Didi Kirsten Tatlow is trying to trace the roots of the word xiānsheng 先生 (lit., "one who was born earlier / first / before" –> "sir; mister / Mr.; teacher; gentleman; doctor / Dr. [dated]"). She writes:
Today of course it's applied to all men, women being nǚshì 女士 ("Ms.; lady; madam"); once upon a time I believe it meant a teacher. Yet a woman considered especially smart may be given the honorific xiānsheng 先生 (!).
Am wondering about its origins and when/how it came to be applied to all men, and whether perhaps it came from the Japanese, like many other terms in modern times (i.e., post 1911 or even earlier?). Does anyone have any light to shed, with references?
Xiānsheng 先生, which is often abbreviated in Pinyin writing as "xs", e.g., Zhang xs = Zhāng xiānshēng 张先生 ("Mr. Zhang"), is one of the most versatile nouns in Chinese, certainly one of the most versatile terms of address.
We may summarize the chronology of its development as follows, beginning in the second half of the first millennium BC, passing through the classical, medieval, and late imperial periods, and coming right up to the present (most of these usages are terms of address):
1. "first born" (Classic of Poetry)
2. "(father and) elder brother(s)" (The Book of Etiquette and Rites)
3. "person who has resigned / retired from office" (The Book of Etiquette and Rites)
4. "senior, learned person" (Mencius)
5. "teacher" (Record of Rites)
6. "literatus" (Records of the Grand Scribe / Historian)
7. "Taoist" (Tang period)
8. "ancestor(s)" (Mongol period)
9. "physiognomist; soothsayer; geomancer; doctor", etc (this type of usage goes back to the Western Han period)
10. "prostitute" (late Qing / Manchu period)
11. "scribe; clerk" (late Qing-early Republican period)
12. wife's term of address for her husband; term of address for another woman's husband
13. polite address for people of good manners
14. reference for a representative specialist from a certain area or occupation
Xiānsheng 先生 can be used as a respectful second person address and third person reference.
As noted above, xiānsheng 先生 may be used to indicate or address a fortune teller, physiognomist, storyteller, bookkeeper, fengshui expert, etc. (i.e., master of an esoteric profession or popular trade / skill), though most of these are dated.
Further information may be found in the Chinese Wiktionary, which gives,
in addition to Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), the pronunciation of 先生 in Cantonese, Minnan (Taiwanese) and Wu (Shanghainese).
The English Wiktionary provides important information about 先生 in Japanese, where the term is pronounced as sensei and the usage has a somewhat different set of emphases:
1. one who was born earlier; an elder
2. one who excels at a subject; a scholar
Sensei 先生 seems to be a very respectful term in Japanese, at least that is how it strikes me when I am around Japanese who use it.
Xiānsheng 先生 is still very much used, though some of its domains have been eclipsed by other, more fashionable, terms, which come and go. For example:
tóngzhì 同志 ("comrade", but now more often implying membership in the LGBT community)
shīfu 师傅 ("master", applied to a wide variety of occupations and professions)
lǎoshī 老师 ("teacher") This is now the most popular way to refer to a teacher, but when I was learning Chinese forty-five years ago, most students addressed their teacher as xiānsheng 先生. I still have the habit of referring to people I respect as so-and-so "xiānsheng 先生".
Didi's main interest is in knowing to what extent xiānsheng / sensei 先生 can be used as a term of address for women. It would also be good know whether this term is used in Korean and Vietnamese, and whether the usages in these languages vary from those in Chinese and Japanese.