The Cultural Connotations and
Communicative Functions of

Chinese Kinship Terms

Shaorong Huang
University of Cincinnati &
Raymond Walters College

Wenshan Jia
State University of New York at New Paltz


Throughout human history people have sought to identify themselves and others in social contexts. This identification comes, in part, through the act of naming, which carries great social significance for us (Trenholm, Jensen, 1992). As we learn to identify and categorize the world around us, we also learn our place within it. Our name sets us apart from every other human being. Just as our individual names connote our uniqueness within society, so do the kinship terms applied to us.

Each culture has defined their own set of kinship terms and the roles they serve in society. To be called the kinship term "uncle" in one culture may hold a distinctively different set of expectations than that of "uncle" in another culture. These expectations may be influenced by the cultureís power orientation, philosophical or religious assumptions, environment, or any number of factors. Through kinship terms, it is possible to understand a cultureís power structure, particular interpersonal communication patterns, and normative elements of the family system, structure, and functions.

Kinship terms, according to E. R. Leach (1958), are "category words by means of which an individual is taught to recognize the significant groupings in the social structure into which he is born" (p. 143). They are the lexically identical terms and unique terminological systems labeled with a distinctive social and cultural nature. In different societies and cultures, there must be different systems of kinship terms. For example, between English and Chinese languages, only a few basic relations such as "father," "mother," "son," and "daughter," bear the same semantic constants which can be expressed in similar kinship terms. But as soon as we step outside this close circle of basic family relations, quite a number of differences in the terms become obvious. In this paper we will first, develop our rationale for the study and look at past studies on the same topic; second, describe the meticulous system of Chinese kinship terms; third, investigate the cultural connotations of the system; and fourth, discuss its communicative functions in Chinese daily social interaction.


Both the study of kinship and the study of Chinese kinship seem to have been traditional topics in Western anthropology. One anthropological study (Hirschfeld, 1986) has been found that investigates "how and what kinship terms mean" (p. 236) from the perspective of individualized cognitive psychology. However, only one study on Chinese kinship has been found (Watson, 1982). This study does not focus on Chinese kinship terms per se, but is primarily concerned with how to improve the study of Chinese kinship as a social institution or organization. No scholarly literature on Chinese kinship terms from an explicitly defined communication perspective has been found. Only one study has been identified which partially addresses Chinese kinship terms as part of the Chinese naming practices and power of such terms in Chinese society (Blum, 1997). This is incompatible with the historically continual and currently pervasive use of Chinese kinship terms in Chinese societies and in constituting and maintaining Chinese culture. This is also incompatible with the uniqueness of the system of Chinese kinship terms in contrast with other cultures. An understanding of the unique cultural meanings and communicative functions of the system would not only help us better understand Chinese people and other peoples, but also help us improve intercultural communication. This motivates us to conduct the present study.

The Meticulous System of Chinese Kinship Terms

In contrast to English kinship terms, the Chinese kinship system is very complicated. The following diagrams show the comparison between some English and Chinese kinship terms.

