The other evening northern friends of a certain age lamented the demise of “comrade (同志)” as a form of address. They weren’t so much distressed by the Cantonese queering of the term, as they were by the fact that Chinese forms of address no longer assumed (or aspired to) equality between comrades. Instead, etiquette now demanded that social fields be charted and hierarchical relations marked. Officials, for example, are called by their bureaucratic position. Not surprising in the case of higher ranking officials — the City Party Secretary and Mayor, for example — but somewhat excessive in the case of neighborhood heads.
Even if they chafe at the ritual acknowledgement of political hierarchy and concomitant social inequality, nevertheless, they also remarked that official status does simplify the question of how to address someone. In contrast, they noted that the real awkwardness lay in deciding how to address someone without either a clear social role or a defined relationship to the self. They addressed professionals by their job (Lawyer Chen, Teacher Dong, Doctor An, Theatre Director Yang, and Engineer Liang come to mind), but often blanched at calling rich acquaintances “boss (老板)” or the more refined “executive (总)”. Friends were addressed by nicknames and fictive kin terms, while new friends could be called “Mr. (先生)” or “Ms. (小姐)”, but workers, including waitstaff and other service workers posed a problem because they could also be hailed as fictive kin or just young people. Moreover, gender and age play an important role, and in conversation my friends often call working men “craft master (师傅)” or “boy (小伙子)” and working women “auntie (阿姨)” or “younger sister (小妹)”.
In anticipation of the 18th National People’s Congress and to give a sense of just how complicated is the system of Chinese bureaucracy and relevant titles, I have translated the fifteen official levels of government from a Baidu entry. Positions are listed in order of ranking within a category. Hence, the General Secretary ranks higher than the President, who in turn ranks higher than the Chair of the Military Commission. When making introductions, most people will qualify a title with the appropriate administrative status, as in City Level Vice Mayor, after which however, they will use the full title “Mayor” unless the actual Mayor is around. These rankings also matter because they map the bureaucratic journey that ambitious functionaries must make. Shenzhen is a sub-provincial level city, for example, and so its Mayor cannot be directly considered for a national post, but must first obtain a provincial or ministerial position. In contrast, a the same position in an independent city, like Beijing or a full provincial ranking, would be a rank higher, placing the office holder in contention for national assignments.
Should your eyes not glaze as you read the list, you’ll get the hang of assigning rank and how using titles has ritualized inequality by reiterating the Chinese bureaucratic system from the General Secretary all the way down to a functionary in a community or village office.
First level, national level (国家一级)：General Secretary, President, Chair of the Military Commission, Chair of the National People’s Congress, State Council Premier, Vice General Secretary, Standing Member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee.
Second and third level, national government (国家二至三级)：Member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, Alternative Member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, Secretary for the Central Disciplinary Commission, Vice Chair of the NPC Standing Committee, Vice Premier of the State Council, State Council Member, President of the Supreme People’s Court, Vice Chair of the CPPCC National Committee.
Third and fourth level, national ministries and provincial government (部级正职、省级正职三至四级): Provincial governor, Vice Secretary for the Central Disciplinary Commission, Standing Member NPC, Secretary of State, all sub-national administrative chiefs and enterprise heads (including Party organizations), leaders of all People’s organizations (including Party organizations) at the provincial, autonomous region, independent city level. These organizations include Party Committees, People’s Congresses, Government, and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Exceptions can be made to give provincial rank to leaders of sub-provincial organizations;
Fourth and fifth level, vice ministries and sub-provincial government (部级副职、省级副职四至五级): Vice Governor, Members of the Central Disciplinary Commission, all sub-provincial administrative chiefs and enterprise heads (including Party organizations), leaders of all People’s organizations (including Party organizations) at the sub-provincialand sub-autonomous region. These organizations include Party Committees, People’s Congresses, Government, and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Exceptions can be made to give sub-provincial rank to leaders of Office of the Council or Regional organizations [Shenzhen Municipality];
Fifth through seventh level, Council Heads, Regional Chiefs and Counsels (司级正职、厅级正职、巡视员五至七级);
Sixth through eighth level, Vice Council Heads, Sub-regional Offices and Assistant Counsels (司级副职、厅级副职、助理巡视员六至八级) [Shenzhen Districts]；
Seventh through tenth level, Department Heads, County Commissioner and Investigators (处级正职、县级正职、调研员七至十级);
Eighth through eleventh level, Vice Department Heads, Vice County Commissioners, and Assistant Investigators (处级副职、县级副职、助理调研员八至十一级) [Shenzhen Precincts];
Ninth through twelvth level, Section Heads, Xiang Heads and Chief of Staff (科级正职、乡级正职、主任科员九至十二级);
Ninth through thirteenth level, Vice Section Heads, Vice Xiang Heads, and Vice Chief of Staff (科级副职、乡级副职、副主任科员九至十三级) [Shenzhen Communities/Neighborhoods];
Ninth through fourteenth level, Staff Members (科员：九至十四级);
Tenth through fifteenth level, Office Workers (办事员：十至十五级).