played sociolinguistic roles in Asian languages for hundreds of years. Let’s see why honorifics are prevalently used in Asian culture.

#1 As a sign of respect to the elders

Asian culture considers teachers and elders as very respected members of the society and as the leaders who shape the future generation. The culture demands that they should be treated with greater esteem and politeness.

Asians regard it impolite to elders directly by their name. Honorifics, therefore are integral to the Asian culture.

#2 To indirectly indicate the rank of a senior member of a household

People use honorifics to indicate rank within a household to an outsider. Using an honorific allows a family member to point guest to the implicit seniority of a member of the household.

These days however, the use of advanced honorifics in the household is on the retreat in favour of more informal speech.

#3 To show affection

Honorifics are not always about hierarchy, they are also about showing affection to those one looks up to. The receiver of the honorific might take it friendly rather than considering an honor.

#4 As an expression of politeness

Sometimes, people use honorifics with colleagues or family simply to be polite.

One thing worth noting about honorifics is that it flows from one person to another. One would rarely refer to oneself with an honorific.

Chinese Honorifics

With the end of Imperial China, people gave up using most Chinese honorifics. Still, most traditional honorifics are still understood and used by contemporary Chinese speakers. The reason Chinese honorifics are still prevalent is through the ubiquitous reference to Chinese history in popular historical novels and period TV dramas. Here are 10 common Chinese honorifics:


S. No. Honorific Pinyin Meaning
1 shèng St. / Sage.It is a honorific to indicate holiness.
2 ~大人 dàrén Sir / Madam.It is used for an official or a person in authority.
3 bǎo It refers to something valuable or precious.
4 先贤 xiānxián The late virtuous. It is used for referring to a highly regarded late person.
5 贤郎 xiánláng You, the virtuous young man. It is used to refer to a friend’s son.
6 尊驾 zūnjià You, the respected one. This honorific is used when referring to a guest or a person of higher social status.
7 老师 lǎoshī Teacher. “Laoshi” may sometimes be used as a polite reference to a more educated person, who may not necessarily be a teacher.
8 qiè This humble one. This honorific is employed by one in lower position when providing a suggestion or opinion
9 寒舍 hánshè It literally translates to a humble abode, and is generally used to refer a family.
10 老夫 lǎofū This old and respected man


Honorifics in Japan

In the Japanese language, honorifics are usually attached as a suffix. They are gender neutral and indicate the speaker’s “position” and his relationship to the addressee.

Honorifics are not only a part of basic Japanese grammar, they are the fundamental to the sociolinguistic development of the language. The 10 common Japanese language honorifics are as listed:


S. No. Honorific Meaning Usage
1 様【さま】 Sama It is used to address a person of higher rank, guest, or customer.
2 さん San It is a title of respect to address a person of same rank.
3 君【くん】 Kun It is used by senior people to address their juniors. Although there is no rule, kun is used generally for addressing male counterparts.
4 坊【ぼう】 It is an expression of endearment.
5 先輩【せんぱい】 Senpai It refers to the elder colleagues.
6 先生【せんせい】 Sensei It is used to refer to or address teachers, doctors, politicians, lawyers, and other authority figures.
7 お祖父さん Ojiisan Refers to a male senior citizen or grandfather.
8 お兄さん Oniisan Refers to a young person like in english gentleman is used.
9 閣下 Kakka This honorific is used to refer to a person in authority, usually government official.
10 Ue It literally means “above”, and denotes a high level of respect. This honorific is not commonly used these days.

Korean Honorifics

As is common with the system of honorifics in Asian languages, the Korean language puts a great emphasis on the relationship between speaker and addressee. Honorifics are a part of the Korean language grammar and they reflect the speaker’s relationship to the subject.

Originally, the use of honorifics in Korea was greatly tied to social status, but in contemporary Korean culture, honorifics have settled into a kind of formal speech form without necessarily being a means of differentiating among social classes.

Both noun and verbs are used as honorifics in Korean language. Let’s have a look at 10 common Korean honorifics.


S. No. Honorific Meaning Usage
1 ssi It is used among the people of equal status, colleague, classmate, etc. It is attached either after the full name or the first name of the subject.
2 nim It is used to address the people of higher level, guests, customers, clients, and unfamiliar individuals.
3 선배 Seonbae This honorific is used to address senior colleague or mentor.
4 귀하 Gwiha Formal address from a company to a client.
5 ya It is a formal title to address a friend or someone familiar.
6 나리 Nari It is the English equivalent of “His Excellency.”
7 전하 Jeonha This honorific refers to the priests or cardinals.
8 후배 Hubae It is used to refer to the juniors.
9 어머님 eomeo-nim It is a polite address to the family member.
10 선생님 seonsaeng-nim Teacher.


No matter what their function in contemporary daily life is or the history of their evolution, the use of honorifics remains an integral part of social relations in China, Japan and Korea. They denote that man is not an island, in their emphasis on one’s relation to someone else, they reveal that each person exists as part of a complex social fabric.

More About Chinese, Japanese and Korean:

10 Simple Japanese Books for Beginners

Chinese Dialects: Do You Really Need to Know Any of Them?

7 Sappiest But Addictive Korean Dramas on Netflix NOW

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