Chinese Teachers: Use Your Chinese Names!

Chinese teachers, please have your students call you by a Chinese name. You’re not helping them by calling yourself some easier-to-pronounce English name. I would have thought that this was obvious, but after all these years in the business, I can now see that it is not obvious to many otherwise well-meaning teachers. So I’ll spell it out here. (Please forward this to your Chinese teacher who doesn’t ask you to use a Chinese name in your interactions.)

So why should students of Chinese call their Chinese teachers of Chinese by a Chinese name? I’m glad you asked…

Using your actual Chinese name shows respect for the culture

My dad is one of those people that enjoys befriending recent immigrants in the United States. He likes to find out where they’re from, why they came to the U.S., etc. One of the things he always asks “Bob from Iran” or “Alice from China” or whoever is, “what’s your real name?” He does this not only out of curiosity, but also to show a genuine respect for their culture and interest in their identity. Most of the time immigrants are thankful for this gesture (even if he can’t always accurately reproduce the sounds that make up their names).

As a teacher, you get to decide how your students address you. But in Chinese culture, it’s a non-question; teachers are simply called “[Surname] Laoshi” by their students. As a teacher of Chinese, why would you not use this opportunity to start teaching your students about Chinese culture in an easy, practical way? Get the cultural respect going from lesson one. Students will be totally on board.

Using Chinese names is good practice

One of the main arguments for NOT using real Chinese names is that “my Chinese surname is too hard for foreigners.” OK, maybe your surname is hard for most foreigners, but your students have decided to learn Chinese. They probably already know it’s not easy. Even if your surname is particularly difficult to pronounce, it’s probably only one syllable. And it’s one syllable your students are going to be able to repeat over and over every lesson, and they’re eventually going to start getting it right.

So don’t baby them. Let them struggle a little bit. It doesn’t matter if your surname is “Xu” or “Zhu” or “Jiang” or “Zhang” or “Yu.” They’ll get it eventually.

Chinese Teachers: Please Use Chinese Names!

It’s a vote of confidence

So it’s a pretty safe bet that your students will not be pronouncing “Xu” correctly on day 1, and that’s OK. But when you tell them, “You don’t need to try to say ‘Xu.’ Just call me Vivian,” you’re casting a vote of no-confidence in their ability to learn correct pronunciation. That’s a terrible thing for a teacher to do.

Not only are you saying, “you can’t learn this,” but you’re also saying, “you can’t learn this, and I won’t even be able to teach you.” So it’s also a vote of no-confidence in yourself as a teacher!

Cast a vote of confidence in your students by telling them, “my name is a little tricky to pronounce, but don’t worry; you’ll get it eventually. Just keep trying.”

Have confidence in them from the first lesson, and they will keep trying. They need you to believe that they can learn to correctly pronounce your name.

Chinese names are hard to remember

This is totally true. Chinese names are hard for foreigners to remember. But you know what doesn’t help? Enabling learners to never even try to remember, and always copping out by using English names. That’s just lazy.

Chinese names are hard to remember in the beginning. But learners get better at it by learning more real Chinese names, and the process starts with you, the Chinese teacher. With each new Chinese person the learner meets, he learns a real Chinese name, and one by one, the names start to seem less insane. They become manageable.

Start your students down this road.

But what about Hong Kong?

One thing I’ve heard over the years is, “but in Hong Kong, Chinese people often use English names. It’s also a Chinese thing.” OK, yes, that’s true. But as a learner, I really don’t need help learning names like “Jacky” and “Coco.” What I need is more practice with the less familiar names… the ones starting with “Zhang” and “Wang” and “Hu.”

So Hong Kong-style English names are easy freebies that we sometimes get, but they’re certainly not the norm for everyone in mainland China, and they’re not an excuse to avoid Chinese names altogether.

Don’t be absurd

Lastly, let me leave you a counter-example. Imagine a blond-haired blue-eyed foreigner living in China and working as an English teacher. We’ll call him “Carl.” He teaches English, but he also knows Chinese, and uses it a little bit with beginners.

But here’s the thing: Carl has chosen “Zhang” () as his Chinese surname, and in his English classes he has all of his students call him Zhang Laoshi (张老师). It’s because “Carl” is hard to pronounce, and he just finds it easier.

Is that not absurd? Would the Chinese students not find this odd? Does it help the students to call Carl “Zhang Laoshi” in English class?

Chinese teachers, please have your students call you by a Chinese name. They’ll thank you later.


See also:

Sinosplice Guide to Chinese Pronunciation
AllSet Learning Pronunciation Packs


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Maybe it meant well. But sounds patronising. Whatever minority/immigrants want to be called, not what the majority/dominant group think they should be called

    • I see your point, but I think this is meant to be advice for teachers in a classroom specifically. It is the teacher’s job, whomever they are to teach their students.

  2. I gotta admit I’ve wondered about this listening to ChinesePod: why is Jenny “Jenny”?

    And what about you, John? Presumably you have a Chinese name, too..

    • Jenny went by Jenny long before I ever met her (and before she ever got involved with learning Chinese). She uses her Chinese name for the higher levels on ChinesePod.

