Family Nomenclature

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Family Nomenclature


Branches. From the Tang dynasty (618-907) until the end of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) family nomenclature became more standardized with the efforts of successive imperial governments. By the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) the system of naming family relations, which had developed over three thousand years, was formally recorded and explained in the Grand Dictionary ofKangXi. A family tree is composed of several branches, with one trunk as the central point from which paternal and maternal kin deviate. Though regional variations of naming existed, in Mandarin (standard) Chinese, the character for father is Fu. The characters for grandfather are Zhu Fu and for grandmother, Zhu Mu. The character Wai is added to refer to one’s mother’s father, called Wai Zhu Fu, or mother’s mother, Wei Zhu Mu. The characters for great-grandfather are Zhen Zhu Fu. Those for great-great-grandfather are Gao Zhu Fu. Distant ancestors are called Yuan Zhu. The paternal uncle, or one’s father’s elder brother, is designated Bo, and a father’s younger brother is Shu. For deferential purposes the character Fu is often added to the characters for elder and younger paternal uncles, therefore called Bo Fu or Shu Fu respectively. In a broad sense the character Fu means head, or family head. Giving such a title to paternal brothers indicates their significant status in the family patriarchy.

Parents’ Brothers and Sisters. One’s mother’s brother, a maternal uncle, is called/zz/. Similarly, the character Fu can be added tojiu to indicate respect for the closest relation to one’s mother, and for the same generation of one’s own father. The character for one’s father’s sister is Gu often called Gu Ma and the mother’s sister is Yi, or often Yi Ma. The character Ma (mother) carried the same meaning as Mu explicitly indicating one’s close relations with both paternal and maternal sisters, who commonly assumed the role of second mother under certain circumstances.

Siblings. The character denoting one’s elder brother is Xiong and a younger brother is Di. The charactersZi (or alternatively/zVj and Met are used to refer to one’s elder sister and younger sister, respectively. The character Tang, meaning “internal,” refers to one’s cousins on paternal lines, and the character Biao, meaning “external,” refers to one’s cousins on maternal lines. Thus, sons of one’s father’s brother are designated as Tang Xiong for the eldest and Tang Di for the youngest; their sisters are accordingly called Tangjie for the eldest and Tang Mei for the youngest. For

cousins from one’s father’s sisters, the characters BiaoXiong are used for the elder male cousin and Biao Di for the younger male cousin. In similar manner, Biao Jie are used for the elder female cousin and Biao Mei for the younger female cousin. The character Biao also denotes one’s relationships with cousins from the mother’s brothers and sisters, and the usage is similar to the one for cousins from the father’s sisters. In some regions the character Gu is added prior to Biao to distinguish cousins of paternal lines from those of maternal lines.

Other Characters. There are other characters used to indicate family relations. A stepfather is referred to as// Fu and a stepmother zsJiMu. An adopting mother is addressed as Yang Mu a woman who raises a child to adulthood. A milk mother, or wet nurse, is called Ru Mu or Ru Ma. Also in traditional China there was a formal name for a father’s concubine, Shu Mu (secondary mother), as addressed by sons of the legal wife (first wife) or by sons of other concubines.

Strict Classification. The significance of family nomenclature in imperial China was in its strict classification of generation-gender patriarchy. The paternal male lineage enjoyed exclusive privileges, as was evident in all family rites, whereas the maternal-side members were generally considered “outsiders” because they did not carry the family surname. From the Ming dynasty onward, with the revitalization of kinship organizations after the Yuan dynasty, the clan or sib-group prevailed. In a clan society, “clan-elder-brother-father,” a literal translation of Zhu Bo Fu, was elevated to a position equal to one’s own father, because Zhu Bo Fu was the elder agnatic grandson of one’s father’s great-grandfather, being of the same line of descent, from one’s own great-grandfather.


Hugh D. R. Baker, Chinese Family and Kinship (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979).

Paul S. Ropp, ed., Heritage of China: Contemporary Perspectives on Chinese Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

H. P. Wilkinson, The Family in Classical China (Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1926).