Making Family Vocab Personal

Learning Chinese family relationship words is a huge headache. It’s way too complicated and tends to come far too early in a typical Chinese course. Really, who wants to memorize the word for “father’s older brother’s wife” before you can even handle a basic conversation?

The reason Chinese family relationship terms are so complicated is because they can take into account (1) relative age, (2) mother’s or father’s side, and (3) blood relative or relative by marriage. In English, on the other hand, if I say someone is my uncle, none of those factors are addressed. The man could be my mother’s or father’s brother, or maybe brother-in-law, and there’s nothing about relative ages at all.

So for these reasons, learning a bunch of different terms to make all these relationships 100% clear feels entirely unnecessary to a lot of students. To be honest, it is unnecessary for them. Unless lots of their conversations in Chinese are going to revolve around family members, it’s just not that important.

I realized this fairly early in my studies. I had learned the family terms well enough to know which were male and which were female, but I didn’t bother with all the other distinctions. And guess what? It didn’t really matter.

There are a few times when it does matter, though. One is when you marry into a Chinese family and you have to know who all these people are. But that’s when a major new factor emerges: you’re no longer memorizing vocabulary, you’re memorizing real people and their titles. It’s the difference between a human face and a bunch of lines and circles on a chart, and your memory appreciates it.

Similarly, when I returned to the States with my in-laws this summer, I knew I’d have to be introducing them to various people from my parents’ side of the family. Rather than digging out the old Chinese family relationships chart, I went through the relatives I knew would be there and gave them Chinese names. For example, my Uncle Marty is my mom’s younger brother, so he’s Marty 舅舅, and his wife is Kathy 舅妈. My Uncle Jim is my dad’s older brother, so he’s Jim 伯伯, and his wife is Dot 伯母. Learning the terms by assigning them to real people makes them easier to remember and ensures that they’re actually useful to you.

When you think about it, it’s how kids learn these words in the first place. In fact, they learn to associate the titles with real people long before they even understand the relationships the titles refer to. Later on, they learn the relationships, and then learn to relate the relationships to other people.

To take it even further, here’s an example of a real conversation I had with my wife recently:

> Me: So my mom’s little brother is my…

> Her: Jiujiu (舅舅).

> Me: Right, jiujiu. So I can call him Marty Jiujiu.

> Her: Right.

> Me: So then my dad’s older brother Jim is my…

> Her: Bobo (伯伯).

> Me: OK, Jim Bobo. And then my dad’s older sister?

> Her: Uhhh… I forgot. My dad doesn’t have an older sister.

This isn’t the first time I’ve run into this kind of “vocab lapse” with native speakers. With a whole generation of only children, more and more personal links are missing, and the nomenclature system just doesn’t carry the weight it once did. You can decry the decline of family values and Confucian ideals all you want, but for the average Chinese student it means this: you don’t have to worry too much about Chinese family relationship titles until it becomes personal. And that’s also when the titles become memory manageable.


John Pasden

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


  1. This is why I like Esperanto. All the terms are easily memorizable.
    Father = Patro
    Mother = Patrino (the -in- makes the person female)
    Uncle = Onklo
    Aunt = Onklino
    grandpa = avo
    grandma = avino
    brother = frato
    sister = fratino
    brother in law = bofrato
    sister in law = bofratino
    father in law = bopatro
    There’s even a prefix to indicate a mixed group of male(s)/female(s). Ge-
    gepatroj = parents (the -j = plural)
    gefratoj = siblings
    geonkloj = Aunt(s) and Uncle(s)
    geavoj = grandparents
    gebofratoj = brother/sister in law mix

    See, easy. You learn one root and then a couple of suffixes and prefixes and you’re good to go.

    However, my wife’s Russian and they have a pretty good system of names to put up against the Chinese…

  2. 哈哈~很有意思吧,你既然在中国待了9年了,应当不奇怪才是

  3. I’ve always had trouble with this. I grew up most of my life away from my extended family, even in China, so I always had trouble with addressing people. I agree with what you said about learning family relationships before you have a family, especially when there are differences between the north and the south.

    For example, in the north, on my dad’s side, grandpa, grandma, uncle (older than my dad) and his wife, uncle (younger than my dad) and his wife, aunt (older than my dad) and husband, and aunt (younger than my dad) and her husband are 爷爷,奶奶,大爷(二大爷, and so on) and 大娘,四叔 (五叔,老叔 being the youngest) and 四嫂,大姑 (二姑,so on) and 姑夫

    On my mom’s side, grandpa, grandma, uncle (older than my mom) and his wife, aunt (older than my mom) and husband, and aunt (younger than my mom) and her husband are 老爷,姥姥,大舅(二舅)and 大舅妈, 大姨(二姨, so on) and 姨夫, and 老姨 being the youngest.

    These things I feel like are not really substitutable with the “formal” titles for people. A lot of times it gets really confusing talking to other family members and what they refer to other people. Like one of my cousins would refer to my mom and dad as 三姨 and 三姨夫, and another would refer to them as 三姑 and 三姑父, this would also change if I were talking to my 老叔, 二大爷 or 舅妈. For awhile, I couldn’t figure out that they were actually referring to my parents. I am entirely surprised that Chinese people are able to keep track of people like this.

  4. OMG for years and years I had no idea what I should call my dad’s younger sister’s husband. I feel so embarrassed when get him on the phone when I tried to call my cousin. I had no idea what to say…. why is it so complicated? I wish I could just use his name but then I didn’t know what his name was either.

  5. I have a similar tactic. Of course, I haven’t married into a Chinese family, but when I talk to Chinese friends about my family, I always try to figure out what title to give them. Sometimes I have to talk to my mother to clarify just exactly how I’m related to someone, but that way I’m not just learning new Chinese words — I’m also learning more about my rather large extended family.

  6. Boy! I sure am glad that I got that Firefox add-on that translates. Maybe some of other non-Chinese-speaking-but-your-blog-readers-anyway would appreciate it. I can get translations of the Chinese comments as well as any Chinese that you haven’t thoughtfully added the translation of in the blog entry.

  7. So we should learn these terms by thinking of our own families while trying to memorize them, and encourage students studying English to do the same when learning the English terms. Thanks for the post.

  8. John, great blog. I fell in the comfort zone of finding it too messy to bother learning, choosing to focus on other “more useful” vocab. I wrote about this in a post called Why a meal is worth more to me than my grandmother.


Leave a Reply