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How to Say “Family” in Chinese: An Ultimate Guide to Family in Chinese Culture

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

Family in Chinese is 家 (jiā). This can be translated as “family” or “home”.

But it’s also much more than that. “Family” is a big concept in Chinese. Let’s take a look at what it means in this ultimate guide to family in Chinese.

If you’re interested in learning Chinese, learning about family will give you significant insight to the culture.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • How to communicate with people from different age groups in Chinese
  • How to properly address different family members in Chinese
  • How to prepare for a stay with a Chinese family
  • Chinese family TV dramas you can watch to improve your Chinese skills

Let’s get started!

Family In Chinese Culture: The Basics

In the English language and in Western culture, family mainly refers to the combination of several people living together who are tied through blood or relationships. But the word “family” means a lot more in China.

The character for family, 家 (jiā), combines the ideas of both a place and people. On the top of the character is 宀, indicating “cave” or “house”; at the bottom there is 豕 (shǐ), meaning “pig”. People live in a place where they can keep out of the wind and rain and have food inside. And that’s where family is.

In today's China, no matter how much traditional culture and mindsets have changed, “home” is still very much the place that where Chinese people’s hearts are.

The Chinese concept of “family” includes the new home created by couples after they get married and have children. It also includes the place where they grew up and their parents’ family. In fact, three-generation households are common in China.

“Come Back Home Often” is a popular Chinese song. The lyrics express how children who are away from home should often visit their parents. This idea of family comes from China's long history as an agrarian society, where people lived by working the land. The lack of economic resources pushed different generations of a Chinese family to have to live together to get by. The elder generations were largely dependent on their offspring for support after losing their ability to work. The Chinese generally retire years earlier than in western countries, so this family support system was essential.

Instead of thinking of rest after retiring, Chinese parents continue to devote themselves to the home by helping their children and taking care of their grandchildren. This eases some of the burdens on the younger family members, but it also creates tension around education and the differences in values between generations.

The Chinese notion of family is also tied to their country and philosophy. In Chinese culture, a country is called 国家 (guó jiā), which literally translates as “state family”. Confucianism is 儒家 (rú jiā), which translates to “Confucian family “.

Family is often patriarchal in China. Under the current social system in rural China, the father is usually seen as the head of the family. Even nowadays, many people still hold this view in many remote villages in China, but the difference in social status between men and women in urban China is getting smaller and smaller.

Family In Chinese Culture: Why Family Matters More Than Anything Else

In China, family matters far more than anything else. When any family member struggles, relatives will contribute even if that means personal sacrifice.

The long agrarian society and the lack of legal system forced Chinese people to have a strong dependence on family.

In the Confucian classics, 孝 (xiào) “filial piety” ranks at the top of all moral values. This is respect for one’s parents, elders and ancestors. Whenever I talk to my Western students about this topic, they struggle to fully understand. In the character 孝 (xiào). The top symbol is 老 (lǎo) ”old” and below it is 子 (zǐ) ”son”. Thus, children are seen as below their elders. Even if parents have faults or are wrong, children are not to contradict or abandon them.

By contrast, people in western countries have learned more about market rules and adapted to become socially competitive. Children strive to be independent after adulthood, paying less attention to the family when compared to the same generation in China.

Perhaps this is because in western countries social security and national welfare are relatively good, so the elderly are able to be self-sufficient after retirement. By contrast, supporting the elderly in China is an obligation written into the Chinese constitution that everyone must fulfill.

My American students recently told me that few adults who have jobs in the United States live under the same roof as their parents. Grandparents being the primary caregivers for their grandchildren is sometimes less common in the west.

Neither perspective is right or wrong. Even having grown up in Chinese society, I can understand the mentality of children who want to leave home when they grow up. Chinese people also want to get rid of restrictions and find freedom.

Family In Chinese Culture: How To Communicate Respectfully With Older People

The emphasis on ethics in Chinese families means Chinese families have more rules, and these include rules about how to communicate.

Respecting the old and cherishing the young is one of the virtues of our Chinese tradition.

Here are a few tips to help you succeed when communicating with different generations of Chinese:

Pay Attention To Speed And Intonation When Speaking With Your Elders.

Be softly spoken, and speak clearly and slowly. When communicating with the elderly, you should also address them as 您 (nín) instead of 你 (nǐ). It is disrespectful to call an elder directly by their Chinese name. To the surprise of many Chinese learners, Chinese people address all elders as though they are family members. For example, a girl in her early twenties should call a woman of similar age to her mother 阿姨 (ā yí) “auntie” and an older man “uncle”. When my three-year-old daughter sees a slightly older boy or a girl, she will call them 哥哥 (gē ge) “brother” 姐姐 or (jǐe jie) “sister”. This brings people closer and makes them feel kind.

When chatting with your elders in China, take the role of a listener rather than a speaker. Your aim should be to show that you respect their life experience. Even when you have different point of view, avoid disagreement. Make sure your tone and words are respectful.

