Chinese Kinship Titles
By William Kiejan Tong
Chicago, Illinois U.S.A.

    This article was originally written for Asian American Pacific Heritage month in 1995, for the benefit of non-Asian audiences, to provide them a better understanding of the Chinese kinship system.  Many overseas Chinese may have grown up knowing some of the kinship terms used for brothers, sisters, and grandparents.  But when it came to uncles, aunts, cousins, and in-laws, these words in Chinese may have been more obscure because they were used less often due to less frequent contact.  I decided to systematically research all of the formal titles for as many classifications of relatives (by blood and by marriage) as I could, and phonetically translate them into three dialects - Mandarin, Canton, and Toysan (my parents' native dialect), so that I could learn them.  The kinship chart is at the bottom of this article.  I would like to acknowledge the assistance of my parents, friends, and colleagues to helped research this topic: Jerry & Linda Tong, Cheng-Wen Tsai, Dave Soong, Mike Lin, and Janice Cheng.

Features of the Chinese Kinship Classification System

    An old Chinese proverb stated that "the ideal family had five generations living under one roof."  In old China, the patriarch of a family which met this Confucian ideal was eligible to receive an official letter of congratulations from the Emperor.

    There are only about 100 common surnames ("last names") for the more than 1 billion Chinese world wide.   The distribution of surnames is not equal.  Among the most common Chinese surnames:  Chen (Chan, Chin), and Li (Lee)

    In general, most Chinese having the same surname are related in some way.  There are historical exceptions.  During past times of civil unrest, persecution of entire families caused many Chinese to assume a different surname - most commonly, a "big" surname, which offered "safety in numbers."

    Chinese communities, especially in rural areas, are typically organized around relatives of the same surname, sometimes referred to as "clan villages."  A typical Chinese man spent most of his life in and around his home village.  A Chinese woman, once married, spent the rest of her life in and around her husband's village.  The networks of supportive family relationships provided by the clan village were the primary social anchors of Chinese life.  In old age, Chinese could look forward to positions of respect as village elders.

    Among the Chinese, there are no general terms for the English words brother, sister, grandfather, grandmother, uncle, aunt, or cousin - there are only specific terms.  As examples, the Chinese title for "older brother" is different than that for "younger brother" (similarly for sisters); your father's father (paternal grandfather) has a different name than your mother's father (maternal grandfather); your father's brother is a different "uncle" than your mother's brother.  Relatives by marriage (in-laws, spouses of your siblings) have their own specific titles.

    Chinese names typically have three parts:  the family name, the generational (common-sibling) name, and your own unique name.  For example:

  1. In the male name, Mao Tse-Tung:  Mao is the surname, Tse denotes the generation of  the this man (his brothers would share this in common), and Tung is this man's unique name.  This common-sibling name system is also shared by sisters.

  2.  
  3. Each generation has its own unique name.  There is no Chinese equivalent of a "Junior," because father and son cannot have the same name.

  4.  
  5. In China, each family has a genealogy book with an elaborate family tree that typically goes back at least several hundreds of years.  (Only male ancestors are listed, however.)

  6.  
  7. In the Chinese tradition, the names of new-born children are usually chosen by their paternal grandfather.

  8.  
  9. When the first grandchild is one month old, the paternal grandparents throw a big "first month" dinner party for the baby, and invite all the relatives.  The baby gets a haircut to symbolize the event.
    The Chinese kinship system is patrilineal (traces ancestry on the father's side).  A father's primary duty was to bring up his sons to preserve and improve on his life's accomplishments; a son's primary duty was to honor his parents, provide for them (the eldest son's duty) through their old age, and carry on the family name through sons of his own.  It was assumed that daughters would marry into their husbands' families.  Therefore, the father-son relationship was the foundation of Chinese society.  Confucius taught that a harmonious society was achieved by recognizing one's proper role in all relationships with each other, whether one was an emperor or a common citizen.

    In China, an elaborate, formal kinship classification system was developed thousands of years ago because it helped to distinguish the exact specific relationships between the many close and distant relatives living in the same village.  In traditional China, it was necessary to address one's relatives by the correct title with respect to the speaker.

    Each year around the month of April, during a ceremony known as "Ching Ming," the Chinese pay homage to their ancestors through prayers and offerings of food and symbolic money at their graves and at the family shrines set up in the village.  Reciting the names of ten generations of your direct ancestors was an old historic tradition in China.


Pronunciation Guide for the Chinese Kinship Chart

    The formal kinship chart was developed to display nearly every possible permutation of family relationships.  The written Chinese has been translated into three dialects of Chinese - Mandarin, Canton, and Toysan.  There are a number of sounds used in Chinese that have no counterpart in English.  For the Mandarin dialect, the Pinyin system was used to translate the written Chinese into phonetic English.  However, Pinyin spellings do not work for the other Chinese dialects, so I have created a special phonetic system.  Here is a partial guide to the phonetic pronunciations in the Canton and Toysan dialects:

    Syllables written in UPPER CASE are accented or stressed.  Example: DAI-gaw means "big brother" in Cantonese.