Diagram I




Paternal grandfather

Maternal grandfather

Zu fu

Wai zu fu


Paternal grandmother

Maternal grandmother

Zu mu

Wai zu mu



Fu qin



Mu qin



Er zi



Nu er


Sonís son

Daughterís son

Sun zi

Wai sun


Sonís daughter

Daughterís daughter

Sun nu

Wai sun nu


Diagram II




Fatherís elder brother

Fatherís younger brother

Fatherís sisterís husband

Motherís brother

Motherís sisterís husband

Bo fu

Shu fu

Gu fu

Jiu fu

Yi fu



Fatherís elder brotherís wife

Fatherís younger brotherís wife

Fatherís sister

Mothers brotherís wife

Motherís sister

Bo mu

Shu mu

Gu mu

Jiu mu

Yi mu



Diagram III




Elder brother

Younger brother

Ge ge

Di di


Elder sisterís husband

Younger sisterís husband

Jie fu

Mei fu


Elder sister

Younger sister

Jie jie

Mei mei


Elder brotherís wife

Younger brotherís wife

Sao zi

Di mei


Diagram IV





Fatherís brotherís son

Fatherís sisterís son

Motherís brotherís son

Motherís sisterís son

Fatherís brotherís daughter

Fatherís sisterís daughter

Motherís brotherís daughter

Motherís sisterís daughter

















Tang ge

Tang di

Gu biao ge

Gu biao di

Jiu biao ge

Jiu biao di

Yi biao ge

Yi biao di

Tang jie

Tang mei

Gu biao jie

Gu biao mei

Jiu biao jie

Jiu biao mei

Yi biao jie

Yi biao mei









Diagram V




Brotherís son

Sisterís son

Wifeís siblingís son

Tang zhi

Wai sheng

Biao zhi


Brotherís daughter

Sisterís daughter

Wifeís siblingís daughter

Tang zhi nu

Wai sheng nu

Biao zhi nu


From the above diagrams we see that there are certain similarities and differences between English and Chinese kinship terms. The common feature the kinship terms of both languages possess is that they all share the semantic meanings of generation, sex and certain kinds of relations. For example, English "father" and Chinese "fu qin" are both contrasted with English "mother" and Chinese "mu qin" in the dimension of sex, with "son" and "er zi" in the dimension of generation, with "uncle" and "bo fu," "shu fu," "gu fu," "jiu fu" and "yi fu" in the dimension of linearity. Of course, there is an exception in English kinship terms speaking of the dimension of sex. The English word "cousin" carries no semantic meaning of sex. So it is not clear from the word itself if oneís cousin is a man or a woman. Besides sex, English and Chinese kinship terms differ in two major dimensions: relative age within the same generation in a horizontal relationship and consanguineal vs. affinal relations in both horizontal and vertical relationships.

In Chinese, there are no such terms as "brother" and "sister," but two pairs of words in which age is combined with sex: ge ge (elder brother), di di (younger brother), jie jie (elder sister), and mei mei (younger sister). It is quite common in English to say "He is my brother," while in Chinese you have to make it clear by saying, "He is my ge ge" or "He is my di di." The concept of the kinship term "cousin" in Chinese can be both brothers and sisters according to the sex and the relative age to ego. It could be egoís ge (elder brother), egoís di (younger brother), egoís jie (elder sister), or egoís mei (younger sister). But these brothers or sisters are divided into two categories and have the different labels; with consanguineal relation we have the label of tang, while with affinal relation we have the label of biao.

It seems that the English language pays little attention to the differences between consanguineal and affinal relations in its kinship terms. But the Chinese language considers these relations seriously. In Chinese, paternal grandfather and grandmother are called zu fu and zu mu respectively, while maternal grandfather and grandmother are called wai zu fu and wai zu mu respectively. Wai in Chinese literally means "outside," which suggests that this vertical relationship between generations is not only related purely by blood, but certain external factors such as marriage.

Another distinctive example is the kinship term "uncle." According to Ullmann (1962), the English word "uncle" "comes via French from the Latin avunculus, which meant only one kind of uncle, namely, the motherís brother, whereas the fatherís brother was called patruus. Since the latter word fell into disuse, the descendants of avunculus have come to stand for both kinds of uncle, so that the range of the Latin term has been doubled" (p. 228). In the Chinese language, there are as many as five terms for the concept of uncle: bo fu, shu fu, gu fu, jiu fu and yi fu, all indicating the different relations with ego, as shown in Diagram II.

It is obvious that the Chinese language has more kinship terms than the English language. Then, some questions are raised: Why does the Chinese language have so many kinship terms? Are there any reasons for Chinese people to consider seriously all those consanguineal, affinal, lineal and collateral relations? Can we find some natural links between this aspect of language and Chinese culture? Yotsukura (1977) states, "[L]anguage and culture are fused as denotation and connotation of words. Thus, when linguists try to analyze language in toto, they cannot avoid referring to the culture behind language. Analyzing language requires analyzing culture" (p. 270). Assuredly, behind the kinship terms in the Chinese language, there must be some relevant influential factors of Chinese culture.

