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Ma and Ba are just the beginning
September 12, 2011 3:16 PM   Subscribe

Have trouble figuring out who your third cousin twice removed is versus your second cousin thrice removed? Imagine if your family was Chinese. The rules for Chinese family relation names are complex and incredibly specific, though there are patterns that can help out (e.g. tang2 vs biao3). A research paper provides some cultural context.

Mandarin Tools (a great site) also has a helper tool, but it's not as comprehensive as the above tables.
posted by kmz (21 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
One thing I've wondered recently is how gay marriage will affect the rather patriarchal and heteronormative system. Anybody more informed than me that can shed some light?
posted by kmz at 3:22 PM on September 12, 2011


Thank you for this! I've been trying to explain how we are very specific and formal in our culture when identifying our family members. Though I only speak Cantonese, this is a great explanation!
posted by Yellow at 4:38 PM on September 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow! I've had a hard time juggling Farsi's 8 words for cousins my entire life- I can't imagine having to remember every single one of those! I just codeswitch right into English whenever I have to use words to describe relations!
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 4:46 PM on September 12, 2011


Unless you grew up in a conservative or traditional household, you're not going to be expected to remember all those relationship names. Or who's the third aunt, or fifth uncle, or cousin through which side at a large family gathering.

Everyone just becomes either uncle and aunt or 哥 (older brother) and 姐 (older sister), depending on generation, marriage status and age gap. (OK so the confucius elderly respect thing doesn't completely go away but only two to choose from!)
posted by tksh at 5:23 PM on September 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


I have a hard enough time figuring out complex genealogical relationships in English. Wolfram Alpha does a pretty good job of displaying these: for example, my grandfather's sister's nephew.
posted by twoleftfeet at 6:05 PM on September 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


I experienced the real-life version of this last April when I was in China and met a gaggle of my paternal relatives for the first time. They were helpful enough to give me a family photo with everybody's honorifics listed next to them.
posted by Pantalaimon at 6:37 PM on September 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wikipedia has an article on this as well, with a similar table. There's actually a nursery rhyme which teaches kids how to remember all the terms; let me see if I can find it on teh Googles... this is sort of close, but the one I recall had better rhyming and more terms.
posted by destrius at 6:55 PM on September 12, 2011


Gah! Why couldn't this have come up before I met my maternal relatives for the first time ever in China? Good thing I was the novel "American cousin" who could get away with calling my grandmother on that side 奶奶 and not 外婆. Though now I do know how to label all the extended family I met, which included my grandfather's brother's wife and all their kids/grandkids/great-grand kids
posted by astapasta24 at 6:56 PM on September 12, 2011


Your grandfather's sister's nephew is.... Well, it could be your father. But assuming that there's a third sibling, your grandfather's sister's nephew is your first cousin once removed. It's not really that difficult. The "removed" is separates generations and the 1st, 2nd, etc tell you how many generations you have to go back to get siblings.

Maybe I only think this because I don't have any "regular" cousins so all my cousins are second or third cousins and have an uncle/aunt like relationship my mother's cousins. I have dear, fond memories of my great-great aunt (my grandmother's aunt), though I never met my great-grandmother. I got my first cat from my mother's father's brother's son's second wife's sister-in-law (or, if you prefer, my second cousins' aunt).
posted by maryr at 7:13 PM on September 12, 2011


One thing I've wondered recently is how gay marriage will affect the rather patriarchal and heteronormative system. Anybody more informed than me that can shed some light?

I'd guess no different than any other childless marriage? Or even childed, if there's adoption? There's really nothing patriarchal or heteronormative about it, even if it does have to do with descent.
posted by kafziel at 8:01 PM on September 12, 2011


Well, there's no entries in the matrix for, say, elder sister's wife. Or father's younger brother's husband.

And the patriarchal bit comes from, for example, maternal grandparents are basically the same as paternal, but with wai4 prepended, which means "outside". The paper talks about it in more detail.

Unless you grew up in a conservative or traditional household, you're not going to be expected to remember all those relationship names. Or who's the third aunt, or fifth uncle, or cousin through which side at a large family gathering.