Family In Chinese Culture: Chatting With Children

When communicating with young children, Chinese people like to duplicate some nouns after a verb, such as 吃饭饭 (chī fàn fàn) meaning “to eat”, 洗澡澡 (xǐ zǎo zǎo) meaning “to shower”.

This sounds cute and makes it easier for children to repeat and remember words.

Compared to western culture, Chinese people seldom use courteous words when we communicate with younger or familiar peers. For instance, if we ask our child to do a small thing for us, he will usually be praised for doing a good job instead of being told “thank you”. In Chinese people's opinion, if we are too polite, people will feel that we are growing apart. We don't need to be very polite in words with our family, because we already know one another's value in our hearts.

How To Address Chinese Family Members

The way to address family members is different in different parts of China. Because of China's vast borders, distant provinces also have different ways of addressing relatives. Let's take a look at some commonly used terms.

  • 妈妈 (mā ma) “mom”
  • 母亲 (mǔ qīn) “mother”
  • 爸爸 (bà ba) “dad”
  • 父亲 (fù qin) “father”
  • 女儿 (nǚ ér) “daughter”
  • 儿子 (ér zi) “son”
  • 爷爷 (yé ye) “grandpa” (on the father’s side)
  • 奶奶(naǐ nai)”grandma” (on the father’s side)
  • 外婆 (waì pó) “grandpa” (on the mother’s side)
  • 外公 (waì gōng) “grandpa” (on the mother’s side)
  • 阿姨 (ā yí) “aunt” (mother’s sisters)
  • 姑姑 (gū gu) “aunt” (father’s sisters)
  • 叔叔 (shū shu) “uncle”(father’s younger brothers)
  • 伯伯(bó bo) “uncle” (father’s older brothers)
  • 舅舅(jìu jiu) “uncle” (mother’s brothers)
  • 舅妈 (jìu mā) “aunt” (mother’s sister-in law)
  • 表妹 (biǎo mèi) “cousin” (younger female cousin on mother’s side)
  • 表姐 (biǎo jiě) “cousin” (older female cousin on mother’s side)
  • 堂哥 (táng gē) “cousin” (older male cousin on father’s side)
  • 堂弟 (tāng dì) “cousin” (younger male cousin on father’s side)

What You Need To Know If You’re Staying With A Chinese Family

Chinese people are very hospitable. Whenever there is a friend visiting, the host must bring out the best food.

Chinese shyness and humility make us very polite when we visit other people's homes. Even if the host offers warm hospitality, we will reject it kindly and deliberately.

Here are some sentences help you understand this practice.

When the host asks about what you’d like to drink, you can say:
我喝点儿茶吧。(wǒ hē diǎn er chá bā.) “I’d like to drink a little tea.”

“点儿” (diǎn er) means “a little”, so the sentence means “I’d like to drink a little tea.” This word will help you sound less greedy.

When you give a present to your host, they might say:
你太客气了,真不好意思!(nǐ tài kèqìle, zhēn bù hǎoyìsi!) “You’re too polite, I’m very embarrassed.”

“不好意思” (bù hǎoyìsi)means “embarrassed” or “sorry”. This expression is used here to show that the receiver thinks the gift is so valuable and that he feels “guilty” taking it.

There are a few things Chinese people do at the dinner table that are considered rather strange for Westerners. Don’t be overwhelmed if you encounter these situations.

For one, we like try to persuade our guests to eat and drink more. We don’t want our guest to be still hungry through politeness.

We also like to help our guests dish food onto their plates. Although you might think it’s not very hygienic, this is considered to be something a host needs to do at the dinner table, especially for elders and children.

5 Famous Chinese Family Dramas To Improve Your Chinese Language Skills

Chinese people like to watch TV shows together as a family. The censorship of TV in China is very strict, so all TV shows must be suitable for family watching. Therefore, we do not have a TV rating system.

Here are some of the most acclaimed dramas to help you learn about Chinese family culture and to improve your Chinese language skills.

  • 《蜗居》(wōjū) “Dwelling Narrowness”. Set against the backdrop of soaring housing prices, this is a series of twists and turns experienced by ordinary people in urban life. The content is very realistic and a true portrayal of contemporary Chinese families.
    *《家有儿女》(jiā yǒu érnǚ) “Home with Children” is a popular Chinese sitcom. Fun family stories are portrayed in a relaxed way that revolves around children and their parents.
    *《我爱我家》(wǒ ài wǒjiā) “I Love my Family” is a childhood favorite. It tells the story of a family of six their neighbors, relatives and friends in Beijing in the 1990s.
    *《大家庭》(dà jiātíng) “The Big Family” tells a love story of a couple who don’t have a matching family background. There are three families involved in this love story.
    *《情满四合院》(qíng mǎn sìhéyuàn) tells the story of the period between the 1960s and 1990s. They are stories of humanity and social changes in Beijing's courtyard houses.

Family In Chinese Culture: In Conclusion

When all is said and done, people are different yet similar. Chinese or American, Eastern or Western. We all love our family and welcome different cultures.

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Rachel Cai

Online Chinese Teacher

Get Mandarin lessons, videos, exercises, and more from Rachel’s website and YouTube Channel.

Speaks: English, Chinese

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