The Cultural Connotation of Chinese Kinship Terms

The development of the system of Chinese kinship terms is, first and foremost, influenced by the family-centered economy in Chinese tradition. For thousands of years, people in rural areas have been living separately in small villages. In many cases a village constitutes a large family. All the villagers share one family name and have the same ancestors. A village usually has a temple called the hall of ancestors in which all the memorial tablets (pieces of wood written with the names of the dead symbolizing the souls of them) of the ancestors are placed and worshipped. Inside this big family, members are labeled with specific kinship terms according to their age, generation, sex, and other factors such as marriage. They can never get confused about their relations with the other members. For example, if oneís father has three elder brothers and two younger brothers, then he can call them, respectively, first bo fu, second bo fu, third bo fu, first shu fu and second shu fu. In the broad family (the village) the ordinal number becomes even higher. You may hear someone call another villager seventh bo mu or ninth shu fu. Because people of this village consider themselves the same as a family writ-large, incest is firmly prohibited. One can never marry his aunt even if he is older than her; and very often people of the same age are from different generations. This paperís authors are with a student in China who has several nephews and nieces who are more than thirty years older than she. As a result, she always feels embarrassed when white-bearded old men or wrinkle-faced old ladies call her aunty.

Chinese people value the close family relationship and prefer living together with or near their families. About two thousand five hundred years ago, Chinaís great teacher and philosopher Confucius educated his people not to study or work far away from home while their parents were still alive. This concept has since become one of the traditions of Chinese culture. Even in todayís society, many people working far away from home feel certain kinds of guilt simply because they are not able to live with or near their aged parents or grandparents. Those aged persons would feel proud to have four generations living in the same house, and would consider their childrenís presence as the greatest family happiness. Because of this concept of close family ties, Chinese families are usually very large. Since people prefer living with or near their families, family members encounter each other frequently in daily routine; therefore, it is convenient for them to keep those precise kinship terms.

The value regarding the system of respect may be the second reason why the Chinese language has a large number of kinship terms. In China, it is a general rule that the younger generation must respect the older generation. Kinship terms such as grandparents, parents, or even elder brother, represent authority and superiority while kinship terms such as son, daughter, grandson, granddaughter, or even younger brother and younger sister, suggest inferiority and obedience. According to the feudal idea, a father not only owns respect from his children but also has the right to guide, teach, abuse, beat or even kill them. Thus the relationship between a father and a son is not simply a kinship term vs. another, but respected vs. respect, order vs. obedience, lord vs. servant. Lu Xun (1881-1936), the greatest writer of modern China, tells a very funny and bitter anecdote in his most famous short story "The True Story of Ah Q." Ah Q, a spiritually weak poor peasant, always comforted himself by the means of winning a psychological victory. Frequently, he was scorned and abused by a group of idlers.

If the idlers were still not satisfied, but continued to bait him, they would in the end come to blows. Then only after Ah Q had, to all appearances, been defeated, had his brownish pigtail pulled and his head bumped against the wall four or five times, would the idlers walk away, satisfied at having won. Ah Q would stand there for a second, thinking to himself, "It is as if I were beaten by my son. What is the world coming to nowadays. . . ." Thereupon he too would walk away, satisfied at having won. (Lu, 1974, pp. 32-33)

Here, Ah Q was greatly satisfied only by thinking of himself as the othersí father.

Kinship terms play a very important role in daily life because, according to Chinese tradition, the inferior is not allowed to call the superior by name, for that is considered against morality and the social order. In feudal society in China, the names of the sovereign and parents were taboo and could not be used except in a mutilated form. For example, in the most influential classic novel, Dream of the Red Chamber, the heroine Lin Dayu, a beauty from a rich family, "always reads the character Ďminí as Ďmií and writes it with a stroke missing" in school simply because the name of her mother is "min" (Tsao, 1957, p.24). This is historical and can be found in literature, but many people today still stick to this conception and refuse to call their parents or the sovereign by name.