In my family (which I would hardly call conservative or traditional), you're not expected to have completely memorized it, but others will often refer to specific relatives. And then they'll explain the exact relation when you ask them "wait, who?"
posted by kmz at 8:22 PM on September 12, 2011


This is another reason the Longman Picture Dictionary of Chinese Culture is so good; it has a two-page spread illustrating pretty much all the family relationships. (The dictionary, unfortunately, now goes for ridiculous prices: "Save -$55 off list price!")

And yeah, I've never gotten the impression that people are supposed to know any of that vocabulary except the ones that actually exist in their own extended family.
posted by jiawen at 9:05 PM on September 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've always found the English names for relatives woefully ambiguous.

If someone's introduced as a guy's brother-in-law, it'll take an additional explanation before it's clear that he's the guy's wife's brother, and not the guy's sister's husband. There's got to be a better way!
posted by Sys Rq at 9:44 PM on September 12, 2011


Oh, I love this. Just started into the family tree thing and having the terminology down on paper like this is so great.
posted by storybored at 9:48 PM on September 12, 2011


@Sys Rq: there is!

Warlpiris divide their relatives, and by extension the entire population, into eight named groups or subsections. These subsections are related to kinship, and determine one's family rights and obligations.

The subsections are divided into four semi-patrimoieties, each consisting of two subsections. One always belongs to the same semi-patrimoiety as one's father, but to the opposite subsection, so that men in a patriline will alternate between those two subsections.

The subsections are also divided into two matrimoieties, each consisting of four subsections. One always belongs to the same matrimoiety as one's mother, and women in a matriline will cycle through the four subsections of that matrimoiety.

The two subsections in a semi-patrimoiety always belong to opposite matrimoieties, and similarly, the four subsections of each matrimoiety are distributed among the four semi-patrimoieties.

Each subsection is uniquely determined by which semi-patrimoiety and which matrimoiety it belongs to. Female lines of descent in the two matrimoieties cycle through the semi-patrimoieties in opposite directions. The result is that one's mother's father's mother's father (MFMF) is of the same subection as oneself.

Siblings always belong to the same subsection.

posted by obiwanwasabi at 10:21 PM on September 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Finally there's hope that I can express, in a compact and clear form, my relationship to Dwight David Eisenhower ...

my second cousin once-removed's husband's grandfather
posted by zippy at 10:35 PM on September 12, 2011


I like this very much. Was just thinking yesterday about this naming convention in India. Must be a high population density, large family, hierarchical family oriented society thing. Unique identifiers for father's elder brother vs younger brother and all that.
posted by infini at 11:01 PM on September 12, 2011


Well, there's no entries in the matrix for, say, elder sister's wife. Or father's younger brother's husband.

Well the elegance of the table is not the entries but the rules that are implied. Example:

younger brother's wife is 弟婦 (dai6 fu5)
younger sister's husband is 妹夫 (mui6 fu1)

so logically,

younger brother's husband is 弟夫 (dai6 fu1). Etc.
posted by polymodus at 11:33 PM on September 12, 2011


Korean is similar. For example, you have a different word for sister and brother depending on if you yourself are a girl or a boy. But only if they're older than you. It's different again if they are younger than you. This is a source of much amusement when people get it wrong ("You called him your older brother like you're a GIRL, lol!")
posted by like_neon at 4:31 AM on September 13, 2011


@zippy - Mamie Eisenhower is my 8th cousin 3 times removed! I think that makes us... um... carry the one... "in-law" twice is "outlaw"?... um... what's Mandarin for "fellow human"?
posted by paisley at 7:57 AM on September 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is timely. I was just discussing the dynamics between a guy's wife and his sister, and got very frustrated with the uselessness of the term 'sister-in-law'. (In Chinese that would be 嫂子vs 姑子).

To show you how much people care about these titles - my mom's mother was the one who provided the most child care when I was growing up, and I always called her '奶奶' -- usually meant for paternal grandmothers, and somehow showed more closeness than '外婆'. But even when I was only four or five, I knew enough not to call her that in my dad's presence, as that irritated him no end. Somewhat luckily, I call my dad's mom another term for paternal grandmother from the Ningbo dialect, so there wasn't too much confusion.
posted by of strange foe at 9:19 AM on September 13, 2011


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