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Chinese Kinship Titles I

weather: cloudy
outside: 8.5°C
mood: motivated
Bah. userinfoHusband Guy's cousin, K, hasn't even proposed to his girlfriend yet and I'm worrying about brushing up on familial titles for the family introductions at their wedding banquet. I'm such a dork. But if that surprises you, then... well *handshake* it's nice to meet you =}

Whenever someone says "my Aunt", "my Uncle" or "my cousin" in English, it's always felt very vague to me what the relation is. To describe it any further requires expanding it out into the base components of the immediate family which gets very clumsy.

In Chinese, the family title carries much more information with it, which side the relative is on, birth order, etc.

Wai-Yin Kwan's Chart is the most comprehensive list of family titles I could find. I had a quick glance through and I thought I saw an error or two, but I'll look at it a little more carefully later. I grabbed myself a copy and converted it to UTF-8 in case that site disappears.

It looks like Wai-Yin doesn't have the titles for "in-laws" beyond the spouse of the relative. At least for "Your Generation" and above, the spouse's family members in relation to the source person also have a whole set of different prefix characters as well. It also depends if the source person is male or female. And there are slight discrepancies between Cantonese and Mandarin; the terms for "mother-in-law", "maternal grandmother" and "paternal grandmother" can get really confusing between the two dialects. =)

There are also a few titles for polygamous marriages (well, really only polygynious marriages, though you could use the male forms for the equivalent polyandrous marriage). I say this because there are poly folks on my friends list who might be interested. =)

Speaking of family titles, this has been on my mind for a while.

Contrary to what certain unknowledgeable tattoo snarkers will tell you, 婿 actually does mean "husband". It describes a very specific type of husband: a daughter's husband. It is almost always used in conjunction with in the phrase 女婿. The only time that I could imagine it isn't is in poetry when metre and compactness are needed.

It's only within that last 100 years that it's come to be associated more with "son-in-law". I think it might have still been used as "husband" in the late Qing dynasty and early into the new regimes.

I know that this was definitely the case with 媳婦, which used to mean "wife" and not "daughter-in-law". My impression is that it referred to a young, newly married first wife. "Daughter-in-law" used to be 兒媳婦, "son's wife". But 媳婦, on its own, now means "daughter-in-law".

This is in Chinese. I can't say how the denotation is different in Japanese.



( 29 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 18th, 2005 04:54 am (UTC)
The tattoo-snarker thing is hanzismatter.com, right? I'm partly guilty of that too, though in Tian's defense, I think he's going more for quantity, rather than quality, of snark.

Also, 媳妇(儿) is definitely 'wife,' at least on the mainland. Though, come to think of it, it might be a 东北 regionalism.

Hm - Wenlin gives the defiition as

媳妇[-婦] xífù* n. ①daughter-in-law ②wife of sb. of a younger generation | sūn∼ grandson's wife ③maidservant M:ge/¹míng
28.8 average occurrences per million characters of text

So maybe it is just a regionalism. At any rate, I've definitely heard it used by Manchurians, in reference to their own wives. I've actually got a VCD of an 二人转 perfomance where the performer keeps talking about "我媳妇儿他那长得呀..." -- though then again, he's named 傻柱, so perhaps he shouldn't be taken as a linguistic authority here. But I'm sure it's still used in the sense of 'wife.'
Mar. 18th, 2005 05:03 am (UTC)
The tattoo-snarker thing is hanzismatter.com, right?

Yes. He's definitely not one for quality of snark.

So maybe it is just a regionalism.

Yeah, it wouldn't surprise me at all that it's a regionalism now. =)
Mar. 18th, 2005 05:09 am (UTC)
It's funny about Tian: he's a native speaker, but will occasionally make really basic mistakes. I mean, not that I don't -- but I've got an excuse, at least.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 19th, 2005 04:07 am (UTC)
Outta curiosity, what's the feed's username?
Mar. 19th, 2005 04:09 am (UTC)
hanzismatter... oddly enough. =D
Mar. 19th, 2005 04:18 am (UTC)
Hey, I'm lazy! (and not thinking straight...)

