How would I address a professor with a Chinese name? I am unsure whether I should use only the surname, or both forename and surname, because the order of mentioning forename and surname is reversed. When my professor's name is forename: Yi, surname: Zhang, should I then address him with

Dear Professor Zhang,

or with

Dear Professor Zhang Yi,

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    "Dear Prof. Zhang", surname: zhang, pronounced: John source: life in china, aside that in china as with anywhere people have family name and given name – Olórin Feb 4 '15 at 21:40
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    "zhang, pronounced: John" - maybe that claim should be restricted to something like "the pronunciation of 'John' is less different from 'Zhang' than from most other common Chinese surnames". "in china as with anywhere people have family name and given name" - what is meant by "as with anywhere"? In some cultures, mononyms are not unusual.. Also, while in this context I second your conclusion, having a family name and a given name does not automatically mean only one is used at a time in any given situation. – O. R. Mapper Feb 4 '15 at 21:53
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    Whenever I am unsure, I look for how the professor is addressed in department/university news postings, usually by doing a search on the university's website. – Austin Henley Feb 5 '15 at 4:38
  • @AustinHenley: I am not sure that is so helpful, as news articles generally do not normally emulate direct discourse toward the professor in question. For example, based on your procedure, this news article would suggest to address a Professor Reed as either Stephen F. Reed or Mr. Reed, and this one provides a choice between Jeffery F. Miller, Professor Jeffrey Miller, and just Miller. – O. R. Mapper Feb 5 '15 at 7:27
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    I've sometimes had related trouble with Japanese academics - again, in Japan the family name is usually spoken first, but often they reverse it for the English version of their business cards, so it's hard to know whether to reverse it again! I haven't yet caused offense, though, by politely asking which their family name is, or how to address them. – Flyto Feb 5 '15 at 22:22

In the United States, at least, one would typically use the same structure of address as with any other name, e.g., "Prof. Zhang." To do otherwise marks the person as different in a way that may be inappropriate, particularly if (as with many Americans of Chinese heritage) they use a European name order. If the professor wishes to be addressed otherwise, it is up to them to make this clear. From my experiences with European colleagues, I would expect it is similar there as well. I cannot speak for proper courtesy in East Asia...


Being an Asian myself, I'd use 'Dear Prof. Zhang.'

In Chinese culture, it can be considered rude for a junior to address their senior by the full name, that's just the way we're brought up to address our seniors, well at least for me...

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    Just as a point of interest, would you (both personally and, if I may, generalized to others you know) still consider it rude from a student, or would you expect them to be unaware and would therefore make allowances for it? – Jon Story Feb 5 '15 at 11:08
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    As a formality, I address any senior by their 'title/ surname' on first contact and will continue doing so unless they insist otherwise. Personally, I don't take offense if someone calls me by my full name (unless deliberate) as I would assume they're just unfamiliar with the culture. However, I would be slightly taken aback if that is coming from a Chinese student addressing his/her Chinese senior (eg. professor) by the full name (on 1st contact) as I'd assume they know. Exception made when they know each other relatively well and can thus dispense with formalities. Keypoint: ask to be sure – Psy Feb 6 '15 at 3:17

Rule #1, ask the professor if you are unsure. Ask him what name he prefers to be called. I am a Chinese and a native Chinese speaker. I myself always like Westerners to ask me this question before they call my name.

In the example you provided, both Zhang and Yi can be used as English translation of Chinese surnames. Zhang is a popular Chinese surname and Yi happens to be one of my relative's surname. As you can see in this example, it's easy to make a mistake when calling Chinese names. Not to mention that the Chinese name convention is Surname first and Forename last (or Last name first and First name last).

If you cannot ask him for whatever reason and you have strong reason to believe that his surname is Zhang, you should call him Dr. Zhang. This would be the most appropriate way.

  • From my experience (could be wrong, I do not speak Chinese -- I'd be happy to get a confirmation) a simple rule of thumb to tell Chinese first names from surnames is "if it has two syllables, it's a surname". There are also one-syllable surnames, but this simple rule gets a majority of cases right. – Federico Poloni Feb 6 '15 at 8:00
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    @FedericoPoloni: you got it wrong. Most Chinese surnames have only one syllable. The "two syllable" part would in fact more likely be the given name. What can cause more confusion is that some people choose to render each character/syllable as an individual word. In this case even the (corrected) version of your rubric will not work. – Willie Wong Feb 6 '15 at 14:54
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    @FedericoPoloni I don't know how you got this experience. It's wrong. I've put my real Chinese name in my user profile. My surname is one-syllable. My first name is also one-syllable. Most Chinese have one-syllable for surname, two-syllables for first name. Some Chinese have two-syllable for surname. Some Chinese have one-syllable for first name. There is not really one single rule for Chinese names. – scaaahu Feb 7 '15 at 3:20
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    @WillieWong an scaahu: thanks, I appreciate the corrections. – Federico Poloni Feb 7 '15 at 7:56

If you are sure that his surname is Zhang, I would address him as Prof. Zhang. Beware that some Chinese use Last name First name convention rather than the First name Last name convention common in the Western world.

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    For what it's worth, Zhang is far more common as a surname than is Yi, although the latter is not unheard of. – wchargin Feb 5 '15 at 3:39

Being a Chinese professor isn't the real issue. I guess the cultural context is more important here.

Is the professor in China? Then you probably should refer to him/her as Prof X, because that's what Chinese customs expect. On the contrary, is the professor in some other non-Asian country? Then ask for what he/she prefers.

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