Family in Chinese: Titles and Traditions

family in chineseFamily in Chinese is a lot of fun to learn. Part of the reason is that there are so many different names and titles for different relatives, and each title tells how they are related to the speaker. It can get confusing from time to time, but once you have it down, it’s easy to know who is who in a family. But do be prepared, there is a lot of vocabulary in this post.

Since I’m going to use pinyin throughout, you may want to check out this class, Elementary Class for Chinese Pronunciation, which covers pinyin and pronunciation.

It should also be noted that because of the One Child Policy in China, large extended families are largely a thing of the past. Because there aren’t many siblings in families now, there are less chances to actively use them, though people of course know these terms. With the relaxing of the One Child rule, there will hopefully be a greater chance for kids to use them in day-to-day life again. Of course, in Taiwan and Singapore, and for Chinese folks outside China there are no such laws so they have been in constant use.

Immediate Family: Parents FùMŭ 父母

This is easy. Mom and dad are almost the same around the world, so there should be no problem with these.

  • Mom – Māma 妈妈
  • Mother – Mŭqīn 母亲 [note: this sounds formal, like Mother does in English.]
  • Dad – Bàba 爸爸
  • Father – Fùqīn 父亲 [note: this sounds formal, like Father in English.]

Immediate Family: Siblings XiōngDìJiĕMèi 兄弟姐妹

Siblings are a little more complicated. In Chinese, family titles are used to indicate whether someone is older or younger, so older brothers and sisters have their own titles and younger ones do as well.

  • Brothers – Xiōngdì 兄弟 [xiōng is an older term for brother and always used in this construction meaning “brothers”]
  • Older brother – Gēge 哥哥
  • Younger brother – Dìdi 弟弟
  • Sisters – Jiĕmèi 姐妹
  • Older Sister – Jiĕjie 姐姐
  • Younger sister – Mèimei 妹妹

An older sibling is sometimes called “big” 大 to show they are the oldest. This is especially true if there are multiple older siblings. For the rest, you add a number to the title. So the oldest brother is Dàgē 大哥, the second is Èr gē 二哥 and so on. The same applies for younger brothers and the sisters as well, e.g. Dàjiĕ 大姐, Sān dì 三弟, Èr mèi 二妹, etc.

Grandparents Zŭfùmŭ 祖父母

This is where is gets interesting. Grandparents in English are the same no matter which side of the family they are on. In Chinese however, they have specific titles, ones that are reflections of how families traditionally existed in China for thousands of years.

The paternal grandparents were the family most grandkids knew. This was due to the fact that when sons married, their wives moved into his family’s home. This meant that the dad’s parents were the elders in the family and due more respect. These titles tend to reflect that.

  • Paternal grandfather – Yéye 爷爷 – This is a term of respect for elderly men in general, so the grandfather gets called this.
  • Paternal Grandmother – Năinai 奶奶 – For the paternal grandmother, it is a bit more complex because it varies depending on the region of China a family comes from. The most traditional form of address in Mandarin is Năinai.

For the maternal grandparents, their traditional names reflect the fact that the grandkids didn’t live with them like they did with the paternal grandparents. Wài, The first word in both means “outside”. Children often say the second character twice.

  • Maternal grandmother – Wàipó 外婆, Pópo 婆婆
  • Maternal grandfather – Wàigōng 外公, Gōnggong 公公

Gōnggong and Pópo are also common addresses used by the mom for her Father-in-law and Mother-in-law, so sometimes her children will use those terms for even the paternal grandparents.

Uncles and Aunties

Confused yet? You may need to review before heading onward because it gets even more complex as things progress. This class, Learn Mandarin Chinese, covers some of the family relations, as well.

Just like siblings all have different titles, uncles and aunts do, too. These are more complicated on the dad’s side, for the same reason mentioned above that the sons of the family often lived at home. This meant that there were more and varied relatives living there.

  • Dad’s older brother– Bóbo 伯伯
  • Older uncle’s wife – Bómŭ 伯母
  • Dad’s younger brother – Shūshu 叔叔
  • Younger uncle’s wife – Shénshen 婶婶
  • Dad’s sister – Gūgu 姑姑
  • Husband of dad’s sister – Gūzhàng 姑丈 This is literally Aunt’s husband.

The maternal uncles and aunts have a couple titles less because these family members were living at mom’s parent’s home, so they were seen less.

  • Mom’s brothers – Jiùjiu 舅舅
  • Wife of Mom’s brother – Jiùmā 舅妈
  • Mom’s sister – Āyí 阿姨
  • Husband of mom’s sister – Yízhàng 姨丈 – This is “Auntie’s husband”.

It is common for parents to have their children use these forms of address with their friends, making it seem like some Chinese families are huge, with unlimited uncles and aunties.

Cousins

In America, it seems like we have a rough time of it. Maybe that’s true with all the numbering of cousins and being “removed”, but in Chinese it’s pretty complicated, too. The benefit of this naming convention is that you know right away how someone is related to you because of the title you are supposed to call them.

If someone is your second cousin once removed, how in the world are they related to you? Mom’s side? Dad’s side? Older? Younger? At least in Chinese you have an idea of who this person is and why they are sitting next to you at the wedding banquet.

  • Paternal uncle’s children get’s the handy prefix – Táng

By adding the titles of brothers and sisters, you can tell who they are. e.g. tángdì 堂弟, tángjiĕ 堂姐, etc.

  • Paternal aunt’s children and Maternal cousins’ handy prefix – Biăo

It’s the same rule as Táng and uses the title for siblings. e.g. biăomèi 表妹, biăogē 表哥, etc.

Chinese Traditions Regarding Family

The honored sage Confucius was the first to illustrate the importance of family in Chinese culture. He described the concept of “filial piety” (xiào 孝 in Chinese) meaning loyalty and respect for family. It’s one of the honorable characteristics that defines a person’s relationships.

Confucius taught that every relationship has a role in society. A father is a father, a brother a brother, a mother a mother and so on. Not only was family viewed as the central element of society, it was also seen as a small reflection of the community. This meant that if families were close and followed these ideals of filial piety, then the whole of society would follow the same ideals, all the way up to the Emperor, as the “father” of the country.

These confucian traditions are very deeply rooted in Chinese culture, even after a couple thousand years. For a good primer of what to expect if visiting China or facing Chinese cultural relationships, Doing Business with China has a few sections with good guidelines to prepare you for these kinds of interactions. Even if you aren’t doing business, don’t let the title deter you since these cultural expectations aren’t confined to business relationships!

For a crash course in Chinese, if you are needing to travel and would like to make some chit chat in Chinese, Survival Chinese also includes some phrases about family.

Whatever your needs, hopefully you’ve found something you can use here. Good luck!