The over-emphasis on the differences between consanguineal and affinal relations might be another reason why Chinese have so many terms for kinsmen. As previously mentioned, maternal grandfather and grandmother in the Chinese language are wai zu fu and wai zu mu, with wai literally meaning "outside". Because of the long tradition of discrimination against women, wives are looked upon as outsiders of the family and daughters future outsiders. In feudal society, women were bound by terrible spiritual fetters, namely the three obediences (to father before marriage, to husband after marriage, and to son after the death of husband), and the four virtues (morality, proper speech, modest manner and diligent work). Since they are outsiders or future outsiders of the family, they usually have no say in family business and have few benefits. Of course, things have changed a great deal in recent decades and today women are not looked down upon as they once were. Nevertheless, the dividing line between consanguineal and affinal relations, which has created so many kinship terms, still exists.

The Communicative Function of Chinese Kinship Terms

The intricate kinship system in the Chinese language not only reflects a unique culture, but also has some practical uses in human communication. According to Dance and Larson (1976), human communication basically has three functions which are realized without conscious effort. They are the linking function, the mentation function, and the regulatory function. Chinese kinship terms carry all three of these communicative functions.

The linking function of human communication states that communication is used to establish relationships between the individual and the environment, and that people use symbols to create a desired image to facilitate this linking to the environment. Thus, the individual is consubstantial with society. Although it may be necessary that newborn infants link first with themselves before they become able to link completely with their environment, in the earliest stages of human development, communication will assist them in organizing their physiology and in adapting to their physical environment. Without linking to the surrounding environment via communication, infants cannot have the concept of "self," and they cannot develop human behavior. For example, children who have been nurtured by wild animals have exhibited either a total lack or a marked delay in the development of human communication simply because they have never established a normal relationship with human society. Another example is that infants born with faulty sensory mechanisms, such as poor hearing or blindness, will have a difficult time in establishing a normal relationship with society because of their abnormality in linking function. The linking function plays an important role across the entire life span of an individual. It is "necessary not only for the development of self but also for the maintenance of self" (Dance and Larson, 1976, p. 70).

While this human communication function is to link an individual with the environment, the central operation of the linking function is in an individualís social environment. In other words, the essence of this function is to link people with other people, and the link is executed through human communication. Dance and Larson (1976) define communication as "that which ties, links, or connects any orderly relationships by providing the bond through which they may exist and may be perceived" (p. 60). In speech communication, language is used for interpersonal transactions or to communicate with others.

Chinese kinship terms are used as the linking function to initiate a conversation or a relation. Since Chinese family is a hierarchical institution, and the fact that seniority plays an important role in family relations, it is not appropriate for younger members to address older ones by names. Within the family those older or senior in generation are always addressed by the right kinship terms. Because a kinship term represents a memberís status in a family and his/her relations with other members, it is an unwritten law that people should be addressed by their kinship terms before any verbal communication could take place. If a child tries to talk to a senior member of the family without addressing the correct kinship term, he/she will be reprimanded as a disobedient child who knows no basic rules of the family and family relationships. Traditionally, even between husband and wife, one has to address the other by the kinship term, such as childís father or childís mother, to initiate a conversation.

