Why Chinese People Aren't Flattered When You Call Them Beautiful or Handsome

I remember one day, one of my male students stepped into the classroom and called me “měi nǚ”(美女: beautiful girl), and expected me to react by being flattered. But I wasn’t. I even cringed a bit. He was confused since he knew that “美女” literally means “beautiful girl” and he had amused some waitresses with these words. He asked why I wasn’t flattered and whether it’s an appropriate way to address young women in China.

Once you notice that “美 女” is used everywhere to address young girls regardless of your looks, you no longer take it as a compliment. Some people even find it flirtatious. In fact, we only use it as an alternative for more formal terms such as “xiǎojiě” (小姐: miss) and “nǚshì” (女土: Lady). “小姐” sometimes even connotes prostitute. Not exactly complimentary.

Similarly, “shuàigē” (帅哥:handsome guy),  is used to address any young man regardless of their looks, and despite 帅哥’s literal meaning. I’m not certain whether or not people are actually offended by being called 美女 or 帅哥 however these terms still might be considered awkward by some.

The Chinese system to address people is complicated and can be confusing to foreigners. Similarly, Chinese people address strangers with terms we use for relatives to build closeness and familiarity. This  sometimes confuses foreigners. Before a foreign student met with his   Chinese girlfriend’s parents, his girlfriend told him that he should call her parents “shūshu”  (叔叔: uncle) and “āyí” (阿姨: aunt). He felt so uncomfortable. 

Even in public, we always call men of our father’s age, 叔叔 and women of our mother’s age , 阿姨. For some seniors, it’s easier to keep a conversation casual and pleasant if you address them as “yéye”(爷爷: grandpa from father’s side) or “nǎinai” (奶奶: grandma from father’s side). Instead of addressing children as “érzi”(儿子: son), “nǚér”(女儿: daughter), or “háizi”(孩子: kid), you can address them as “xiǎopéngyou”(小朋友: little friend). 

 It seems I haven’t come up with perfect terms for young girls and boys or people at your age. To play this safe I personally use “nǐhǎo”(你好: hello) as my omnipotent term to attract people’s attention.

Maria writes columns for the GoEast Blog on studying Chinese and Chinese language. She completed her MA atBeijing Foreign Studies University and has over 6 years experience teaching Mandarin. She founded GoEast together with Wang Rong in 2010.