Thanks :)
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 19th, 2005 04:18 am (UTC)
Ah, thanks :)
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 18th, 2005 06:25 am (UTC)
Really? Do you remember any of them? =D
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 18th, 2005 07:04 am (UTC)
I have to say that "aunt" and "uncle" in the western sense are pretty straight forward relations... "sibling of my parent" or "spouse of a sibling of my parent." Sure, sometimes it's used for close friends of the parents, but that's a rarer exception. Cousin is "offspring of an aunt or uncle."

Not sure how that's vague... just different from the Eastern tradition as you've explained it to me.
Mar. 18th, 2005 11:47 am (UTC)
But is your aunt your mother's sister? Or your father's sister? Is your parent older or younger than his/her sister? Or is it actually your father's youngest brother's second wife (which is the exact relation that my only aunt is to me - 'second' wife in a serial not a parallel sense)?
Mar. 18th, 2005 03:03 pm (UTC)
That's as easy to understand as western titles allow... parent's sibling. All about gender equality, The West.
Mar. 19th, 2005 04:09 am (UTC)
That is admittedly a failing of English family titles: they tend to be pretty simple, and having failings when it comes to time, relationships, and so on. But it works :P
Mar. 19th, 2005 04:13 am (UTC)
A first cousin once removed is the offspring of an aunt or uncle. (more or less). I found a good site that explains how that whole cousin numbering system works here.

Interestingly, elsewhere on that site, there's old English kinship terms. It seems there used to be a distinction between paternal/maternal aunts/uncles, but we lost it somewhere. Odd.

For reference: the root of that site is http://www.umanitoba.ca/faculties/arts/anthropology/tutor/index.html and has some pretty good information on kinship terms and such like that. Nifty, yo.
Mar. 19th, 2005 04:36 am (UTC)
I had _so_much_ trouble understanding the "ith cousin, adverbial(j) removed" before I realized that English kinship terminology doesn't go by generation. A "cousin" to me, is someone in the same generation as the source person. I couldn't get my head around why my first cousin's kids are still my first cousins. Or why someone, who should have been some type of Grandmother, was still a first cousin.
Mar. 19th, 2005 08:34 am (UTC)
I never understood it until I found that chart. Having the tree I can just sit down and look at and compare to my actual family is so much more useful to me then "your grandparents' grandchildren are your blah blah, and your children are blah blah to them" and so on and so forth.

It's odd, but it works. The site has other ways of detailing kinship systems, and I'm pretty sure one of them is something like you're describing.

I don't much care which system is picked in a language, so long as it's consistent.
Mar. 18th, 2005 07:21 am (UTC)
in filipino families, it's pretty important to get the titles right. there's a title for an older brother, one for the older sister. those same titles also apply to people in your "generation" who are older than you by a few years. ate (/AHH-teh/) = older sister, kuya (/KOO-yah/) = older brother.

another set of terms: manong (for males) & manang, almost mean the same thing, but they are used for people who are older than you by more than just a few years.

people who are in the same "generation" as your parents, and are not related to you, have a different title. tito & tita for the female. like your parents' friends. godparents get this title too.

your parents' siblings and cousins go by aunt & uncle. their kids are your cousins.

your parents' aunts & uncles (their parents' siblings and cousins) are also your grandparents. must use proper titles: lola = grandma, lolo = grandpa.

your siblings' children are your nieces & nephews. your cousins' children are also your nieces and nephews. no title needed. (maybe because they would be a generation below you.)

if your niece/nephew has a kid, that child is NOT your cousin. they'd be a grandchild of yours, and they'd call you grandma/grandpa.

side story:
my mom's cousin married my mom's niece (from the other branch of the fmaily). so he calls her manang. the wife calls him, auntie.

so, i'm his niece (because i am his cousin's daughter) and i am her cousin (because i am her auntie's daughter.)

so their kids are either my cousins, or nephews/nieces depending on how you look at it.
Mar. 19th, 2005 04:16 am (UTC)
Heh, nice to know that there is a language that complicated out there :)

Actually, in my fantasy world, in the matriarchial society in it, I've decided that kinship terms are like, a huge vocabulary. As in, even more complicated (though admittedly not by a tremendous much) than that Chinese one. At least, for female kin--male kin are kind of unimportant, so they get like, one word (where the females get 4 or 5 per section, depending on various other relationships)

But that's a random tangent. I'm just happy as a world-builder to know I'm not getting too unrealistic in terms of capability.