CH' is a guttural sound used in the Toysan dialect, not a hard "CH" as in "choose."
Examples:  CH'EO means "little"  (pronounced "SIU" in Cantonese)

NG' is pronounced as a single sound with a soft "G" at the end.  Example: NG'OY in Cantonese means "outsider" and is used as a modifier to describe relatives by marriage.

A  rhymes with "ah."  Example: "Da" in Mandarin means "big."

AI rhymes with "aye."   Examples: "Ai" means "big" in Toysan ("Dai" in Cantonese)

AO rhymes with "cow."  Examples: "Shao" means "little" in Mandarin.

EO rhymes with "Leo," but is pronounced as a single syllable.  Example: "Beo" means a relative on the mother's side.

EW rhymes with "few."  Example:  "Kew" in Toysan means an uncle on the mother's side.

OO rhymes with "cook."  Example: "Goong" is the popular expression in Cantonse for maternal grandfather.

UI rhymes with "Louie," but is pronounced as a single syllable.  Example: "Mui" in Cantonese means "younger sister."



Chart and phonetic spellings by: Bill Tong
Written Chinese by: Cheng-Wen Tsai, Dave Soong, Mike Lin & Janice Cheng
Mandarin translation by: Chi Tang & Cheng-Wen Tsai
Canton and Toysan dialect translation by: Jerry & Linda Tong
 
Chinese Kinship Titles with Phonetic Translations into English
Exact Relationship English terminology Written Chinese
Mandarin Dialect

Canton Dialect

Toysan Dialect
brothers & sisters siblings   SHOONG-dee jeh-MAY hing-CHAI jee-MUI han-AI DAY-moy
eldest brother  oldest brother    DA-ge DAI-gaw AI-gaw
2nd eldest brother  older brother   ER-ge YEE-gaw NG'AY-gaw
eldest sister oldest sister   DA-jeh DAI-jeh AI-day
myself myself (I)   wau ng'aw ng'oy
youngest sister  youngest sister   shao-MAY SIU-mui CH'EO-moy
youngest brother  youngest brother   shao-DEE SIU-dai CH'EO-ai
father & son father & son    fu-TZE foo-JEE foo-DEE
mother & daughter mother & daughter   moo-NU mo-LOY MO-nui
father & mother parents   FOO-moo-chin foo-MO-chun FOO-mo-TEEN
father father    FOO-chin foo-CHUN foo-TEEN
mother mother   MOO-chin mo-CHUN mo-TEEN
father's father paternal grandfather   JOO-foo jo-FOO (yeh-yeh) DO-foo (yeh-yeh)
father's mother paternal grandmother   JOO-moo jo-MO (yan-yan) DO-mo (ng'een-ng'een)
mother's father maternal grandfather   wai-JOO-foo NG'OY-jo-FOO 
(goong-goong)
NG'OY-DO-foo 
(gung-gung)
mother's mother maternal grandmother   wai-JOO-moo NG'OY-jo-MO (po-po) NG'OY-DO-mo (po-po)
man & wife man & wife   foo-chee foo-CHAI foo-TAI
husband husband (formal & informal)   JAHNG-foo (shien-sen) jeung-FOO 
(lo-GOONG)
JEUNG-foo (LAO-gung)
wife wife (formal & informal)   CHEE-tze 
(tai-tai)
CHAI-jee 
(tai-TAI)
TAI-dee 
(tai-TAI)
your children children   HAI-tze hai-JEE hai-DEE
your eldest son eldest son   DA-er-tze DAI-yee-JEE AI-ng'ay-DEE
your 2nd eldest son 2nd eldest son   ER-er-tze YEE-yee-JEE NG'AY-ng'ay-DEE
your eldest daughter eldest daughter   DA-nu-er DAI-loy-yee AI-nui-ng'ay
your 2nd eldest daughter 2nd eldest daughter   ER-nu-er YEE-loy-yee NG'AY-nui-ng'ay
children of your siblings nephews & nieces   TZE-tze, TZE-nu CHUT-jee, CHUT-loy JEET-dee, JEET-nui
your older brother's son nephew   TZE-tze CHUT-jee JEET-dee
your younger brother's son nephew   TZE-tze CHUT-jee JEET-dee
your older sister's son nephew   WAI-sen NG'OY-sahng NG'OY-sahng
your younger sister's son nephew   WAI-sen NG'OY-sahng NG'OY-sahng
your older brother's daughter niece   TZE-nu CHUT-loy JEET-nui
your younger brother's daughter niece   TZE-nu CHUT-loy JEET-nui
your older sister's daughter niece   WAI-sen-nu NG'OY-sahng-loy NG'OY-sahng-nui
your younger sister's daughter niece   WAI-sen-nu NG'OY-sahng-loy NG'OY-sahng-nui
immediate relatives close kin   tze-SHEE-chin-soo jet-HAI-chun-sook jet-HAI-teen-sook
father's eldest brother 1st uncle   DA-baw dai-BOK AI-bok
father's 2nd eldest brother 2nd uncle   ER-baw yee-BOK NG'AY-bok
father's eldest sister 1st aunt   DA-goo DAI-goo AI-goo
father's 2nd eldest sister 2nd aunt   ER-goo yee-GOO NG'AY-goo
father's youngest brother youngest uncle   SHAO-soo SIU-sook CH'EO-sook
father's youngest sister  youngest aunt   SHAO-goo SIU-goo CH'EO-goo
mother's eldest brother 1st uncle   DA-jeo dai-KOW AI-kew
mother's 2nd eldest brother 2nd uncle   ER-jeo yee-KOW NG'AY-kew
mother's eldest sister 1st aunt   DA-yee DAI-yee AI-yee
mother's 2nd eldest sister 2nd aunt   ER-yee YEE-yee NG'AY-yee
mother's youngest brother youngest uncle   SHAO-jeo SIU-kow CH'EO-kew
mother's youngest sister youngest aunt   SHAO-yee SIU-yee CH'EO-yee
father's brother's children 1st cousins (father's side)   TAHNG-shoong tong-HING hong-HAN
father's brother's son 1st cousin [boy] on father's side (older/younger)   TAHNG-ge

