A whistlestop guide to knowing what to call who in Chinese

Starting from episode 13 in Memory Lost, with the introduction of assistant Liu and his cousins, one term which keeps coming up is “哥” meaning “elder brother” in chinese. However, this term should be used cautiously in different contexts.

Like in Korean, the term “elder brother” does not only refer to someone who is related to you like in English, (although some people use bro interchangeably with mate/friend), it simply refers to a male who is older than you, which you often respect and close to. Some people may use it to try and become closer to someone like in  ep 15 when Zhang Mohan tries to cozy up with the Liu brothers and calls them his “elder brothers”.

The usual distinction to know whether two people share parents, is that they would not call their name followed by the term elder brother. You would usually just call them simply “哥” (pronounced “Ge”). For two people who do not share the same parents, the younger person would usually call the older man like this: “阿正哥” or “A Zheng elder brother” which assistant Liu calls his older male cousin. However, two males who have a brotherly relationship or “兄弟情谊”, the younger person would usually call the older male just “哥”. The older male would just call the younger male by his name rather than the term younger brother in chinese “弟弟” (pronounced  “Di Di”. They would only use this term to describe their relationship to others. However in some parts of China, people would also use “弟弟” to describe someone younger than them; they don’t always have to know each other well.

It can also be used as a derogatory term. Bai Jinxi sometimes calls Han Chen “大哥” (pronounced Da Ge) to irk him. The literal translation of this is Eldest brother and tradition dictates that this person should be the most knowledgeable and wise. But in this context, she is being sarcastic.

For females a similar system exists, except the term for an elder sister is “姐” (pronounced “jie jie” and the term for the younger female is “妹妹” (pronounced “mei mei”).

Because age is a sensitive topic in Asia, just like in the rest of the world. Some people would call an older woman, even one who may be older than their mother as “姐姐” instead of “阿姨” (pronounced “a yi” or auntie which is usually the term used to describe a woman who is around your mother’s age.

You may also hear people use “伯母” (pronounced “bo mu”) and “伯父” (pronounced “bo fu”) to people who may not be in the immediate family. In China you would only use these terms in three cases:

  • The first, would be if they are your father’s older brother “伯父” and his wife “伯母”.
  • The second would be the father and mother of your friends, classmates or girlfriend/boyfriend. If they insist on you to call them by their honorifics such as “陈先生” or “陈太太/女士” then it probably means that they don’t like you at all and would not want to get to know you. This is because they don’t want you to call them a term used traditionally by family members. Additionally, if they are younger than your parents, you may also call them “叔叔” for the father and “阿姨” for the mother.
  • The final case and only in the case of your stepmother you can call her “伯母” if you are not close enough to her to call her “妈” (Pronounced “ma”) which you would call your mother

Within the family, there are also distinctions between the father’s side and the mother’s side of the family. For the father’s side of the family, 1st cousins would usually have the term “堂”  (pronounced “tang”) in them. For example, an older male cousin from the father’s side would be “堂哥” (“tang ge”) and a younger female cousin from the father’s side would be “堂妹” (“tang mei”) .

As mentioned before the older brother of your father would be called “伯父” whereas the younger brother of your father would be called “叔叔” (“Shu shu”)and his wife “婶婶” (“sen sen”).

There is no real distinction between the father’s eldest or youngest sister, you would call them “姑姑/姑母” or (“Gu Gu” or “Gu Mu”). Although some distinction may be made  such as calling the eldest “大姑” and so on.

An interesting fact is that: Some people, especially those from the generation who were alive during the 2nd world war, the children would call their parents “shu shu” and “sen sen” because it was believed that the children would be able to live longer if the relationship between the parents and the children seem further away. But this is now a rare sight.

For the mothers side, first cousins would usually have the term “表” (pronounced “biao”) for example an older male cousin from the mother’s side would be “表哥” (“biao ge”) and a younger female cousin from the mother’s side would be “表妹” (“biao mei”) .

There is no real distinction between the mother’s older or younger brother you would call them all “舅舅” (“jiu jiu”) but depending on their age, you would usually call the eldest “大舅” (“da jiu”)  second eldest “二舅” (“er jiu”) and the youngest “小舅” (“xiao jiu”).

The sisters of the mother would be called “姨” (“yi”)with no distinction made whether it is an older or younger sister of the mother.

In China, many people view correct honorifics as extremely important. In some families, the uncle may be even younger than the niece but the niece would still have to call them the right honorific and not their name otherwise it would be seen as rude and disrespectful. I will stop the lesson here as things get even more complicated as we move on to the extended family such as what we should call second cousin removed and the siblings of our grandparents. But in the most simplistic terms, if you ever see “堂, 叔, 伯 ,姑”, this would usually mean that they are from the paternal side of the family and if you see “表, 舅, 姨” that would mean they are related from the maternal side of the family.

For more information about chinese kinship:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_kinship

This will give you more information about the different terminology used to call different family members.

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