Who can memorize the Chinese family tree?

A recent ChinesePod podcast got me wondering: how many foreigners really learn all the forms of address for family members? I’m not ashamed to admit that I never did. Not only do you have separate words for whether they’re on your mom’s side or your dad’s side, related by blood or by marriage, older or younger than your parent, but there are also issues of formal vs. informal and regional variation. I think most of us give up on learning any of this vocabulary unless it’s immediately applicable (i.e. you’re going to be calling someone by their title while you’re staying with them). It’s the kind of thing that you forget right away even if you go to the trouble of memorizing it.

Does anyone actually learn this stuff?


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Haha. My teacher went through a lesson introducing me to this sort of thing. Intrestingly it was taught from a beginners textbook so presumably someone thinks it’s important. To this day I still have’nt learnt them beyond “older brother/sister”etc. Although I do feel slightly guilty….

  2. Hi John,
    I will never forget the trip to the old hometown of my mother in law. Quite a few locals seemed to be distantly related with my wife.

    Conversations went along like that:
    “Did you know that our Great-Grandmothers on mother’s side both had elder brothers who where cousins of the 2nd degree? “

    “What is the name for that?”

    Taught me some respect for this language. No wonder they need to include up to 12 generations in their curses. Probably that is the point when the vocab ends.

  3. I’ve actually met quite a few Chinese people who don’t know them all either. Can’t really blame them…afterall there are 8 different words for “cousin” in Chinese, although I would still take complex kinship terminology over irregular verb conjugations any day.

  4. Foreigners? Why would you learn it? But then you have that “second cousin twice-removed” nomenclature that I’ve never figured out. I don’t even know what a second cousin is while I’m fairly certain I know who my first cousins are….

    The different names in Chinese are utterly fascinating and it takes a language-nut for the children of immigrants to get around the terms, too. It’s a bit easier since the terms are nearly unique that they become the “real name”, like “Second elder uncle on the father’s side”

  5. My father in law probably knows most if not all of them, but even he doesn’t think it necessary to use them. All the kids call their aunts Ayi and their uncles Yifu or Jiujiu regardless of who is who. Gonggong and Popo for maternal grandparents and good old grandpa and grandma for the paternal grandparents (non-Chinese side).

  6. Peter Jeziorek Says: September 5, 2007 at 3:01 am

    I learned the important ones through the relationship I have with my Chinese-American girlfriend’s extended family. I address all her aunts, uncles, and grandparents by their titles (大姑姑,大伯, 大伯母,ama for grandma, agong for grandpa, etc). Her family is fairly traditional.. sounds like a lot of other Chinese families are letting 称呼 slide a little.

  7. My 15 year old brothr in law was saying he had a 20 minute lesson at school at the end of last semester about correct usage of family nomenclature, as their grammar teacher said that most of the students didn’t know how to address their relatives correctly.

    If you can get to 15 years old and still not know the correct way of addressing people, I think I much prefer the Western system of cousin and aunt & uncle.

  8. I think it’s part of Chinese culture to quiz little kids on kinship terms all the time, much moreso than Americans. And of course, all of it is communicative, right? so we expect them to learn all the terms and learn them well.

    Filipinos have a simpler system of kinship terms, there are specific terms for siblings in relation to birth order, but all non-sibling relations in the same generation are just called “cousins.” Sometimes my white friends correct me, and say, “he’s your SECOND cousin,” but honestly, I don’t know what that even means in English.

    In big families, the girls are quizzed on relations, and the dudes not so much. When I want to know how I’m related to someone, I call my cousin, mother, (or other female relative) and ask. And then, since I’m a dude, I forget.

  9. I’ve never bothered to learn them all and don’t think I ever will. We only get back to Taiwan every 2 years or so. I just focus on ayi for aunts, jiujiu for unles, and beowdee for cousins.

    My wife has 30 1st cousins and 8 uncles/aunts plus their spouses, and well over 100 2nd cousiins, great aunts/uncles plus spouses. None seem to care that I keep my titles to those 3. The more distant relatives are always shocked and amused that I can speak a little mandarin while the younger generation (those under 40) usually insist on speaking english.

  10. If we’re talking about your standard stuff for cousins etc., then yes — but of course it gets way more complicated than that. I remember a professor at Beijing University — this is a professor in the Chinese department, mind you — who was absolutely stumped when shown a kinship term in some text (I forget what it was now — probably something from the early 20th century).

    I can’t even remember what the term was, and I usually make a point of seizing on word that my Chinese friends can’t remember. The relationship expressed was something so unbelievably arcane that I can’t even begin to remember it. Something along the lines of, like, “the third cousin of a servant whose ancestors at one point were married into a rival family but have since through generations of dedicated service proven their worthiness to marry your deformed adoptive nephew.” I might not even be making that up.