TAHNG-dee

tong-gaw

tong-dai

hong-GAW

hong-AI

father's brother's daughter 1st cousin [girl] on father's side (older/younger)   TAHNG-jeh

TAHNG-may

tong-JEH

tong-MUI

hong-DAY

hong-MOY

father's sister's children 1st cousins (father's side)   BEO-shoong BEW-hing BEO-han
father's sister's son 1st cousin [boy] on mother's side (older/younger)   BEO-ge

BEO-dee

BEW-gaw

BEW-dai

BEO-gaw

BEO-ai

father's sister's daughter 1st cousin [girl] on father's side (older/younger)   BEO-jeh

BEO-may

BEW-jeh

BEW-mui

BEO-day

BEO-moy

mother's brother's children 1st cousin (mother's side)   BEO-shoong BEW-hing BEO-han
mother's brother's son 1st cousin [boy] on mother's side (older/younger)   BEO-ge

BEO-dee

BEW-gaw

BEW-dai

BEO-gaw

BEO-ai

mother's brother's daughter 1st cousin [girl] on mother's side (older/younger)   BEO-jeh

BEO-may

BEW-jeh

BEW-mui

BEO-day

BEO-moy

mother's sister's children 1st cousin (mother's side)   BEO-shoong BEW-hing BEO-han
mother's sister's son 1st cousin [boy] on mother's side (older/younger)   BEO-ge

BEO-dee

BEW-gaw

BEW-dai

BEO-gaw

BEO-ai

mother's sister's daughter 1st cousin [girl] on mother's side (older/younger)   BEO-jeh

