Know your relatives in Chinese

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Randy Alexander reports that during a guitar lesson, he asked his student:

Māmā de dìdi de nǚér shì biǎomèi ma?


"Is your mother's younger brother's daughter your younger maternal female cousin?"

The student replied:

wǒyě bútài qīngchǔ děngyíxià


"I don't quite know either, wait a minute."

Here's a screen shot of the student's phone with the app displayed:

At the top it identifies the app as:

qīnqi chēnghu jìsuàn


"calculation of terms of address for relatives"

After that the student entered:

wǒde māmā de dìdi de nǚér


"my mother's younger brother's daughter"

to which the app replies:

jiù biǎojiě / jiù biǎomèi


"older maternal female cousin of mother's younger brother / younger maternal female cousin of mother's younger brother""

jiù 舅 ("younger maternal uncle")

Wonders never cease!

What will become of Chinese society if its members do not know the precise terms for family relationships?

Selected readings


  1. John Baker said,

    June 1, 2023 @ 3:38 pm

    Well, what will become of American society if its members do not know the precise terms for family relationships? For example, is my father's first cousin my second cousin, or my first cousin once removed? Both usages are seen.

  2. Josh R. said,

    June 1, 2023 @ 7:16 pm

    You never know when you might need to know what to call your father's brother's nephew's cousin's former roommate.

  3. julie lee said,

    June 1, 2023 @ 8:25 pm

    At a gathering on Memorial Day weekend, we were all Chinese except one Englishman. A friend asked my daughter-in-law how the Englishman was related to her. She replied:

    "He is my mother-in-law's younger sister's husband's younger sister's husband." Using Chinese terms, which are much more specific, I would say:

    "He is my popo's meifu's meifu," but I am never sure about the terminology, because the Chinese terms for family relationships are much more numerous and complicated than the English ones.

  4. Ben said,

    June 1, 2023 @ 8:30 pm

    The number of kinship relations with distinct names is certainly intimidating, but what really makes the whole thing impossible for me is the numerous regional variations. Wikipedia lists the following possible possibilities for maternal father: 外祖父 wàizǔfù, 姥爷 (姥爺) lǎoyé, 公公
    gōnggong, 阿公 āgōng. In Chinese class, I was taught 外公 wàigōng. My wife, from Anhui, calls hers something like jiǎdì. And I just met someone from Jiangsu who confusingly calls theirs 爷爷 yèyè (which is usually used for paternal grandfather).

  5. Anthony said,

    June 1, 2023 @ 8:40 pm

    How do traditional cultures handle step-relatives, if at all? I recently mentioned to someone that I was related to a fairly well-known person because that person's first wife and my stepfather's first wife were sisters. (We are New Yorkers, so we have hardly any blood relatives, and divorce in every generation.)

  6. Victor Mair said,

    June 1, 2023 @ 8:46 pm

    Once during a family gathering on the equivalent of Memorial Day in Taipei more than fifty years ago, my wife addressed her xiǎo yímā 小姨妈 ("younger maternal aunt") by her given name instead of the proper kinship term. My mother-in-law (yuèmǔ 岳母, which is what I always called her), who was a wonderful, placid woman, was so upset at her daughter (my wife), that she wouldn't speak to Li-ching for weeks.

  7. AntC said,

    June 1, 2023 @ 9:09 pm

    I feel everybody's pain. I'm staying in Taiwan with a friend who has an enormous number of sisters; the friend is closest to one who has an enormous number of daughters, most of whom have contrived to have a son and a daughter each.

    I can hear the maternal terms include 'm', but there's a bewildering variety of prefixes and suffixes.

    I seem to be addressed as 'gonggong' because I'm kinda step-great-uncle to the newest arrival.

  8. Randy Alexander said,

    June 1, 2023 @ 10:19 pm

    I was most impressed by the fact that the app is set up like a calculator. If you have WeChat you can find these kinds of apps by searching for 亲戚计算器.

