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When is a Ms. a Mister? When she’s a smart woman in China…

September 7, 2013

A Moniker Only a Mister Could Like


Published: August 27, 2013

BEIJING — “Have you noticed how woman opinion leaders are being called ‘Mr.’ on Weibo?” asked my sharp-eyed friend Mei Zhang, referring to the influential Twitter-like microblogs.

She was right.

In scattered online references subsequently confirmed in interviews, the evidence is there: “Liu Yu Xiansheng,” or Mr. Liu Yu, a Tsinghua University politics professor and the respected author of “Details of Democracy,” an admired book about the years she spent in the United States. In February, “Mr.” Liu, 37, gave birth to a daughter, so calling her “xiansheng”  seems especially odd. She has more than 780,000 followers on Sina Weibo, the biggest microblogging platform in the country.

“Xiansheng” is the most common way to address a man today in Mandarin, replacing the gender-free “tongzhi,” which began to fade in the 1980s, after the death of Mao Zedong. Once upon a time, “xiansheng” also indicated a teacher (more on that later). It means “first born” and expresses respect for a person older, and therefore more venerable, than yourself.

Ms. Zhang, who was born in Shenyang but works in Hong Kong in finance, explained: “Historically, when a woman was called that, it really elevated her to the status of a man. It meant a brilliant woman. Not because she was pretty but because she was really respected, really clever.

“As a woman you have to be really outstanding to be called it, whereas if you are a man it can be anybody,” she said.

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