chinese kinship terms…

…are really, really complicated! (‘sup with that, s.e.?!) mind you, the greeks have a pretty complex kinship terminology system with 32 names for first-cousins. (the effects of too much ouzo, presumably. opa!) but still — the chinese distinguish between their paternal great elder uncles versus their paternal great younger uncles. what the h*ck?!:

“The development of the system of Chinese kinship terms is, first and foremost, influenced by the family-centered economy in Chinese tradition. For thousands of years, people in rural areas have been living separately in small villages. In many cases a village constitutes a large family. All the villagers share one family name and have the same ancestors. A village usually has a temple called the hall of ancestors in which all the memorial tablets (pieces of wood written with the names of the dead symbolizing the souls of them) of the ancestors are placed and worshipped. Inside this big family, members are labeled with specific kinship terms according to their age, generation, sex, and other factors such as marriage. They can never get confused about their relations with the other members. For example, if one’s father has three elder brothers and two younger brothers, then he can call them, respectively, first bo fu, second bo fu, third bo fu, first shu fu and second shu fu. In the broad family (the village) the ordinal number becomes even higher. You may hear someone call another villager seventh bo mu or ninth shu fu. Because people of this village consider themselves the same as a family writ-large, incest is firmly prohibited. One can never marry his aunt even if he is older than her; and very often people of the same age are from different generations….

“The over-emphasis on the differences between consanguineal and affinal relations might be another reason why Chinese have so many terms for kinsmen. As previously mentioned, maternal grandfather and grandmother in the Chinese language are wai zu fu and wai zu mu, with wai literally meaning outside…. [T]he dividing line between consanguineal and affinal relations, which has created so many kinship terms, still exists.” [source]

chinese villages sound like greek villages — everybody’s a member of one big family — although in greek villages there is typically more than one surname.

like chinese (and greek), german and english used to have more designations for all the different family members, including in-laws (affinal relatives). but once we started marrying out, it stopped being so essential to be so specific. if the goal is no longer to marry one’s father’s brother’s daughter (or whomever), then why need to differentiate them from other cousins? also, if you can no longer marry ANY of your cousins, you can just slap one label on them — cousin — and be done with it. that person is a cousin of mine? ok — can’t marry ’em!

btw, that’s how we got the crazy “in-law” label. someone is your “sister-in-law” in canon law, i.e. in the eyes of the church. you see, when you marry your wife, you become “one flesh” (in the eyes of the christian church). and if you really do that in a some sort-of miraculous way, then you couldn’t possibly ever marry your wife’s sister (say if your wife died) ’cause that would be exactly the same as marrying your sister! ewwww.

see also: “The Cultural Connotations and Communicative Functions of Chinese Kinship Terms”

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5 Comments

  1. The Slitty Eye, being Chinese himself can obviously say much more that I can, but I’d like to note concerning:

    the chinese distinguish between their paternal great elder uncles versus their paternal great younger uncles. what the h*ck?!

    One of the striking things about Chinese family names when you first learn them is that older and younger siblings are distinguished so you have 哥哥 (gēgē, older brother), 弟弟 (dìdì, younger brother), 姐姐 (jiějiě, older sister), 妹妹 (mèimèi, younger sister). If you’re going to make that distinction, then the distinctions made for parental siblings and cousins also make sense.

    However, what is interesting is that there isn’t universal distinction on this front. There is only one name for a maternal uncle, be he older or younger (舅舅, jiùjiù). Also, while cousins are distinguished by their relative age (and names for cousins correspondingly end with 哥, 弟, 姐, or 妹, the first character in the name essentially distinguishes the father’s brother’s offspring from other cousins. Hence, those cousins of the paternal uncle’s family have the 堂 (táng) prefix (堂哥, 堂弟, 堂姐, and 堂妹) and all the rest have the 表 (biǎo) prefix (表哥, 表弟, 表姐, and 表妹)

    I do remember that on my brief trip to China, many of the high schoolers would refer to their cousins as siblings, which made me wonder if the one child policy and low fertility rates generally (I know that non-Communist Taiwan has one of, if not the lowest, fertility rates in the world) would lead to a degeneration of these familial distinctions in the spoken language.

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  2. @meng – “One of the striking things about Chinese family names when you first learn them is that older and younger siblings are distinguished so you have 哥哥 (gēgē, older brother), 弟弟 (dìdì, younger brother), 姐姐 (jiějiě, older sister), 妹妹 (mèimèi, younger sister). If you’re going to make that distinction, then the distinctions made for parental siblings and cousins also make sense.”

    absolutely! the system makes complete sense — and the concern over the relative age of everybody and where they fit into the family hierarcy age- or generation-wise fits well with the whole chinese outlook on lineages and ancestor worship and all that. they’re much more concerned with the continuity of the lineage than we in the west are today — altho, maybe/presumably things are changing in china.

    @meng – “There is only one name for a maternal uncle, be he older or younger (舅舅, jiùjiù). Also, while cousins are distinguished by their relative age (and names for cousins correspondingly end with 哥, 弟, 姐, or 妹, the first character in the name essentially distinguishes the father’s brother’s offspring from other cousins. Hence, those cousins of the paternal uncle’s family have the 堂 (táng) prefix (堂哥, 堂弟, 堂姐, and 堂妹) and all the rest have the 表 (biǎo) prefix (表哥, 表弟, 表姐, and 表妹).”

    interesting! all that fits in well in a society that is more concerned about the patrilineage than the matrilineage. more important to finely distinguish your father’s side of the family than your mother’s since your father’s side is more important to you socially. in face, according to the article i quoted in the post, your mother’s family would probably live in another village, whereas your father’s family are (all) in your own village. you’re more likely, then, to have more interactions with your father’s family — and they’re probably more important to you in terms of everyday life activities.

    @meng – “I do remember that on my brief trip to China, many of the high schoolers would refer to their cousins as siblings, which made me wonder if the one child policy and low fertility rates generally (I know that non-Communist Taiwan has one of, if not the lowest, fertility rates in the world) would lead to a degeneration of these familial distinctions in the spoken language.”

    well, that’s very interesting! if that’s widespread in china, then that is a similar sort of language shift that happened in medieval europe, only ours went from distinguishing all the different cousins to just calling them all cousin. like you say, maybe something to do with the one-child policy. also, since 1981, china’s marriage law bans cousin marriage. so, again, maybe this language contraction also has something to do with not being able to marry your cousin anymore. you might, then, start calling your cousins brother or sister ’cause you’d never marry your brother or sister. ewwwww! (^_^)

    Reply

  3. In Taiwan, if people have two uncles from the mother’s side, as far as I know, they would address the older uncle as 大舅(舅) (da jiùjiù), and the younger one as 小舅(舅) (xiao jiùjiù). If there are more than two uncles, they would address the second oldest as 二舅舅 (er jiùjiù) and so on.

    Uncles from the father’s side are a bit different though. The oldest uncle would be called 大伯 (da bo) or 伯父 (bo fu), and second oldest 二伯(父) (er bo fu)…and so on, and the youngest uncle 叔叔 (shushu).

    I hope it’s not confusing :)

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  4. Most of my extended family, both paternal and maternal, lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. On balance, even though they all live in the same area, and sometimes even in adjoining towns, we definitely see my paternal relations more than my maternal. My father’s sister we might otherwise see less, except that her husband has no brothers, so in practice their nuclear family behaves like (almost) a part of our own clan.

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