The use of kinship terms as the linking function to initiate verbal communication does not stop at the boundaries of physical kinship. Actually, the Chinese apply kinship terms to people who are not related to them. This is the social function of the Chinese kinship terms. Tanaka (1977) points out, "In many societies some lexically identical terms are applied not only to formally recognized fictive kin (e.g. blood brothers, godparents, etc.), but to other nonkin as well, and sometimes not egocentrically at all. . . . The existence of such a phenomenon, if recognized, is rather casually interpreted as a self-evident case of the Ďmetaphoricalí or Ďfictiveí extension of the egocentric kinship ideology to wider social areas" (p. 211). In social communication, some of the kinship terms in the Chinese language can apply to any person according to the personís sex and relative age. A middle aged man traveling in unfamiliar places and asking for directions, would address an old man as da yie (big grandpa) or da bo, da shu (big uncle), a man of the same age as da ge (big elder brother), a woman of the same age as da jie or da sao (big elder sister), a child as xiao di di (little younger brother) or xiao mei mei (little younger sister). For a child, all the old men are grandpas, all the old women grandmas, all the middle aged men and women uncles and aunts, all the children older than him/her elder brothers and elder sisters. According to Baker (1979), using these terms is "not merely a politeness," but carries "the expectation of commensurate respectful treatment" (p. 163). Addressing others by kinship terms helps one initiate communication and gain compliance.

The mentation function means that communication stimulates the development of higher mental processes, and that mental growth is enhanced by communication. The key element in speech communication is language. Then, what is language? First, human language is a culturally determined set of systematized symbols. According to linguistic determinism, the world view of a culture is shaped and reflected by the language its members speak. Second, language is the expression or outlet of oneís thought and at the same time it serves as a tool for thought. Without clear and logical thought, oneís speech will be meaningless, while without the help of language, oneís cognitive process will be a chaos. As Piaget (1970) states, "Language, in short, is independent of the decisions of individuals; it is the bearer of multi-millennia traditions; and it is every manís indispensable instrument of thought" (p. 75).

Obviously, there are close links between language, culture, and thought. Then, how does speech communication, using language of the surrounding culture as a tool, stimulate the development of higher mental processes? Dance and Larson (1976) provide the explanation with the following example:

As the maturation process continues, the childís external speech communication is gradually internalized. The presumption is that as the child says "mama" aloud, it is also saying "mama" to itself, and then progresses to saying "mama" internally without needing the accompanying vocalization. This interior representation of "mama" elevates the childís capacity for displacement, for abstraction, and for flexibility in adaptation and control of self and environment. (p. 104)

When a child begins to use a signal, or signals, to interact with others or the environment, his/her development of higher mental processes also begins.

Unlike a name, a Chinese kinship term is a special symbol of the surrounding culture that carries many meanings. When a child addresses another family member with a kinship term, she is under the higher mental process of moving from an egocentric situation (seeing self at the center of everything) to a non-egocentric environment. She is also under the process of finding her right place in the web of the family and of society. For instance, when a child addresses her maternal grandfather by the kinship term of "wai zu fu," she may at least understand, or try to understand, the following: 1) she has a family relation with the old man, but the old man does not live in her family; 2) as a senior member, the old man has certain power over her, and she must respect and obey him; and 3) comparing with her paternal grandfather, this man is less powerful and less strict with her behavior. The single kinship term works as a stimulus in the childís mind to help the child go through a complicated cognitive process.

The third communicative function is termed the regulatory function. It is "the basis for the refinement and extension to humans of the host of methods of behavior regulation that operate upon all living organisms" (Dance and Larson, 1976, p. 129). The regulatory function has three developmental stages: the regulation of self by others, the regulation of self by self, and the regulation of others by self. Linguistic symbols are used in all these stages, and speech communication is a useful tool for regulating oneís personal behavior and for influencing the behavior of other people. Dance and Larson (1976) point out:

Speech communication always functions to regulate behavior, whether or not there is any intent by users of speech communication to control the behavior of themselves or of others. The initial acquisition of speech communication automatically limits (and thus regulates) our range of linguistic and thus behavioral options. Each language, manifested in speech communication, organizes experience differently." (p. 129)

As a culturally situated linguistic symbol, a Chinese kinship term carries this regulatory function that helps individuals regulate their personal behavior in speech communication.

