In its very essence, Chinese culture is strongly connected to its root and historical events. Modern Chinese culture is strongly influenced by Confucian ideals. One of the very basic foundations of the Confucian tradition is a deep respect for teachers.
China represents an ancient civilization of at least five thousand years. In ancient China, people treated etiquette as the most important part of the culture. The concept of hierarchy: monarch-subject relationship and father-son relationship are the core concept of the etiquette. Under the influence of the strict feudal hierarchy order and high ethical and moral standards, people pursuit the ethical morality of respect for seniority.
Lǎoshī is the Chinese word for “teacher.” It has two characters: 老師 and the first character lǎo 老 is a prefix which means “old.” The second character shī 師 means “teacher,” so the literal translation of lǎoshī is “old teacher.” However, 老 in this context just expressed respect and isn't related to actual age at all.
“Laoshi” is considered to have knowledgeable merit and impart knowledge to commons. It stands to reason that “laoshi” is a high-ranking role and they should be admired by others. Moreover, as the old saying goes, “a teacher of one day is a father of a lifetime”, so the address “laoshi” has an unshakable position in the traditional thought.
Most of the Chinese rulers were firstly educators – teachers. It is considered in all Chinese history lifespan for Confucius to be the greatest teacher of all. Besides morals, ethics and government leading, teacher is a central role in Chinese society.
Education breeds confidence. Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace.
The Republic of China, Taiwan, is truthfully traditional compared to P.R. China. On September 28 is celebrated Confucius' birthday, designated Teacher's Day, which is a national holiday in Taiwan. All public institutions are closed, and from the very early morning, men gather in the Confucius Temple of every city dressed in the Chinese full dress of long gown and cardigan over-jacket. The ceremony is usually lead by the mayor or by the governor. The ceremony involves traditional musical instruments and students dance holding a pheasant's tail feather. Three slaughtered animals—a whole ox, ram and boar—are offered as sacrifices. The ritual, following details set down by Confucius himself, lasts about an hour. When it is over, the crowd that has been waiting outside swarms into the ornate palace-style building, opened only once a year for the occasion, to look at the wooden tablets, sacrificial vessel and instruments.
Lǎoshī is also used as a title. We can address an actual teacher as “lǎoshī” or we can use lǎoshī in combination with a family name when referring to a teacher. Chinese students can always call teachers "lǎoshī", including professors at university.
Until today Chinese term “laoshi”, has experienced a very long-time development. Firstly it is important to trace back the original meaning of the term “teacher”. If we compare the modern term “laoshi” with previous versions, it is easy to distinguish a huge difference in meaning and grammar.
Ancient literature uses the character lao, with its original meaning, while in modern Chinese character Lao, is only a prefix. Following the Chinese rules of connecting characters; the original word laoshi consists of two separated words “lao” and “shi”. The meaning of “lao” is seniors and “shi” referred to the people who conveyed knowledge to others. For the very first time, these two words were used together in the Mencius scripts.
In the time before 618 A.D. before the Tang and Song Dynasties, in the Confucius literature meaning of “laoshi” is the great man of learning.
During the Tang Dynasty, the term “laoshi” indicated a monk. During the time of the Five Dynasties, “laoshi” referred to a respected craftsperson. In the Jin Dynasty, the meaning of “laoshi” referred to the person who taught students. In the Tang and Song Dynasties, “laoshi”, was strongly associated with Taoism or Buddhism and referred to as a priest.
Jiajing ruler during the Ming Dynasty was greatly influenced by the imperial examination system, and therefore “laoshi” evolved into an honorable title used by the disciples addressing their masters, and examiners in the imperial examination.
Within the next 400 years, “laoshi” gradually changed into an honorable title used by common students to refer to their teachers. In the 20 century, with an established socialist and modern educational system, without any form of connection with the imperial educational system, the title “laoshi” finally lost its previous meaning.
The Foundation of the People’s Republic of China brought a bit diverse meaning of the term “laoshi”. It has become a popular honorable title for common educators. In the 1940s, “laoshi” was popularized in primary and secondary schools, indicating respect towards teachers. Until the mid-1950s, it became a popular term in universities instead of “xiansheng” which means sir.
Nowadays, “laoshi” belongs to the category of common social address term, and displays the mutually professional identity of the teachers, and esteem and expectation of the society towards teachers’ morality and integrity.
For instance, engineers, doctors, actors and lawyers can be called “laoshi” in daily life, even they don't work in education. Generalization has been a growing feature of the address term of “laoshi” in Chinese.
The evolution of the address term of “laoshi” from ancient to modern time is still experiencing subtle changes in language use. It is no longer used to show identity or a particular profession. This term has been popular and generalized in many social situations.
It is appropriate to address the person as “laoshi” if he works as a teacher. Interestingly enough, we may call the other administrative employers “laoshi” on the campus in daily life. If we intend to contact administrative workers but have no idea of their titles; the safe bet is to address them with the title “laoshi”. For the matter of politeness to address logistics staff, such as the librarians or security guards, it’s appropriate to call them “laoshi”.
As the language varies, the term “laoshi” has gradually lost the original meaning of “teaching feature”. In real life, it is often seen, most doctors call their colleagues “laoshi” in a clinical setting, even if they are equal in rank or position. Nowadays term “laoshi” is such an adaptable title that will not cause any offense. For instance, we can see that hairdressers call their colleagues “laoshi” as well. Likewise, we can see the young actors or the audience call the old actors “laoshi” in the TV shows. It’s the same to the experts who are always called “laoshi” by others.
Often is the case when people from different businesses choose the title “laoshi” to greet each colleague who is equal in age and qualifications, in fact, refers to differences in perception about professional posts. This phenomenon roots in the diversification of professions which more or less share certain similarity to a teaching job.
In China politeness is treated as the communication exit strategy in order to save someone’s face. Having said that, “laoshi” fits the best to title some seniors. The address “laoshi” carries the denotation of pundit, intimacy and decency, so “laoshi” conveys the respect toward others on some level, which maintains their faces.
In modern China, as the feudal hierarchy order has been entirely ceased, the principles of Chinese culture remained intact. Education is becoming very important. The title of “laoshi” is endowed with new connotations and sense, especially with many metaphors. For example, “Teachers are engineers of the human soul”. In time, the meaning of “laoshi” can be used to the person who has some influence on us such as actors, politicians, scientists, etc.
Historically, “laoshi” is an address term with more power and social position and reflects the distinction between each other.
In Chinese society, people tend to give others more power in communication for a matter of politeness or praise. Usually, the praised one is accomplished professionally or has some real power. The achievement matters and are always reflected in the relationship.
Rarely the social context can be easily distinguished with the need to give a correct response instantly. For example, when a student meets a professor on the campus, he addresses the teacher with the title “laoshi” without hesitation. But when the student is in the library and needs librarian help, he is not able to give the librarian a reasonable title. Then, it’s the safest bet to title him “laoshi”. In other cases, the social context is so complicated to recognize and we disable to reply to the dilemma. For example, when various participants with different backgrounds and social ranks are in touch, it is necessary to apply a particular set of skills in order to save faces, especially the faces of the lower ranks. Here, “laoshi” is a gentle and neutral term. It expresses respect and admiration and gives the hearers equal positions, which can make pleasant conversation.