The Unnecessarily Complicated Chinese Family Tree
As if learning Mandarin Chinese wasn’t difficult enough, with the thousands of characters and the 5 tones to deal with, they had to have a crazy large amount of words to describe Chinese family members and Chinese family names. Whereas in English we can condense it down to something much easier to understand. Which is just basically describing someone’s position in the family.
For example: Mum’s sibling’s son (if older than you) –表哥 (Biǎo gē).
And yup, there’s another word for mum’s sibling’s son if younger than you.
Chinese Family Tree: Importance of address in Chinese
Coming to China, you may have noticed the importance of addressing people and learning about etiquette and traditions. Depending on your age, whether you’re male or female, and in what capacity you’re meeting somebody, you will be addressed as something else.
Upon first coming to China, I was horrified with the number of people calling me ‘美女（Měinǚ)’ which literally translates to ‘beautiful woman’. I’m pretty confident with my looks… But to be called this several times a day… In England, it would be pretty creepy. But, I soon learned that it is just a polite form of address.
Others you’ll come across in day to day life include:
帅哥 – shuàigē: Used towards a male in a friendly way (lit. handsome guy)
大哥 – dàgē: Said towards any male to show respect
小姐姐 – xiǎo jiějiě: This is a newer term that crept up in Chinese social media, said to younger women
师傅 – shīfù: A term of respect said towards workers e.g. taxi driver
叔叔 – shūshu: A term of respect said to an older person
阿姨 – āyí: Said to older women
老外 – lǎowài: The Chinese word for ‘foreigner’ – you’ll hear this a lot! Lit. Old outsider
同事 – tóngshì: You’ll hear this at work, meaning ‘colleague’
Interestingly enough, you will also hear Chinese people referring to their “brothers 哥哥 gēge” and “sisters 姐姐 jiějiě” meaning that they are just close friends, but not actually family members. So it is always confusing when someone introduces a group of guys as their “brothers” and you wonder just how many kids are in their family…! This is also said for “Uncle 叔叔shūshu” and “aunt 阿姨 āyí”.
Using the correct terminology is very important in Chinese culture, and this doesn’t stop with family members either!
So, let’s start with the basics.
Chinese Family Tree: Immediate Family
Mom – 妈妈 (māma)
Dad – 爸爸 (bàba)
Wife – 妻子 (Qīzi) or 老婆 (lǎopó)
Husband – 丈夫 (Zhàngfū) or 老公 (lǎogōng)
Older brother – 哥哥 (Gēgē)
Older sister – 姐姐 (Jiějiě)
Younger brother – 弟弟 (Dìdì)
Younger sister – 妹妹 (Mèimei)
Son – 儿子 (Érzi)
Daughter – 女儿 (Nǚ’ér)
Chinese Family Tree: Grandma/Grandpa
Grandmother – 奶奶 (Nǎinai)
Grandfather – 爷爷 (Yéyé)
Grandmother – 外婆 (wài pó)
Grandfather – 外公 (wàigōng)
Chinese Family Tree: Uncle
Older brother – 伯伯 (Bóbo)
Younger brother – 叔叔 (Shūshu)
Older sister’s husband – 姑夫 (Gūfū)
Younger sister’s husband – 姑夫 (Gūfū)
Older or younger brother –舅舅 (Jiùjiu)
Chinese Family Tree: Aunt
Older sister – 姑妈 (Gūmā)
Younger sister – 姑姑 (Gūgū)
Older brother’s wife – 伯母 (Bómǔ)
Younger brother’s wife – 婶婶 (Shěnshěn)
Older sister – 姨妈 (Yímā)
Younger sister – 阿姨 (Āyí)
Brother’s wife – 舅母 (Jiùmu)
Chinese Family Tree: Cousin
Dad’s Brother’s/sister’s son (if older than you) – 堂兄 (Táng xiōng)
Brother’s/sister’s son (if younger than you) – 堂弟 (Táng dì)
Then the daughters…
Brother’s/sister’s daughter (if older than you) – 堂姐 (Táng jiě)
Brother’s/sister’s daughter (if younger than you) – 堂妹 (Táng Mèi)
Mum’s Brother’s/sisters’s son (if older than you) –表哥 (Biǎo gē)
Brother’s/sister’s son (if younger than you) – 表弟 (Biǎo dì)
Then the daughters…
Brother’s/sister’s daughter (if older than you) – 表姐 (Biǎo jiě)
Brother’s/sister’s daughter (if younger than you) – 表妹 (Biǎo mèi)
Chinese Family Tree: Niece/Nephew
Brother’s daughter – 姪女 (zhínǚ)
Sister’s daughter – 外甥女 (wàishengnǚ)
Brother’s son – 姪子 (zhízi)
Sister’s son – 外甥 (wàishēng)
Chinese Family Tree: The In-Laws
Husband’s father – 公公 (gōnggong)
Wife’s father – 岳父 (yuèfù)
Husband’s mother – 婆婆 (pópo)
Wife’s mother – 岳母 (yuèmǔ)
Your older sister’s husband – 姐夫 (Jiěfū)
Your younger sister’s husband – 妹夫 (Mèifū)
Your older brother’s wife – 嫂子 (Sǎo zi)
Your younger brother’s wife – 弟妇 (Dìfù)
So, that’s about it (!)
What makes it more complicated, however, is that in different Mandarin Chinese dialects – things change around, and different areas in China have different preferences of how to refer to their family members. Does your head hurt yet?
Whilst you shouldn’t worry too much about memorising all of these, it’s something fun to learn and will definitely impress your Chinese (and foreign) mates. Plus, it will certainly make a good impression if you’re meeting a Chinese family over Chinese New Year!
Have a look at the graphic below for an interesting visual, and check out the video – which will probably help confuse you more. But you can definitely use it to show your friends just how difficult learning Mandarin is…
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