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Chairman Mao addressed Soong Ching-ling as 宋庆龄先生. Yang Jiang was also addressed as 杨绛先生 by the public. My dad used to tell me to address some of his female colleagues as 先生 too.

I wonder why a lady can be addressed as 先生. Does this 先生 have the same meaning as the commonly used one? When did this kind of practice come into being?

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The gender neutral form of the term 先生 is an antiquated Chinese title used for addressing a knowledgeable person who is your senior. This person could be a teacher, a principal, a scholar, a professor or a doctor.

This term, which literally means "born (生) before (先)", has been in use for a very long time. Somebody who is born before you would be your senior, and is deemed to have more experience and knowledge, and therefore should command your respect.

According to 汉典:

先生 xiānsheng - 年长有学问的人。《孟子·告子下》:“ 宋牼 将之 楚 , 孟子 遇於 石丘 ,曰:‘先生将何之?’” 赵岐 注:“学士年长者,故谓之先生。”《战国策·齐策三》:“ 孟尝君 讌坐,谓三先生曰:‘愿闻先生有以补之闕者。’” 姚宏 注:“先生,长老,先己以生者也。” 宋 叶适 《宋故孟夫人墓志铭》:“精义择语,类先生长者之法言。”

This means that the term has been around for more than two centuries since the warring states period (475–221 BC).

Today, the gender neutral form of the term 先生 has been replaced by other equivalent titles (老師, 校長, 教授, 博士, 醫生, etc). However, it is still very much in use (pronounced as sensei) in Japan.

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It is not completed replaced. I often hear seniors (male or female) be called 先生 in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. –  fefe Dec 1 '12 at 6:24
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先生 is an address with long history. But it is important that this address is only for male during a very very long time. Here are part of them (may have relevance to this question):

  1. Original meaning is literal, first born. 《诗·大雅·生民》:诞弥厥月,先生如达。 朱熹 集传:“先生,首生也。 Later extended as father or elder brother. 《仪礼·有司》:其先生之脀,折胁一。 郑玄 注:先生,长兄弟。
  2. Older and learned people, extended as teacher, professor. 《孟子·告子下》:宋牼将之楚,孟子遇於石丘,曰:先生将何之?
  3. General address for scholars. 《史记·三代世表补》:张夫子问褚先生。

There are only a few females called as 先生. They share some common characteristics, like noble character, high prestige, well-educated and not young (middle or old age). And using such address on them is kind of respect. One with such title should be of great charisma, specialist in some field, famous and approved by common people. Additional, usually their husbands are of this kind too.

So when did this address begin to use for a female? Modern times. (Hint: the following parts may be a little subjective.)

After later Qing Dynasty, more and more western culture entered China, including feminism. When many females chose to be a teacher or even professor, the meaning of this address was extended.

But why they must be called as 先生? Is 先生 the only way to tell others they are respected? I don't think so. There may be still some shadow of male chauvinism.

And at last, use this address with great caution. It is strange to address a lady usually.

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先生 has a very long history in Chinese. it refers to different kinds of people during its development.

At the very beginning, it refers to fathers or brothers.

《论语·为政》:“有酒食,先生馔。”注解说:“先生,父兄也。”意思是有酒肴,就孝敬了父兄。

another semantics is for knowledgeably elders

《孟子》:“先生何为出此言也。”这一“先生”是指长辈而有学问的人。

From knowledgeable elders, it derives to an address for teachers

始见于《曲礼》:“从于先生,不越礼而与人言。”注:“先生,老人教学者。”今称教师为“先生”。

Since in ancient China, most teachers are male, and have a comparatively higher social status. They are respectable. So on one hand, 先生 is used by wives to address their husbands to show respect and formality, which later also became a respective address for men in public instead of only between wives and husband.For example we would address "王先生", “李先生” to indicate that he is a men and his family name is "王"and "李".

On the other hands, 先生became an address for people who are respectable and have a high social status. In this case, a woman who is highly respectable and knowledgeable can also be addressed by 先生.

如宋庆龄、杨绛、冰心、丁玲、叶曼、许广平等均可称为先生。

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In current day, the only situation you would address a lady as 先生 is if she is a teacher, which is inter-changeable with 老師.

先生 in such case means teacher only. It does not mean Male/Mister.

Example: 李先生 = 李老師, regardless 李 is male or female.

It is mainly being used this way in school(kindergartner to high school) or a teaching environment, by student addressing teacher.

教授(professor) is used for addressing university teacher.

The common practice nowadays to formally addressing or introduce a lady, are

last name or full name follow by 女士/夫人(for married woman)
last name or full name follow by title/position

On the other hand, 先生 is common way use to address a male person.

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I don't think it would be used for teachers in primary schools, high schools or even normal colleges. As others have answered, it is used to refer knowledgable persons, but the use is now limited. –  fefe Dec 16 '12 at 7:59
    
It is being used in school, by student addressing teacher. Actually it is the mainly being use is school or a teaching environment. –  John Siu Dec 16 '12 at 8:08
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At lease not in Beijing. Teachers are always called "老师", even for college professors. They will not be called "先生". The only situation I hear this use of "先生" is in formal situations to show respect. –  fefe Dec 16 '12 at 8:25
    
I never been to Beijing, but in HK, 老师 and 先生 is equally common in school, but not in other area. –  John Siu Dec 16 '12 at 8:32
    
I don't even recall it being used other way in newspaper. –  John Siu Dec 16 '12 at 8:36
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As a supplement to the answers above, in Mainland China 先生 is equivalent to Mister, so you can never address a female as 先生, but you might read about it in old books, and you CAN call an elderly female scholar 先生, especially when in formal context, in the obituary for example.

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先生 literally means "earlier born." It is a form of respect for an older person, usually a man.

The normal context of 先生 is "teacher." A fairly old man (as Mao was at the time) would use this in reference only to a female who could reasonably be his "teacher" or "role model." It is a way of acknowledging his intellectual debt to such a woman.

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