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“首相” looks like the prime minister of a royal country, while “总理” is the premier of a republic, but in China's history, there is no official post of ”首相“,but of "丞相“or "宰相", and in the case of countries like Thailand and Malaysia, both of which are kingdoms with king or sultan as the head of state, but the heads of government are named in Chinese (mainland China) as "总理",but not as "首相" like in the UK, Japan, Denmark, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, etc.

By the way, if you have seen pictures of prime minister of Japan, the official name in Kanji of Japanese is "内阁总理大臣", so it should be "总理" but not "首相".

It is very confusing.

  • 内阁总理大臣 is a Japanese term. We still call the Japanese prime minister 日本首相 in Chinese – Tang Ho Jul 21 '17 at 12:59
  • I see, that's why I asked what is the reason for such distortion. @TangHo – NanningYouth Jul 22 '17 at 2:00
  • 总理大臣 in Chinese stress it is a 大臣 ^_^ (it implies that 大臣 should not have more power than king) . – Daniel Yeung Aug 24 '17 at 0:50
  • @DanielYeung I checked a number of old books in Chinese and haven't found any official title in China is known as 首相, so the title is a coined one. Very weird. – NanningYouth Aug 25 '17 at 7:33
  • The Japanese also call 内閣総理大臣 as 首相 sometimes. And Japanese and Chinese are two different languages. The use and meaning of the same word can be very different in the two languages. – fefe Sep 29 '17 at 2:35
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In the constitutional monarchy, 首相 is the the head of the cabinet, with the highest executive power.

首, in ancient Chinese, means the first or top. 相, short for 丞相, are the officials(usually with great power, just below the emperor) of the emperor. Therefore, 首相 is the top official of a central government.

In the republican state, there is no prime minister, and 总理 run the central government.

Countries have 首相: Japan, UK, Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium...

Countries have 总理: China, Germany, India... Most countries have a 总理, while USA has neither a 总理 nor a 首相, it has a 国务卿(Secretary of State). States with 总理 usually have a 总统(president) or a 主席(chairman).

  • Thanks. But you haven't told me why there is the confusion I mentioned. By the way, Secretary of State of the US serves as the usual Minister of Foreign Affairs in other countries while the President serves as both heads of the country and the government. – NanningYouth Jul 22 '17 at 1:54
  • In essence, the two words are no different. They are two different ways to translate prime minister. Nowadays, Chinese tend to view prime minister as 总理, while in the past, people prefer to translate it as 首相. But why the UK and some other countries' prime minister is still translated as 首相? This is because in the Chinese impression, they are very typical monarchy constitutional state, so people choose to retain the original translation. – Lengend Jul 22 '17 at 2:53
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  • 首相[shǒu xiàng] prime minister; premier.

  • 首相 means Some of the heads of the central government of the sovereign state are sometimes referred to as the prime ministers of the cabinet.

  • 总理[zǒng lǐ] premier; prime minister: the Premier of the State Council 国务院总理
  • 总理 means : 1. A person in charge of a department or business. 2. The name of the head of the central government. 3.In addition, some party leaders also call prime minister.
  • A person in charge of a business might be 总经理, party leaders are chairman or secretary or chief党首、党魁、主席、书记, but not 总理. – NanningYouth Sep 28 '17 at 11:23
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According to this wiki article, PM in countries with a monarch is translated to 首相, otherwise 总理. Unfortunately there are exceptions as you listed.

I can assure you that lots of Chinese are also confused with this, so just remember the ones for major countries and don't worry if you used the wrong one -- people will understand.

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Depends on the form of government of that country.

In the Constitutional monarchy, the head of the administration usually refers to "首相", in English we called it Prime Minister, which makes sense to me coz that country has a ruler - King/Queen. Even in Japan, the PM, which is called "内阁总理大臣", still need to be call "首相" but not "总理".

And in the Republic, which means the country is considered a "public matter", not the private concern or property of the rulers, the head of the government should refer to "总理", Premier.

The head of the Chinese government(中国总理) should be called Premier, not PM. The official statement has a clear rule on it.

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I think this post may shed some light on your question. Calling prime ministers of some royal countries '总理' while others '首相' is not coherent. I saw in this post some people comment that the Chinese community in Malaysia decide to call their prime minister '首相'.

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