I dunno much about the Japanese system, but from what I can tell, it's about as simple as the English system. But that could just be the books I've seen, which cater to English-speakers.
Mar. 19th, 2005 04:46 am (UTC)
I could totally see a matriarchial society with a more complex kinship vocabulary. It would take a very very family oriented culture that was very heavy into very strict protocol and rules of respect to bother with that level of detail.

There are a lot of places where the titles could be split off in Chinese as well — mother's older and younger brothers, for example are the same; father's sister's children are the same kind of cousin as mother's sibling's children (they're considered "external cousins" whereas father's brother's children are considered "internal cousins" or "familial cousins").

I wonder if Peter Allan David has thought much about that... he would be THE Betazoid authority.
Mar. 19th, 2005 08:47 am (UTC)
The culture was definitely at one point very very oriented on protocol and rules of respect, although modern day has dulled it just a bit, but it still carries all of the remnants. The thing is, the language is tonal, and so a lot of little differences are carried just in tone.

The thing is, like, all of the male terms collapse. There is one term for a mother's brothers. However, there are a ton for a mother's sisters.

In general, males are ignored. Men use one term in reference to any of their sisters ("men are too stupid to understand kinship terms, so why bother trying to teach them"), and his sisters would all use just one term in reference to him.

But suppose there are seven daughters, named A through G for the eldest through youngest. The term A would use to reference B would indicate that A is the eldest, and that B is the second-eldest of the family. That is, it would be a different term than A referring to C, since A referring to C is a younger daughter with one inbetween.

This also means that the term A uses to refer to G is different than the term that B uses to refer to G; in the former, it indicates that the speaker is the eldest, and the latter, that she is not the eldest.

The main problem is that I can't think of any particularly excellent way to do something like this such that it easily scales to more and more children. As well, it doesn't much manage death.

And so each of these terms would then have the parallels with the mother's siblings and with the father's siblings. Perhaps a tonal marker to denote married/unmarried (or even how many husbands, in the archaic...).

...I don't think I even want to know how it expands beyond that.

Clearly, I have given this a little thought, but not enough to fully flesh out how this would work. I kinda want to avoid actually coming up with words, because that would ruin all the fun of talking about how complicated it is. :D

Sometime when I feel particularly sadistic (or masochistic...), I'll actually study the Chinese ones, and look into what the various kanji mean (in Japanese... -.- which may or may not be accurate to Chinese), and get a feel for how it does that. The main thing is that I do want a bit of finer control than just "older sister/younger sister": I want some indication of how many siblings are in the middle, and also if the sister in question is indeed the eldest or not (or how far away). And also scalable; it should work with 2 sister as well as with 7. (And adding new sisters to the equation doesn't change terms)

...now that I think of it, that page doesn't have terms for stepfamily. Or is that enough of a societal taboo that they don't have any?

Because ye gods, creating new terms for stepfamily, and then also dealing with one woman taking multiple husbands, and categorizing the children based on those...

Now I see why they consider it too complicated for men @_@
Mar. 19th, 2005 06:05 pm (UTC)

But suppose there are seven daughters, named A through G for the eldest through youngest. The term A would use to reference B would indicate that A is the eldest, and that B is the second-eldest of the family. That is, it would be a different term than A referring to C, since A referring to C is a younger daughter with one inbetween.

At this point, in Chinese, we use numbers. A has the prefix "eldest" in everything that other people call her "eldest daughter", "eldest sister", etc. B as the number "two" in ordinal or cardinal form attached "daughter-2", "sister-2". Then it would be "daughter-3" all the way to "daughter-7". The numbers are unique and never reused (ie. if daughter-4 died in infancy, the next daughter is daughter-5, not #4).

Illegitamate born children never have a number, even after they've been officially recognized. They're usually referred to by name and that carries the stigma until they're married and it becomes a moot point... =P

This is then scalable to n.