  9. liuyao said,

    June 2, 2023 @ 1:46 am

    舅 doesn't mean *younger* maternal uncle, older ones are also called 舅舅.

    To make it more complicated, it also refers to one's wife's brothers, 大舅子 or 小舅子 in colloquial usage (if only in 3rd person), and 妻舅 more formally. What's usually called 舅舅 should be 母舅. In imperial times, 国舅 refers to the emperor's wife or consort's father or brothers.

    In yet formal context, 舅 by itself (or in tandem with 姑) refers to one's husband's father (mother).

  10. Taylor, Philip said,

    June 2, 2023 @ 2:52 am

    Not strictly on-topic, but I was always amused by the fact that my (Chinese/Vietnamese) wife invariably referred to her late father's brothers as "Uncle no. 1", "Uncle no. 2" and so on (where "no." is pronounced "number"). When I asked the real name of Uncle no. 2, whom we saw frequently, she did not know, and it was only after he died that I finally learned his birth-name from one or more of the many death scrolls with which his widow had been presented after his death, and which would remain displayed in the family home for three years.

  11. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    June 2, 2023 @ 4:14 am

    @John Baker —

    According to standard usage in U.S. genealogy, your father’s first cousin is your cousin once removed. The child of your father’s first cousin is your second cousin.

    First cousins are in the same generation. Second cousins are in the same generation, but they are one generation farther along than the first cousins The children of the second cousins are all third cousins — they’re also the grandchildren of the first cousins. A first cousin’s relationship to his first cousin’s grandchild starts in their generation — “first cousin” — and then counts the offsetting generations — “twice removed.” So a first cousin’s relationship to a cousin’s grandchild is “first cousin, twice removed.”

    Drawing a family tree that shows each generation clearly helps figure this out, since in some families the oldest members of one generation may be much older than the youngest members of the generation. Using relative age to calculate removes can lead to incorrect results. Many genealogy research sites have explainer posts about this topic.

  12. Taylor, Philip said,

    June 2, 2023 @ 4:18 am

    I became lost at this point, Barbara — "First cousins are in the same generation. Second cousins are in the same generation, but they are one generation farther along than the first cousins". "The same generation" as whom ? As each other, as the person to whom one is computing the relationship, or as a third person or group which I have failed to identify ?

  13. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    June 2, 2023 @ 4:47 am

    @ Philip Taylor —

    Yes, second cousins are in the same generation as each other, and are descendants of first cousins.

    The family tree can start with any person who has children:

    Children (siblings)
    First cousins (children of siblings, grandchildren of parent)
    Second cousins (children of first cousins, great-grandchildren of parent)
    Third cousins (children of second cousins, great-great-grandchildren of parent)
    Fourth cousins (children of third cousins, great-great-great-grandchildren of parent)

    Sorry I wasn’t clearer.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    June 2, 2023 @ 6:41 am



    jiù 舅 ("maternal uncle")

    In my wife's family, where he was much loved and respected, jiùjiù 舅舅 was younger than my mother-in-law, so I always thought of him as "younger maternal uncle".

    It's only on the paternal side that there are separate terms for older and younger uncle, bóbo 伯伯 and shūshu 叔叔 respectively. For older and younger maternal uncles, you can distinguish them as dàjiù 大舅 and xiǎojiù 小舅.

  15. John Baker said,

    June 2, 2023 @ 2:44 pm

    @Barbara Phillips Long: I am aware that this is how genealogists define “second cousin.” My point is that not everyone applies this definition. For example, the American Heritage Dictionary defines “second cousin” as either “a child of a first cousin of one's parent” or “a child of one's first cousin; a first cousin once removed.” And plenty of Americans do not understand the term at all.