    I don’t think anybody really remembers this stuff except for masochists and philologists. Linguistic diversity is great and all that, but honestly, who has the time?

  11. It occured to me when listening to a recent Chinesepod lesson that a Shanghainese person will only ever be talking to another Shanghainese person when addressing them as ‘niang niang’ (I guess this is changing with modern China and migrating families, but go with me here). My guess is this is the reason that ‘niang niang’ remains in the lexicon.

    In the same way, a person learning mandarin will unlikely be addressing someone whose mandarin isn’t very good, when calling them by all these complicated words. If none of your extended family speak doesn’t speak mandarin, why learn all these words? How can you give someone their respectful mandarin title when they’re from the outer suburbs of Sydney?

    There is of course the issue of talking about someone in your family to someone else who’s not in your family though. Erm… I don’t know about that.

  12. 音弗丽娅 Says: September 6, 2007 at 5:46 am

    I learned it on my mom’s side cuz there’s less people, but I’m slightly lost on my dad’s side. I guess it’s not so hard for me to learn who these people are in relation to me. But I get really tripped up when I talk to my cousins who refer to my parents as who they are in relation to their parents. So my cousins would all call my mom and dad different things since one is younger than me, and one is older than me, and one is older but his dad is the brother of my mom, whereas the rest are moms who are my mom’s sisters, so he has a who different vocabulary… oyi, I hoped that made sense.. And then there’s the extended family, those are even worse.

  13. Only really learned a lot of them when I met the in-laws’ extended family. Add on top of all the terms for cousin, aunt, etc. different dialect uses like ‘dia dia’ for grandpa, and using more intimate terms like ‘ge ge’ for cousin, or ‘erzi’ instead of ‘daughter’, and its nearly impossible to keep them all straight. Then someone will say ‘this is yaoyao’, but they then refer to her as ‘maomao’…

  14. Reading the comments just reminded me of the opening cartoon in Who Framed Roger Rabbit when … someone should translate that into Chinese, there must be a word for each of the terms:

    “Why, I’ll take care of him like he was my own brother. Or my own sister. Ow! Or my brother’s sister. Or my second cousin who was twice removed. Or a nice cousin who is nine times removed. Or like a sixteenth cousin who was sixteen times removed from my mother’s side. Or a 32nd cousin who was 37 times removed from his fathers side who was eleven…Or like my 17th cousin who was 156 times removed, from any side!”

  15. John,

    People from different parts of China address their relatives differently.

    For example, typically I would call my father’s mother 奶奶, however in Wu-dialect speaking area (Shanghai & Wuxi), she would be called 親娘.

    Same with my mother’s mother, she should be called as 外婆, then again she is called 舅婆 in Wu-dialect.


  16. As an avid amateur genealogist I have some information for those of you confused about cousin relationships.
    1. Say I have a cousin. We are first cousins.
    2. If I have a child, he/she is a first cousin once removed to my first cousin (and vice versa).
    2a. If my first cousin has a child he/she and I are first cousins once removed.
    3. Now, if my cousin and I both have children, they are second cousins to each other. First cousins share common grandparents. Second cousins share common great grandparents, etc.
    I moved to central New York state from Missouri. I discovered I have 4th cousins once removed here. Our common ancestor was born in New Jersey in 1734.
    Can still be confusing, right?

  17. “I think it’s part of Chinese culture to quiz little kids on kinship terms all the time, much moreso than Americans. “

    Very true. My mother spent large chunks of my childhood quizzing me on kinship terms. When I was about 7 I was at my peak of remembering, but now I have most forgotten them.

  18. Hello. Thanks for another very interesting thread! Hope John doesn’t mind if I offer this link, which helps my family and I to wrestle those kinship terms to the ground: http://www.kwanfamily.info/familytitles/familytitle.html

    My knowledge is not good enough to be able to vouch for its accuracy, but it seems to square with all the kinship terms used in my vast multigenerational (no fewer than 4 at any one time!) extended family. For Overseas Chinese families like mine, who do not speak Chinese but nevertheless are traditional, it’s a big deal. These days we depend on our very old Amah to prompt us with the correct term. Phew!

    All the best — Auntie

  19. I call my maternal grandma with the term for paternal grandma in my dialect and they never told me I was wrong until much later. And now I’m too cranky and forgetful to change my errant ways.

    But the funny thing is, my parents still get confused with the (much simpler) term ‘cousin’ and it’s confusing to them that it doesn’t specify gender and define specific relationship to the family.

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