      I do have a Chinese name, but I use it mainly with Chinese family. I don’t teach Chinese directly, but if I did, I would go by 潘老师.

  3. I can’t believe I’ve never thought about this before! What I find particularly funny however is that one of my adult students actually does call me 卢老师 instead of just Lucas. It does in fact go both ways!

  4. Prince Roy Says: October 15, 2014 at 10:15 pm

    Is this a mole hill in search of a mountain? I studied Chinese five years in total and never once had a teacher whom we addressed using an English name. Is this a recent mainland fad? Back when I was more a part of the Chinese speaking world, Taiwanese would often adopt English names, but Mainlanders would stick to their Chinese names (these were study abroad students in the US). I always admired the Mainlanders for that.

    • It’s extremely common. Definitely not as common among the most professional teachers, but there’s a big “semi-professional” group, and many of them like to use English names.

      • In the UK, I’ve come across Chinese secondary school teachers who insist on their pupils calling them ‘Angel’ instead of ‘Xu laoshi’ or even ‘Mrs Xu’, despite the fact that their French/Spanish/German/Russian colleagues would never dream of a) giving themselves an English name or b) using their first name with the students.

        One thing I really hate with the whole ‘English name’ thing is that some people will introduce themselves to me as, say, ‘Linda’ (why are there so many Lindas and Sunnys in China?) and then later someone will ask me to ‘give this to Yang Fangqi’ and I’ll have no idea whom they’re talking about, despite knowing ‘Linda’ for several months. It’s far easier just to stick to your real name..

  5. sinosplicefan Says: October 17, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    nah ! i have to disagree with you on this one John – lol
    i think whatever the teachers are comfortable with
    is what they should be called. maybe the yougner teachers
    are now using english names anyway. I agree with you
    in that they shouldnt choose an english name just
    because its ‘easier to pronounce’, but they should
    just let the students call them whatever their names are
    be it chinese or english. if all their friends now call them ‘apple’ then call them apple. its like someone having a nickname, ‘TJ’ and then people insisting on calling them by their full name anthony T Jackson or something – lol
    maybe its ‘just an excuse’ them saying its easier to pronounce. maybe they want to use their english names
    cos its more trendy and cool. ha ha
    as usual good post and food for thought and converstion !! – lol

  6. Chinese students might call him 卡尔 (not Carl, “ka-er”) rather than 张老师.

  7. I generally agree. Even if the instructor that happens to be teaching you Chinese is a blond, blue-eyed “Carl,” he should be accorded the respect and propriety that comes with addressing him as (Chinese surname)+老师. What, however, is the prevailing wisdom about how students are
    addressed in class? Is it strictly by Chinese name (that the instructor may help the students select, if they do not have one already), or do things default to Bob, Carol, Ted, Alice, et al.??

  8. Did you use Vivian Xu on purpose?

    Sometimes I meet Chinese people, not Chinese teachers, who absolutely refuse to give me their Chinese names. It seems odd. If I see the characters, it’s actually easier than keeping track of a bunch of people with the same name, such as Jason, Jay, Vivian, and Wendy.

  9. I’m not sure I agree, or at least, I think this is a minor issue. I had (mainland) Chinese teachers who used e.g. 李老师,but spoke a lot of English in class, and (Taiwanese) teachers who went by English names but otherwise taught almost entirely in Chinese. If the teacher is comfortable on a first name basis (and in a Taiwanese 补习班 they were), it keeps the conversation flowing a lot more naturally to use whatever name they are happy with, rather than try to push for a (formal) traditional form of address. I would say it’s far more important to be comfortable in conversation talking to your teacher than to worry about details…

    (That said, if my teacher wants to be addressed as 王老师, that’s what I’ll call them, I’m not going to ask for an English name if they don’t introduce themselves accordingly)

  10. HAHA oh my god John you’re so funny choosing Carl, a name with ‘r’ and ‘l’ right next to each other…

    • SeekTruthFromFacts Says: September 25, 2015 at 4:58 pm

      /r/ and /l/ confusion is not a problem for the vast majority of Chinese speakers. Maybe you’re thinking of some country elsewhere in Asia?

  11. I used to hate it whenever a Chinese person have me an English name. It kind of felt to me like they were hiding behind a fake name. Now my opinion has changed a bit. I think Chinese people rarely use their real Chinese name even when speaking Chinese. They all seem to have different nicknames for use with friends/family etc. I also think that English names are often used by Chinese people who can speak a bit of English but aren’t fluent. It seems like a sign of non fluency. Whenever I meet a Chinese person who uses their Chinese name they often have the best English.

  12. this is a right way, it will improve the pronunciations of the students in the class. they will get the confidence to speak the Chinese words.

  13. Good advice actually. I work with a few Chinese teachers and usually I’d say the teacher should use what they’re comfortable being called, but in terms of creating an immersive learning environment I think it’s pretty useful to use Chinese names. But I would say maybe if you’re teaching beginner level, then it can be acceptable for the teacher to use their English names but then there should be point when it does turn to just using Chinese names rather than the English (or other language). I remember some of my best Chinese teachers in the past and actually I don’t recall them ever letting us know their English names but then again maybe they didn’t have one. Anyway, interesting article!

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