  16. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    June 2, 2023 @ 4:13 pm

    @John Baker —

    There are a lot of people who don’t know or care about the way cousinship terms operate, as you noted. The increasing popularity of genealogy does not seem to have reduced the confusion in the U.S. I had not realized the confusion had become so common as to be part of dictionary definitions — thanks for that observation.

    There seems to be no social importance attached to knowing the correct formulations — plenty of people in the U.S. are willing to admit they don’t understand the terms and how to calculate them. It sounds like the dual interpretations of “second cousin” are likely to continue in American English.

  17. Michael Watts said,

    June 3, 2023 @ 1:40 am

    Using "second cousin" to refer to a first cousin once removed raises the obvious question of how you refer to a second cousin. I have an uneasy feeling that the revised dictionary definition may be based more on polling people on the question "what is the relationship between you and [someone else]?" or "how would you define a 'second cousin'?" than on observation of usage in the wild…

    I was always amused by the fact that my (Chinese/Vietnamese) wife invariably referred to her late father's brothers as "Uncle no. 1", "Uncle no. 2" and so on

    This is a pretty exact reflection of the terminology used in Chinese historical dramas. A problem that English speakers encounter while trying to watch these is that the same character may be addressed or referred to in many different ways depending on who is speaking.

    For example, in 大明风华, the Yongle Emperor may be addressed as 皇上 "imperial highness". I assume but do not specifically remember that he may be referred to as 永樂. His name is 朱棣, which obviously is used exclusively by rebels. He has three sons:

    The oldest is named 朱高熾, but mostly referred to by his formal position, 太子 "crown prince". The protagonist of the show is his son† and will address him as "father".

    The emperor's second son is named 朱高煦. He is sometimes referred to that way — I forget by whom — and often referred to by his formal title of 漢王 "Han prince". Our protagonist addresses him, and refers to him, by kinship as 二叔 "Uncle Two".

    The third son is named 朱高燧 and holds the title 趙王 "Zhao prince". What goes for the second son goes for him as well; sometimes he is referred to by name, sometimes by title, and his nephew calls him 三叔 "Uncle Three".

    Of note, there is no Uncle One because the person whose number is one is not the protagonist's uncle but instead his father. This isn't really compatible with English numbering usage.

    An English speaker watching one of these shows has to learn that all of these more or less unrelated names (name, title, kinship term, nickname(s), diminutive forms…) refer to the same person. They also have to choose an option for how to talk about the person themselves, if they want to discuss the show.

    † OK, not really. The son's love interest is the protagonist.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    June 3, 2023 @ 8:05 am

    A friend of mine had a baby when all of her other five (?) children were around twenty or older. They treated their new brother as though he were their nephew.

    And imagine the generational confusion that will occur when Al Pacino's new baby is born! Al's 83.

  19. Taylor, Philip said,

    June 5, 2023 @ 3:00 pm

    The (related) question of how one addresses someone when one's first language is Vietnamese came up over the weekend. We drove from Cornwall to London to pick up our new chef, who is Vietnamese. Almost immediately after we had shaken hands for the first time, he asked how he should address me. His gut instinct was to say "Mr Phil", or even "Uncle Phil" (I being just over twice his age) but I assured him that no English person would be offended if he were to address them by their given name, omitting all honorifics, although when addressing clients he might want to address them as "Mr <whatever>" or similar. He remained uneasy about this until I mentioned that I had met his grandmother, known to me as "Auntie Bao", some 25 years ago. At this news his fears evaporated — "Ah, in that case we are family — I can call you 'Phil'", he said !

  20. ajay said,

    June 8, 2023 @ 9:25 am

    Cousin, of course, was used much more widely in the past, for "any relative outside your immediate family, ancestors and descendants". Claudius says "and now our cousin Hamlet, and our kin" – calling your nephew (and stepson) your cousin would be very odd nowadays.

    I was delighted to realise a few years back that "cuz" as an affectionate term for "any relative" is common in MLE, even being used for non-related friends. Nice to see antique usages coming back.

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