The Chinese family system has been the most complex and well-organized in the world. For economic reasons, early Chinese families had to live together. Thus, long before Confucius, there developed the Chinese family system which provided Chinese philosophy with "a basis for regulating relationships between man and man" (Wang, 1968, p. 7). Complex and intimate family relationships were crucial to the Chinese people in pre-Confucius time. Yu-Lan Fung (1958), a renowned Chinese philosopher, finds, "In the Erh Ya, which is the oldest dictionary of the Chinese language, dating from before the Christian era, there are more than one hundred terms for various family relationships, most of which have no equivalent in the English language" (p. 21).

When Confucius started to teach his philosophy, he justified or theoretically explained this family system. According to Confucianism, the basic economic, political, and moral institution of Chinese society was family. In order to maintain social discipline and to keep people in their proper place, a family must be of a hierarchical structure and all the members in a family must conduct themselves properly according to their status. The Confucian "Five Code of Ethics" specifies five basic social relationships, which are those between sovereign and subject, father and son, elder and younger brother, husband and wife, and friend and friend. Since the relationship between sovereign and subject can be conceived in terms of that between father and son, and the one between friend and friend is regarded as a similar relation of that between elder and younger brother, all the five social relationships are actually family relationships. These hierarchical relationships are well regulated by the complicated system of kinship terms.


Chinese kinship system is a unique form of Chinese indigenous terms that has its roots deep in Chinese culture. It is the product of an agricultural society, a family-centered economy, and a hierarchical family system. This meticulous system of kinship terms not only reflects certain aspects of the Chinese value, but also carries several communicative functions, namely, the linking function, the mentation function, and the regulatory function, in speech communication. It deserves some attention from those who are interested in intercultural communication studies. This paper only serves as a brief introduction of this interesting and yet almost untouched phenomenon in cross-cultural communication. Further studies can be focused on the relations between a cultureís kinship system and the peopleís communicative behavior, the influence of a certain kinship system on different generations, using kinship terms by non-kins in speech communication, using kinship terms to gain compliance, and using kinship terms as a face-saving strategy in verbal interaction.


Baker, H. D. R. (1979). Chinese family and kinship. New York: Columbia University Press.

Blum, S. D. (1997). Naming practices and the power of words in China. Language in Society 26, 357-379.

Dance, F. E. X. & Larson, C. E. (1976). The functions of human communication: A theoretical approach. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Fung, Y. L. (1958). A short history of Chinese philosophy. New York: The MacMillan Company.

Hirschfeld, L. A. (1986). Kinship and cognition: Genealogy and the meaning of kinship terms. Current Anthropology Vol. 27, No. 3, 217-242.

Leach E. R. (1958). Concerning trobriand clans and the kinship category "tabu." In J. Goody (ed.), The developmental cycle in domestic groups (pp. 120-145). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lu, H. (1974). The true story of Ah Q. In W. J. Meserve & R. I. Meserve (eds.), Modern literature from China (pp. 27-66). New York: New York University Press.

Piaget, J. (1970). Structuralism. Trans. And ed. C. Maschler. New York: Harper & Row.

Tanaka, M. (1977). Kinship terminologies: The Okinawan case. In W. C. McCormack & S. A. Wurm (eds.), Language and thought (pp. 211-226). Paris: Mouton Publishers.

Trenholm, S., Jensen, A. (1992). Interpersonal Communication. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Tso, H. C. (1958). Dream of the red chamber. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books.

Ullmann, S. (1962). Semantics: An introduction to the science of meaning. Oxford: Basil Black Well.

Wang, G. H. (1968). The Chinese mind. New York: Greenwood Press.

Watson, J. L. (1982). Chinese kinship reconsidered: Anthropological perspectives on historical research. The China Quarterly, No. 92, 589-622.

Yotsukura, S. (1977). Ethnolinguistic introduction to Japanese literature. In W. C. McCormack & S. A. Wurm (eds.), Language and thought (pp. 262-270). Paris: Mouton Publishers.