Chinese Kinship Term


Kinship terminology is a system applied in many world languages in reference to people one is related to. The Chinese kinship terminology is widely studied owing to its complexity. Through continued analysis, many editions have been developed by scholars over the last two thousand years. Despite the keen interest in the Chinese kinship term, neither extensionist nor componential analysis has comprehensively described the Chinese kinship.

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The Chinese kinship system gives a distinct outline of maternal and paternal lineages. The kinship term also considers the relative age of siblings and gender of relatives. The most dominant feature of the Chinese kinship term is its emphasis on patrilineality. The kinship term has been greatly influenced by Confucianism, the dominant Chinese cultural religion, which describes the relationships between different groups, including within the family set-up. The value attached to kinship terms in China runs deep due to the cultural attachment accorded to the family as the basic unit of the society (Mei, Para. 2). A list of kinship terms used in China for the sake of this work is; Zeng zu fu, zu fu, er zi, sun zi, Zeng sun, Yue-fu, qi-jiu, qi Yi, wai zu fu, wai zu mu, bo fu, shu fu, jiu fu, gu fu, Yi fu, tang and Biao.

Chinese Kinship Term

The Chinese clearly defines the family structure, with different titles being used to refer to relatives. The Chinese language clearly describes all people within the family using terms depending on whether one comes from the father’s or the mother’s side. These titles, therefore, reflect the position each relative assumes in the family structure (Mei, Para. 4). The family structure may be analyzed according to the relationship by blood, termed as consanguine relation, relationship by marriage; affine relation, relationship courtesy of common ancestry or lineal relation and collateral relation by which families come from a similar ancestor but through different lineages (Mei, Para. 4).

The Chinese culture uses different terms to describe relations according to these classifications. For instance, based on the consanguineal line of relationship, there exist terms based on the hierarchical outline. The male gender uses reference terms such as Zeng zu fu for a great grandfather, zu fu for grandfather, er zi for son, sun zi for grandson, and Zeng sun for great-grandson. Relation by marriage is denoted by a unique distinct term in the Chinese language (Yufan, and Scott, p. 3).

To describe relations between a husband and the relatives from the wife’s side, terms such as yue, jiu, and you are used. The father in law is described by his son- in- law as yue-fu and the wife’s brother as qi-jiu. The sister to the wife is qi Yi and so on. The maternal grandfather and grandmother are described as wai Zu fu and wai Zu mu, respectively. The prefix wai means outside, and this shows the value or importance accorded to maternal side relations within the Chinese culture. To term a wife’s maternal relative as an outsider can be said to mean that since the woman gets married, she becomes a member of a different family set up, and her parents have no influence over her again (Yufan and Scott, p. 3).

Collateral relations are well outlined in the Chinese culture, and the smallest differences assumed in other cultures are taken seriously by the Chinese. By comparison, for instance, in English culture, an aunt and uncle simply mean a sister or brother to someone’s father, but among the Chinese, the term uncle can carry up to four meanings depending on the context. For instance, a father’s elder brother is called bo fu, a father’s younger brother is called shu fu (Yufan and Scott, p. 3).

The mother’s brother is jiu fu. The husband to one’s father’s sister is called gu fu, while the husband of the mother’s sister is yi fu. The common description of a first cousin in the British or American concept is subdivided into eight varying contexts in Chinese culture based on factors such as gender, age, and maternal or paternal relations. The cousins are differentiated by the use of terms such as tang for blood-related cousins and Biao for cousins related through marriage links. This goes to describe the value associated with relationships in the Chinese culture in an effort to maintain the close-knit family structure as was initiated by the forefathers (Yufan and Scott, p. 4).

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Apart from the relational contexts, the Chinese also use varying terms to describe singular kinship. The term father, for example, may be described in more than four ways depending on issues such as the level of closeness between a father and the offspring or in emerging language dialects. The difference in terms to refer to a single item or person in the Chinese context differs markedly from the basic use of synonyms in other cultures. The references carry a deeper cultural weight to them. The commonest kinship terms used in China to refer to a father are Lao Zi, baba, die, fu qin, and Lao ba (Yufan and Scott, p. 5).

The erosion of the traditional Chinese culture by modern civilization has also affected the language and kinship terminologies. The family structure is also rapidly changing with new family set-ups coming up through government planning policies, which have gone to the extent of imposing limits to the number of children a family can have. The emergence of single-parent families, heterosexual, and homosexual relationships has complicated matters further.

This new family set up has resulted in the reclassification of the family relations by sociologists and linguists to form new annotations to describe the hierarchical structure. The modern semantic structure consists of five categories (Yufan and Scott, p. 6). These are partnership, parental, sibling, offspring, and marital based. The new mode of classification also employs the use of re-defined codes or tags. Common tags such as m and f to stand for male and female sexes are in use in the new system. The letters e and y are used to describe elder and younger siblings, respectively.

To refer to relatives such as uncles, aunts, nephews, and nieces, distinct tags are used too. Other tags in use include o for the orphan, x for ex-husband or ex-wife, s for stepfather or stepmother, – for engaged, t for a foster son or foster daughter, h for half brother or half-sister, and g for godfather. In this model, the parental category can be divided into paternal and maternal sides. In the kinship structure, step-parents and foster parents are all classified under the same category as biological parents. Half brothers and half-sisters are also categorized as siblings. In the classification of offspring, the orphans are also categorized thus (Yufan and Scott, p. 6).

In linguistics, the Chinese kinship terms have a communicative value. All human languages have the three functions of linking, regulatory, and mentation functions and the Chinese kinship terms are not an exception. The terms are used to initiate relations or conversations among parties. The structure of the Chinese family is hierarchically constituted. The young are supposed to respect the elderly and, as such, can not refer to them by their personal names. This, therefore, forces them to use kinship terms as outlined by society (Huang and Wenshan, Para 13).

In all verbal communications, all people are addressed by their kinship terms before any conversation is initiated. This, therefore, makes the children recognize the importance of these terms in relationships as they grow. Even conversations between husband and wife have to be initiated by referring to one another as so and so’s father or mother. The Chinese also use kinship terms to refer to people outside their kinship ties. In social communication, one can use the kinship terms to refer to any person depending on sex and age factors. To a child, all old men and women are grandfathers and grandmothers, respectively, and all middle-aged men and women are uncles and aunts (Huang and Wenshan, Para 13).


The Chinese kinship structure is complex, and this shows the value the Chinese attach to their culture. The close-knit family unit is the foundation of Chinese society, and despite numerous changes that have occurred all over the world, the Chinese cultural attachment has remained close as ever. This is as a result of the Chinese lifestyle, which places emphasis on a family-centered economy and a well structured hierarchically structured family setting.

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The majority of Chinese depend on agriculture in rural areas, and this enhances interactions through trade. The kinship terms express the values of the Chinese, but most of all, they carry a communicative value, which is important in intercultural conversations and linguistic studies. The kinship terms also display the linkage between culture and the communicative trends of societies. The kinship systems also have an impact on generations and their social interactions.

Works Cited

Huang, Shaorong, and Wenshan, Jia. The Cultural Connotations and Communicative Functions of Chinese Kinship Terms. n.d. Web.

Mei, Lin. Markedness in Chinese Kin Terms. New Asia Academia Bulletin, 6:8. 1986. Web.

Yufan, Qian and Scott Songlin Piao. Chinese Kinship Semantic Structure and Annotation Scheme. 2011. Web.

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