BEO-may

BEW-jeh

BEW-mui

BEO-day

BEO-moy

relatives by marriage relatives by marriage   CHIN-chee chun-CHET teen-TAT
husband of your oldest sister brother-in-law   JEH-foo JEH-foo DAY-foo
husband of your youngest sister brother-in-law   MAY-foo MUI-foo MOY-foo
brother (oldest) of your wife brother-in-law   DA-jeo DAI-kow AI-kew
brother (youngest) of your wife brother-in-law   SHAO-jeo SIU-kow CH'EO-kew
husband of your wife's oldest sister brother-in-law   JEH-foo JEH-foo DAY-foo
husband of your wife's youngest sister brother-in-law   MAY-foo MUI-foo MOY-foo
brother (oldest) of your husband brother-in-law   DA-yeh DAI-yeh AI-yeh
brother (youngest) of your husband brother-in-law   SHAO-soo SIU-sook CH'EO-sook
husband of your husband's oldest sister brother-in-law   DA-goo-jahng DAI-goo-cheung AI-goo-jeung
husband of your husband's youngest sister brother-in-law   SHAO-goo-jahng SIU-goo-cheung CH'EO-goo-jeung
wife of your oldest brother sister-in-law   DA-sao DAI-sao AI-ch'ao
wife of your youngest brother sister-in-law   SHAO-sao SIU-sao CH'EO-ch'ao
sister (oldest) of your wife sister-in-law   DA-yee DAI-yee AI-yee
sister (youngest) of your wife sister-in-law   SHAO-yee SIU-yee CH'EO-yee
wife of your wife's oldest brother sister-in-law   BEO-sao BEW-sao BEO-ch'ao
wife of your wife's youngest brother sister-in-law   BEO-sao BEW-sao BEO-ch'ao
sister (oldest) of your husband sister-in-law   DA-goo DAI-goo AI-goo
sister (youngest) of your husband sister-in-law   SHAO-goo SIU-goo CH'EO-goo
wife of your husband's oldest brother sister-in-law   DA-sao DAI-sao AI-ch'ao
wife of your husband's youngest brother sister-in-law   SHAO-sao SIU-sao CH'EO-ch'ao
father of your wife father-in-law   YUEH-foo  ng'awk-FOO NG'AWK-foo
mother of your wife mother-in-law   YUEH-moo ng'awk-MO NG'AWK-mo
father of your husband father-in-law   goong-goong goong-goong (LO-yeh) gung-gung (LAO-yeh)
mother of your husband mother-in-law   po-po po-po (ny-NY) po-po (ny-NY)
step-father step father   JEE-foo gai-FOO GAI-foo
step-mother step mother   JEE-foo gai-MO GAI-mo
father's brother's wife aunt (by marriage)   BAW-mo BEW-mo BEO-mo
father's sister's husband uncle (by marriage)   goo-JAHNG goo-CHEUNG goo-JEUNG
mother's brother's wife aunt (by marriage)   JEO-moo kow-MO kew-MO
mother's sister's husband uncle (by marriage)   yee-JAHNG yee-CHEUNG goo-JEUNG
father of your son's wife son's father-in-law   chin-JIEH CHUN-gah TEEN-gah
mother of your son's wife son's mother-in-law   chin-JIEH-moo CHUN-gah-mo TEEN-gah-mo
father of daughter's husband daughter's father-in-law   chin-JIEH CHUN-gah TEEN-gah
mother of daughter's husband daughter's mother-in-law   chin-JIEH-moo CHUN-gah-mo TEEN-gah-mo
father's brother's son's wife 1st cousin (by marriage)   TAHNG-sao tong-SAO han-CH'AO
father's brother's daughter's husband 1st cousin (by marriage)   TAHNG-may-shu tong-mui-SAI han-MOY-ch'ai
father's sister's son's wife 1st cousin (by marriage)   beo-SAO BEW-sao BEO-ch'ao
father's sister's daughter's husband 1st cousin (by marriage)   beo-JEH-foo BEW-jeh-foo BEO-day-foo
mother's brother's son's wife 1st cousin (by marriage)   beo-SAO BEW-sao BEO-ch'ao
mother's brother's daughter's husband 1st cousin (by marriage)   BEO-may-shu BEW-moy-sai BEO-moy-ch'ai
mother's sister's son's wife 1st cousin (by marriage)   beo-SAO BEW-sao BEO-ch'ao
mother's sister's daughter's husband  1st cousin (by marriage)   beo-JEH-foo BEW-jeh-foo BEO-day-foo
male paternal 1st cousin of your wife 1st cousin (by marriage)   BEO-shoong-dee BEW-hing-dai BEO-han-ai
male maternal 1st cousin of your wife 1st cousin (by marriage)   BEO-shoong-dee BEW-hing-dai BEO-han-ai
husband of your wife's paternal 1st cousin 1st cousin (by marriage)   BEO-shoong-may-foo BEW-hing-mui-FOO BEO-han-moy-FOO
husband of your wife's maternal 1st cousin 1st cousin (by marriage)   BEO-shoong-may-foo BEW-hing-mui-FOO BEO-han-moy-FOO
female paternal 1st cousin of your wife 1st cousin (by marriage)   BEO-shoong-may BEW-hing-mui BEO-han-moy
female maternal 1st cousin of your wife 1st cousin (by marriage)   BEO-shoong-may BEW-hing-mui BEO-han-moy
male paternal 1st cousin of your husband 1st cousin (by marriage)   TAHNG-shoong-dee TONG-hing-dai HONG-han-ai
male maternal 1st cousin of your husband 1st cousin (by marriage)   BEO-shoong-dee BEW-hing-dai BEO-han-ai
female paternal 1st cousin of your husband 1st cousin (by marriage)   BEO-shoong-may BEW-hing-mui BEO-han-moy
female maternal 1st cousin of your husband 1st cousin (by marriage)   BEO-shoong-may BEW-hing-mui BEO-han-moy
wife of your husband's paternal 1st cousin 1st cousin (by marriage)   TAHNG-shoong-sao TONG-hing-sao HONG-han-ch'ao
wife of your husband's maternal 1st cousin 1st cousin (by marriage)   BEO-shoong-sao BEO-hing-sao BEO-han-ch'ao