In cases of famous masters like Laozi, Zhuangzi, Mozi, Sunzi, Kong Fuzi, etc. the suffix -子 is translated as "master" or sometimes "great teacher." Otherwise it indicates offspring or related concepts: child, descendant, diminutive, egg, seed, youth, sub-, subatomic particle, etc.

What is the etymology from one meaning to the other? I have a guess, but I'll put it in the comments below to not influence anyone who doesn't want to be influenced by my perhaps incorrect (and certainly unsubstantiated) thinking.

  • I wonder if it has to do with the Daoist comparison of sagacious behaviour to the carefree & inquisitive nature of children. E.g. "含德之厚/比於赤子," "復歸於嬰兒." Sep 7, 2022 at 5:09
  • Actually, 子 means "person", 如 "妻子","兒子,孫子","女子,男子,","孩子"....
    – r13
    Sep 7, 2022 at 16:29
  • 妻子 Wife person? 椅子 yǐzi 呢?桌子、杯子?The original character 子 shows a baby with 2 arms (the normal number of arms, I believe) It is common in English to call people baby. Maybe 孔子 is actually Kong baby, or Kong bro? “What's going down Kong bro?" Maybe the Ancients used 子 for 仔,克也。从人,子声。 克也:can, capable and 子 and 仔 were only differentiated later on. The dictionary tells us it was "ancient honourific title", but that doesn't answer the question why, if it means child.
    – Pedroski
    Sep 7, 2022 at 23:08
  • 1
    Quote:- "The dictionary tells us it was "ancient honourific title", but that doesn't answer the question why, if it means child" According to "Yin Yang" Theory, when One is Ascendance, and on reaching Apogee would morph into the Other, and so on in an Endless Cycle of Transformation. Thus when a scholar, for example, after a lifetime of strenuous study and mental application would one day attain such an "Enlightened" state that he attains the innocent purity of mind, like that of a "child", thus becoming a "子" again? Sep 8, 2022 at 3:32
  • @WayneCheah This has always been the kind of thing I've presumed. Came here to actually find out. 😊 Sep 19, 2022 at 14:40

2 Answers 2


  1. 古代对人的尊称;称老师或称有道德、有学问的人:孔~。先秦诸~。

The ancient honorific title for people; refers to teachers or people with morality or learned person, e.g. 孔子, 先秦诸子

  • Saying 孔子, is more respectful than 孔丘 [use the honorific 子 instead of his given name. It is like we call someone 陳先生(Mister Chen) or 陳老師 (Master Chen) instead of 陳XX or 陳老頭 in modern times ]

  • saying 先秦诸子 is more respectful than 先秦诸人 [not referring to people in general but referring to the moral and refined persons]

The original meaning of 子 was 'infant'. It has many extended meanings

子(infant) --> 兒子(son) --> 受珍惜重視的人 (people who are cherished and valued) --> 受尊敬之人 (people who are respected) --> 老师, 有道德、有学问的人 (teacher, master, moral people, learned people)

  • Yes, but the question is "Why?" The train of logic you wrote at the end, do you have a source for this or is this your supposition? Sep 19, 2022 at 14:42

It was just a name for "teacher" in ancient times. The name has changed with time to "先生", then "老师/教授", "

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