Family in Chinese language

The way a person speaks often reveals much about a person; in the same way, vocabulary often reveals much about a nation. For example, Eskimos supposedly distinguish several different shades of white through a wide vocabulary, and again the Chinese have a rich vocabulary for labeling family. Each student of Sinology experienced headaches when learning family members in Chinese.

China has always been, and I think still is, a country where society and family are more important than individual. For us it is just the opposite. The idea that a person as an individual should be placed ahead of everything else was brought to us by Humanism. Also, a French Revolution, which introduced that all men are created equal. But China’s Confucius had always taught the opposite. Confucianism is the philosophy that shaped Chinese society for centuries; therefore. the Chinese believe that people are not all equal. Confucius taught about the fundamental types of relationships between people, government and society. These relationships are never equal. It is not definite who is subordinate and who is leading, but it is understood that they are never equal. Confucius also taught that the society will only find happiness if things are named with proper names. He lived in a bad time for China and he often argued that things were bad because people began to name things incorrectly. A subordinate began to call himself emperor, abandoning his duties as a subordinate and instead enjoying the rights as sovereign. He did not abide by the law, and so there was fighting and society was disrupted. For this reason, the Chinese family (and society) has a very strict hierarchical order, which is reflected in the vocabulary.

The word for older sister is different than the word for younger sister. The word for older brother is different than the word for a younger brother. Uncle on the mother’s side and the paternal uncle are labeled completely differently. Even when the uncles are both from the mother’s side, the younger and older are addressed differently; although, in this case the difference is small. Additionally, there is also a different naming for grandmother and grandfather from the father’s and the mother’s side.

This we also learned in sinology classes at the University, but it is only a half-truth. If someone would say that the grandmother from my mother’s side is always ‘Waipo” in Chinese and paternal is “nainai “, he is incorrect because it would not be China if things were that simple.

Before we address why that is not true, we must clarify the causes of this word hierarchy and identify what these individual words actually literally mean. The Chinese invented many words to describe grandmother and grandfather, but not for the purpose of making their life more complicated, but in order to define the hierarchy in the family. The word „waigong” for grandfather on my mother’s side literarily means „one who came from the outside”. This is because he came to the family whose name will be carried on for the next generation only by marriage.

For example, if a wife’s father’s surname was Liu, than this surname will be lost and children of his daughter will carry the name of her husband. This means that the line of a husband persists and, therefore, grandfather and grandmother on the mother’s side are “those from outside”. Here is the trick; in China, a child not always carries the name of his father. A child is actually named after the parent who brought more money into the family. This means that if the wife’s family is wealthier than the family of her husband, children will carry the wife’s name and not the husband’s. In this case, however, parents on the wife’s side are no longer „those from outside“, as their name will continue in future generations, and “those from outside” become the parents of the groom, so the word for grandmother and grandfather switches. Therefore, the argument that the labels for grandparents are assigned according to whether they are from the mother’s side or the father’s side is incorrect. Their names are changed depending on whose genus name continues to the following generation. We have a girlfriend in China, whose family has been for four generations a “clan of women”. For four generations the child carried the name of her mother because the women of the family always brought more wealth to the marriage. So, if someone would translate the meaning of grandparents in Chinese, for example, as “grandparent from my mother’s side”, than in some Chinese families the father is actually a woman and a man is actually given the title of a wife.