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Today I am surprised to learn that 俞大絪, an authoress of an English textbook, is known as a 先生 (and it is very unlikely a Mr. as the word indicates because she is a real her). After searching this great site, I have found some interesting answers in 先生 used as title for female.

But the question still remains incompletely answered. For example, what is the qualification of this title? How can one judge the gender of this title holder without being shown photo or ID card? How is she addressed in English, or is there an equivalent in English for this title?

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    When I was in grade school in Hong Kong, we addressed all teachers as '先生' colloquially, whether it was male or female. (老師 is a more literary term ). It changed when we got to high school, we call our teachers "X Sir" or "Ms. Y" then
    – Tang Ho
    May 29 at 9:20
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    I suppose if your Chinese is good enough, you could distinguish a male name from a female name. Also in the old, old days, most if not all positions which carries some kind of honorific titles were held by men, and so no double guessing necessary. Now of course it is drastically different, hence the "problem" arises I suppose. May 30 at 2:09

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When 先生 is used as a title, indeed, one cannot tell the gender of the title holder. It's the same with other titles, such as

總統 President

經理 Manager

博士 Ph D

醫生 MD

教授 Professor

I can go on, but you get the point.

先生 can indeed be either gender, but in recent decades, I've noticed it used less for female teachers. Instead, 老師 is used for both male and female teachers, and 先生 used as a more generic "Mister".

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  • You get me wrong here. I mean when you are told here is a 俞大絪先生, your first reaction to that must be like "Oh, there is a Mr. Yu", but later you know she is a very knowledgeable woman, so she earns the title 先生, so it might be advisable to add a note alongside the title (a female) to avoid further misunderstanding. May 30 at 14:50
  • The Japanese use the term 先生(Sensei) to address high-status people, 'doctors, teachers, and professional manga artists are all called 先生, e.g. 高橋留美子先生 is the most famous female manga artist in Japan now
    – Tang Ho
    May 30 at 21:35
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    @TangHo But in Japanese people can identify the gender easily, as in the example you give, 子 is the usual word indicating a female, but in Chinese 许广平先生 is confusing. May 31 at 2:08
  • Calling her 高橋先生 is the more common practice
    – Tang Ho
    May 31 at 2:13
  • @TangHo Today's news talks about another such 先生 it is 宋庆龄, who has a strong connection with the women right and children education in China. Anyway, this word is more like Dr. in English, you do not know what this title really mean, whether it is a physician or a doctoral degree holder at the first sight. May 31 at 14:38
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先生, 老師, 教授, teacher, and professor are gender-neutral professional titles (职称), in Chinese, for now, there is no way to distinguish a person's gender through his/her professional title.

It seems not a big problem for the Western countries, in which, for K - 12 graders, the teachers are often addressed by their surname, or full name, with the gender-specific title Mr. and Mrs in the front. However, at the college level, teachers are again addressed by their professional title - Professor.

Add: As mentioned above, 先生 is a "gender-neutral title", so it is not a good way, though polite and respectful, to address a female professional without her presence. Rather, the introduction shall say "俞大絪女仕,知名的學者....", to attribute the respect to include both "her" and "her (female) gender".

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  • My bad not to make myself clear enough. My point is how can you distinguish this 先生 is a title for a great talent woman or an address to a man. When you are introduced to a 俞大絪先生,how can you be sure it is a Mr. Yu or it is a Ms. Yu but who is as great as a master. May 30 at 14:54
  • As I've said, 先生 is gender-neutral, so it is not a good way, though polite and respectful, to address a female master without her presence. Rather, the introduction shall say: "俞大絪女仕,知名的學者...."
    – r13
    May 30 at 16:04
  • If it is put this way, it might not be a trouble but at the same time it lacks the sensation the speaker wants to make. May 31 at 14:44
  • It is up to his skill in composing the speech. Otherwise, don't be bothered by gender awareness, which isn't the main focus.
    – r13
    May 31 at 15:16

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