Step families are not a taboo, even polyginous families were not taboo until recently. The Chu Family Aphorism, which is a poem that was long regarded as a model of proper self-conduct and family/household management, specifically mentions rules about the lesser wives and serving staff (who are treated like human equivalents of pets).

But I don't think many younger folks would know the terminology just because it's become very rare. And even if there were titles for step family, I think people might have refused to use them because of the ill feelings towards the step family members.

I think the lack of respect there would mean that they would start using given names.
Mar. 19th, 2005 08:55 pm (UTC)
At this point, in Chinese, we use numbers. A has the prefix "eldest" in everything that other people call her "eldest daughter", "eldest sister", etc. B as the number "two" in ordinal or cardinal form attached "daughter-2", "sister-2". Then it would be "daughter-3" all the way to "daughter-7". The numbers are unique and never reused (ie. if daughter-4 died in infancy, the next daughter is daughter-5, not #4).

So if girl D were referring to her sister, B, she would say "sister-2", but in reference to A, it would be "sister-eldest", and a reference to sister E would be "sister-5"? Hm...makes sense, and does easily scale, though it removes the distinction of how many sisters are inbetween--that is, the term for B is the same regardless of whether it's C or E saying it (with A, I assume there is a distinction between older/younger sisters)...

In this culture, there's no such thing as an "illigitamate" child--it's not exactly uncommon for a woman to not be married but still have a child, and there is no real stigma attached--marriage is more of a social setup to get more money (all of the husband's wages go straight to the wife)

Dealing with stepfamily terms and such has become a pain for me in English. For example, if my father's brother marries a woman who already has a daughter, is that daughter a step-cousin? And nice other fun things like that.

--actually, in the event of making marriage less important in a society, the entire set of step- terms would probably fade out, since their entire basis is marriage. I'll have to consider that.

I think the lack of respect there would mean that they would start using given names.

Good idea...though I think there should still be terms, even if they're not exactly always used. All women in the society have like, entire classes in school where all they learn is kinship terms (and the education rate among women is above 95%). Though I don't know how intensive the class would have to be, necessarily.

...and like Chinese, they do differ between formal and informal versions, although the difference is trivial. In almost every single case, the formal version is just the informal with a different tone pattern (fairly common for basic nouns), or with extra prefixes/suffixes added (like in Japanese). Of course, the different levels of formality are another issue altogether (like the fact that there's a special formality level when talking to women in your family that you do not use anywhere else...)

...I think I'm drowning myself in formality :D
Mar. 20th, 2005 02:06 am (UTC)
it removes the distinction of how many sisters are inbetween--that is, the term for B is the same regardless of whether it's C or E saying it

Are you sure that's necessary? What would be the purpose of knowing how many sisters are in between?

Because, you need the absolute ordinal for each sister anyway because people outside of the immediate family will need a way to identify which daughter they're talking about. But within the family, if you need the absolute title combined with something that indicates relative difference, the number of terms will grow exponentially depending on the number of daughters.
Mar. 20th, 2005 02:40 am (UTC)
Point taken. Especially if there's a way to say "I am the eldest" or "I am the 3rd eldest". As well, there would likely be a way to reverse that: the youngest, second youngest, and so on, though I suspect those, being as they change more often, would not be used much.

Then I suppose some sort of inflection (perhaps tonal in nature; politeness can be taken care of in other ways) would indicate whether the sister in question is older or younger.

That is, C and A would both use the same term to refer to B ("sister-2"), but C would have "sister-2-my_elder", while A would have "sister-2-my_younger".

The elder/younger distinction would probably either disappear for larger family kin, or be in reference to the connection point. That is, an aunt being a mother's older sister has a different tonality than an aunt being a mother's younger sister.

Hm, I like it. It almost makes me want to come up with these terms. Then I remember that the language has 4 "alphabets", and I really don't want to bother that much :D
Mar. 19th, 2005 06:16 pm (UTC)
Aigh... "polygynious". I don't use this word often... =P
Mar. 19th, 2005 08:57 pm (UTC)
Isn't polygynous taking multiple wives? So would taking multiple husbands be "polyandrous"?


( 29 comments — Leave a comment )


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