If you have ever studied a foreign language, you know that lesson Three, after lesson One: greetings, and lesson Two: introducing yourself, is always introducing your family. “Hello, my name is John Smith. This is my father. That is my mother. I have two brothers.” If you were learning Chinese, the conversation would go something like this: “你好，我是王朋 (Wang Peng, a sort of Chinese equivalent of John Smith)。 他是我的爸爸 (father)。 她是我的妈妈 (mother)。我有两个兄弟 (brothers)。“ So far, so good. You think. But this is where the going gets really tough, at least when it comes to kinship terms. Chinese family ties, and the correct naming of the various family members, are very important, and like a lot of important things, also extremely complicated. There are two reasons for this complicated naming system: 1. Chinese make a clear distinction between your paternal and your maternal side of the family. So while your grandparents on your dad’s side are called 爷爷 (yéye, grandpa) and 奶奶 (nǎinai, grandma) (see the images below), your mother’s parents are called 外公 (wàigōng, grandpa) and 外婆 (wàipó, grandmother). 2. The way you address your family members is also depending on your age relative to theirs. If I have two brothers, I will call my younger brother 弟弟 (dìdi), and my older brother 哥哥 (gēge). They, in return, address me as 哥哥 and 弟弟, respectively. Are you still with me?
You and I are not the only ones who struggle with family terminology. There are some great graphs out there, like the ones above, from Stephen Morgan’s blog about math and Chinese. In addition, there is a great website that includes both Mandarin and Cantonese terms of all family members, and you can find that here. Or, if you want to be informed on the road, you can find a mobile map with kinship terms in English and pinyin here.
Now to make matters worse (or more interesting, that depends on your perspective), you might get confused when you come to China and you hear young children, and even young adults, call seemingly random strangers in the street “aunty” (āyí 阿姨) and “uncle” (shūshu 叔叔). These people are (usually) not actually related, but the terms are a normal way for younger people to address an elderly person they talk to on the street or in a store.
Before the one-child policy was introduced in China in the second-half of the 20th century, Chinese families often had many children, especially in the countryside where each pair of working hands was badly needed. While most children did have actual personal names, they were sometimes simply addressed according to the order in which they were born: 大哥 (eldest (lit. big) brother)，二哥 (number two)，三哥 (number three). The youngest child often had a name that included the character for small (小 xiǎo).
This month at ChinaConnectU we focus on the family, from traditional values to modern practices. For more articles, links, and vocabulary, visit www.chinaconnectu.com.