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Useful Notes / Chinese Sibling Terminology

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Much like Japanese, Chinese distinguishes between older and younger siblings. In Mandarin:

  • : Older brother
  • : Younger brother
  • jiě: Older sister
  • mèi: Younger sister

In usage, these words are usually repeated twice; e.g., 妹妹 mèimei for one's younger sister. It is generally considered impolite to call an elder sibling by name. In larger families, 大哥 dàgē or 大姐 dàjiě would refer to the eldest male or female child and others would be numbered (二哥 èrgē, 三哥 sāngē, and so on). An elder brother is also sometimes referred to as 兄 xiōng, usually in the formula 兄弟 xiōngdì meaning "brothers" (in contrast to the Japanese 兄弟 kyōdai, which can either mean "brothers" or "siblings", including sisters). Many people mistakenly thought brothers and sisters as a whole would be almost obsolete, however the one-child policy was obviously not meant to last very long (which otherwise would lead to eventual population decrease). For people born in 1980~2000s though, one-child family is dominant. Informally, it is not uncommon to call someone outside of your family by these names. Likewise, an elder sister can also be referred to as 姊 , as in the formula 姊妹 zǐmèi (cognate with Japanese 姉妹 shimai) meaning "sisters". When the two are combined, the term 兄弟姊妹 xiongdizimei means "siblings".

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Dàgē can also be used to address a non-related leader of an informal group, which happens overwhelmingly often in depictions of Chinese mafia bosses by Hong Kong films (the Cantonese daai3 lou2 is another term that gets thrown around quite frequently in these films). On that similar vein, dàjiě can be used to call said leader's wife, even if she is not, again, related by blood. This is comparable to the Japanese usage of 兄貴 aniki, especially among (fictional) gangsters.

The youngest sibling older than you could be referred to as 小哥 xiǎogē or 小姐 xiǎojiě, (小 xiǎo = lit. "small") but that might not be as common as calling the youngest child 小弟 xiǎodì or 小妹 xiǎomèi. In any case, xiǎogē is used to address any non-related young man, regardless of their occupation, while xiǎojiě is the Chinese equivalent of 'Miss' and used to address waitresses, retail clerks, etc. (And prostitutes, according to a few... interesting Chinese teachers. In fact, owing to this, xiǎojiě is an increasingly deprecated term in polite conversation, instead opting for the more appropriate 服務員 fúwùyuán or "attendant") when addressing waitresses; 妹妹 mèimei, using the same two words but a different inflection, can also be used to refer to an attractive young girl; this is generally considered to be an impolite and inappropriate term, but used quite often (and deliberately) among Chinese male adolescents (and beyond).

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Cousins are also referred to by these four terms with the addition of 堂 táng or 表 biǎo according to arcane rules having to do with whether/how your fathers are related (basically if the cousins are on your mother's side of the family or their mother is your father's sister, 表 biǎo is used, if their father is your father's brother, 堂 táng is used. An easier way to remember this is if you and your cousin share a surname, it's táng, and if you don't, it's biǎo). Contemporary people sometimes just don't bother the distinction of táng and biǎo (nothing to do with one-child policy here), using biǎo for all cousins. Though in Chinese-speaking countries outside of China proper (such as Singapore and Taiwan), be prepared to address your cousins with those mouthfuls. Alternatively, cousins may be informally addressed in the same manner as siblings.

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Similarly, aunts and uncles are divided up by side of the family, but also whether they're related by blood or marriage and maybe birth order relative to your parent (usually to distinguish between your father's brothers; your father or mother's sisters and mother’s brothers get no such distinction). As such, discounting regional differences, there are 5 different terms for auntnote  and 5 different terms for unclenote  from all of the different combinations. Nieces and nephews too are referred to differently depending on whether their parent is your brother or your sister (but there aren’t separate terms for if it’s your older or younger sibling’s child)note .

There are at least five ways to refer to your parents. Each set is "father" and "mother", written in Traditional Chinese:

  • 爸爸 bàba, 媽媽 māma, or just 爸 and 媽 ma — standard terms
  • 阿爸 ābà and 阿媽 āmā and above combined with the familiar term of address 阿 ā (although in Taiwanese, the latter is used to denote your father’s mother instead)
  • 老豆 lǎodòu and 老母 lǎomǔ — a dialectal variation (e.g. it is used in Cantonese, pronounced lou5 dau6 and lou5 mou2 note )
  • diē ("d'yeh", as opposed to the English word it resembles) and 娘 niáng — archaic terms, mostly heard in historical works
  • 父親 fùqīn and 母親 mǔqīn (or collectively as 父母 fùmǔ) — formal terms mostly used to refer to someone else's parents. They are the terms used for Father’s Day (父親節 fùqīnjié) and Mother’s Day (母親節 mǔqīnjié).
  • 父王 fùwáng and 母后 mǔhòu — terms used by royal families.

(In modern pinyin, the Q stands for a slightly-more-sibilant ch phoneme, so fùqīn is "foo-chin", as opposed to the other English word it resembles.)

Grandparents are again divided by which side of the family they belong tonote  and there are again multiple sets of words, some dependent on what part of China you're from. And grandchildren are also referred to differently depending on whether your son or daughter had themnote . And if that wasn’t enough, your in-laws are also split up depending on if they are your wife or husband’s parentsnote  or if they are your sibling’s spouse (and unlike niece/nephew, there are separate terms for if it’s your older sibling or younger sibling’s spouse)note . And then once you get to great-grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles, depending on which side of the family they're from, or which side of which side of that family they're from, and whether they're older or younger than your direct relative in said family, you can pretty much stand by for Your Head A-Splode.

Confused yet? All of this can also be modified by regional practice (including which Chinese topolect or dialect someone speaks) or family idiosyncracy. Just so you know. The Other Wiki has much more comprehensive list of kinship terms here.


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