Family Matters

by Rui Zhi Dong

In China, family is of extreme importance, it is therefore very important to know how the members of a family are related to each other and how the relationships are named. It is the 关系 (guānxi; relations/connections) system in its most basic and primal form. As already dictated by Confucius himself, an official should serve his master like a son should serve his father: 君君臣臣父父子子! (jūnjūn chénchén fùfù zǐzǐ!)

In a Chinese family all family positions thus have their own name, and these titles are extremely meaningful containing such information as gender, seniority in the family, and whether the person referring to them is related to the speaker by birth or by marriage.

Let’s start with the basics: when referring to your own parents, you can choose to go with the less formal dad, 爸爸 (bàba) and mom, 妈妈 (māma) or simply 爸, 妈; or stick to the more formal 父亲 (fùqin) and 母亲 (mǔqin) collectively referred to as 父母 (fùmǔ).

Next step are the siblings. Even though China has institutionalized the one-child policy since late 1970s, you will still hear many people referring to their various ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’. What they mean here is not necessarily a blood relative, but simply someone of a similar age, possibly a cousin, who they grew up with. Seniority is important in a Chinese family, therefore siblings shall be divided into older ones: older brother (哥哥 gēge), older sister (姐姐 jǐejie); and younger ones (弟弟 dìdi) and 妹妹 (mèimei).

Things naturally get complicated when your siblings get married: first a 嫂子 sǎozi (your older brother’s spouse) and 姐夫 jiěfu (your older sister’s husband), then 弟妹 dìmèi (your younger brother's wife) and 妹夫 mèifu (your younger sister's husband).

And speaking of spouses, depending on where you live and the customs of the area, you have four different titles to choose from. First of, we have 爱人 (àirén) which can be used for either the husband or the wife - so, when put on the spot, if nothing else comes out, just use this one (lit. loved one). Next, there’s a couple which can either be used for your spouse, or as a general, respectful title; kind of like the English sir and madam. These are 先生 (xiānsheng) for him, and 太太 (tàitai), for her. When referring to your old (老 lǎo) ball and chain, in a more colloquial way, go with 老公 (lǎogōng: lit. old man) and 老婆 (lǎopo: lit. old woman). And finally, for all your form filling needs and other official duties, you should go with 丈夫 (zhàngfu) for the husband and 妻子(qīzi) for the wife.

As you can see, long gone is the era when all the cousins, no matter how old, how distant and which gender they were, would be simply cousins. In Chinese, you will need to make an effort and study each family title by itself. And god forbid that you move from the Chinese North to Chinese South (or any other drastic regional move) for you will have to start the learning all over again.

Learn Chinese for Beginners

Words for family members and other relatives in Cantonese, Hakka, Mandarin and Taiwanese

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