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Why does “Old” stand for wisdom and prestige in China?

Apr. 18, 2012

Key Learning Point:

老 (lǎo): adj. old


Several years ago, when Bill Clinton came to China and visited Shanghai, he felt uncomfortable when he was called "Grandpa Clinton" by children in a community. But when one of the children called him "Clinton," he began to warm up.

But in China it is considered impolite for a child to have used Clinton's name directly. In Chinese, “老 (lǎo) Old” stands for wisdom and prestige, and it is thus a means of showing respect to the elderly. Usually, it is only appropriate to call a person by their name directly if they are around the same age as you. People show their respect to their family members who are older by calling them uncle, elder sister, aunt, etc. Also, for anyone who is not a family member but is a member of the older generation, these titles are also used. For elderly people, children should call "老爷爷 (lǎo yéye) grandpa" and "老奶奶 (lǎo nǎinai) grandma,"or "李大爷 (Lǐ dàye)" etc, to show respect. If the elderly person is very familiar to you and is around the same age as you, it is also appropriate to call "老+family name" such as "老张 (Lǎo Zhāng) Lao Zhang," "老王 (Lǎo Wáng) Lao Wang" etc. Words like "张老 (Zhāng Lǎo) Zhang Lao," "王老 (Wáng Lǎo) Wang Lao" are used to address someone with a noble character and high prestige. Now you can see that in Chinese, the word "老 (lǎo)" is usually used to address an older person with honor and respect.

This idea that the older a person is, the more they should be regarded as a person with wisdom and prestige, is deeply rooted in Chinese culture and history. This is why people in China like to refer to the elderly as: "姜还是老的辣 (Jiāng hái shì lǎo de là) meaning, "older gingers are hotter." So don't feel uncomfortable if someone calls you "uncle," "grandpa" or similar titles in China. 

Key Learning Point:

老 (lǎo): adj. old



Wáng Lǎo de shuǐmòhuà zài huìhuàjiè shì hěn chūmíng de.
王       老    的   水墨画     在   绘画界     是   很    出名      的。


Wang Lao's Chinese monochromes are very famous in the world of painting.

Zhāng Míng jīngcháng bāng gébì de lǎonǎinai mǎi cài.
张         明      经常          帮   隔壁的  老奶奶     买  菜。


Zhang Ming always helps the grandpa next door to buy vegetables.

Wǒ hé Lǎo Zhāng chángcháng qù jiāowài diàoyú.
我   和  老    张         常常          去   郊外      钓鱼。


Lao Zhang and I always go fishing together in the suburbs. 

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