A Guide to the Chinese Family Tree: Chinese Family Members' Names

November 18, 2023

Family is the cornerstone of Chinese society. Understanding the intricacies of the Chinese family structure is vital for grasping the culture, values, and social dynamics of this ancient civilization.

In this article, we will delve into the Chinese family tree, exploring the names given to the key family members, the roles they play within the family, and the values that underpin these relationships. We'll also address common questions about the Chinese family structure and its relevance in contemporary China.

The Chinese Family Tree

In China, it is common for three generations to live under one roof, creating a tightly-knit family unit. Chinese families have a mutual understanding that parents look after their children until they graduate, get a job, and can take care of themselves. At that moment, the parent(s) cease to help financially. Eventually, the children will return the favour once the parent(s) need care or are lonely. Parent(s) - usually the son's mother and/or father - will move into their kid's home, where they will care for their grandchild(ren).

So, let's start by examining the key family members' names:

Parents (父母 - Fùmǔ): The parents are the pillars of the family. They are revered and hold authority within the household.

Children (子女 - Zǐnǚ): Children are cherished and carry the family's hopes and legacy into the future. As with most languages, there is a collective name for kids (孩子 - Háizi).

Siblings (兄弟姐妹 - Xiōngdì Jiěmèi): Sibling relationships are highly valued, fostering lifelong bonds. Siblings can be further broken down depending on whether or not they are older or younger than you.

Chinese characters Pīnyīn English
母亲 mǔqin mother (formal)
妈妈 māma mom (informal)
父亲 fùqin father (formal)
爸爸 bàba dad (informal)
妻子 qīzi wife (formal)
老婆 lǎopo wife (informal)
丈夫 zhàngfu husband (formal)
老公 lǎogōng husband (informal)
哥哥 gēge older brother
姐姐 jiějie older sister
弟弟 dìdi younger brother
妹妹 mèimei younger sister
儿子 érzi son
女儿 nǚ'ér daughter

Grandparents (祖父母 - Zǔfùmǔ or 祖父 - Zǔfù for paternal grandparents, and 祖母 - Zǔmǔ for maternal grandparents): In China, lineage traced through the paternal side of the family. However, paternal and maternal grandparents can be distinguished further by their more common names.

Chinese characters Pīnyīn English
奶奶 nǎinai paternal grandmother
爷爷 yéye paternal grandfather
外婆 wàipó maternal grandmother
外公 wàigōng maternal grandfather
公公 gōnggong husband's father (father-in-law)
婆婆 pópo husband's mother (mother-in-law)
岳父 yuèfù wife's father (father-in-law)
岳母 yuèmǔ wife's mother (mother-in-law)

As you can imagine, your role in the family impacts the way you can refer to a relative, making it even more complicated when the extended family is concerned. Although grandparents are part of the extended family, in Chinese culture we can see them differently because they make up one of the three generations that live under one roof.

Extended Family Members in Chinese

If you've managed to keep up to this level, then you are doing well, but it only gets more complicated once the extended family gets involved. Many factors determine the name you use to refer to an aunt or uncle, such as age compared to your parent, whether they are from the paternal or maternal side of the family, or whether they married into the family or not.

For example, your father's older brother would be your 伯伯 bóbo and his younger brother 叔叔 shūshu, but you would refer to your mother's brothers (older and younger) as 舅舅 jiùjiu. For English speakers, an uncle is an uncle despite how you are related to them.

If that feels simple, then it will make you happy to know that aunts and uncles who married into the family require a completely different name. On the maternal side, your aunt's husband becomes your 姨夫 yífu, and your uncle's wife is your 舅母 jiùmu.

On the paternal side, once again, the age of your father's sibling is a huge factor. An incoming aunt marrying your older uncle would be a 伯母 bómǔ, while the younger uncle's wife is your 婶婶 shěnshen. The older aunt's husband is 姐夫 jiěfu, and the younger's is 妹夫 mèifu. With the majority of these names, the first character usually gives away whose spouse is called what. The best part of this information is that if a Chinese friend or student complains about how difficult your language is, then remind them of the family tree in Mandarin.

汉字 Pīnyīn English
伯伯 bóbo dad's older brother
叔叔 shūshu dad's younger brother
姑夫 gūfu dad's older sister's husband
姑夫 gūfu dad's younger sister's husband
舅舅 jiùjiu mom's older or younger brother
姑妈 gūmā dad's older sister
姑姑 gūgu dad's younger sister
伯母 bómǔ dad's older brother's wife
婶婶 shěnshen dad's younger brother's wife
姨妈 yímā mom's older sister
阿姨 āyí mom's younger sister
舅母 jiùmu mom's brother's wife
姨夫 yífu mom's sister's husband
姐夫 jiěfu older sister's husband
妹夫 mèifu younger sister's husband
嫂子 sǎozi older brother's wife
弟妹 / 弟妇 dìmèi / dìfù younger brother's wife

Just as with the aunts and uncles, the cousins also require different names depending on whose offspring they are.

Chinese characters Pīnyīn English
堂兄 tángxiōng older male cousin on dad's side
堂弟 tángdì younger male cousin on dad's side
堂姐 tángjiě older female cousin on dad's side
堂妹 tángmèi younger female cousin on dad's side
表哥 biǎogē older male cousin on mom's side; sometimes also an older male child of dad's sister
表弟 biǎodì younger male cousin on mom's side; sometimes also a younger male child of dad's sister
表姐 biǎojiě older female cousin on mom's side; sometimes also an older female child of dad's sister
表妹 biǎomèi younger female cousin on mom's side; sometimes also younger female child of dad's sister

The reason that the paternal side is more complicated is that they are seen as the more important side - carrying on the family name etc. Women in traditional China were departing their own family and joining their husband's family through marriage - an attitude reflected in the phrase 嫁出去 jià chūqù (to marry out).

Chinese extended family tree

Traditional Chinese Family Roles

- Mother and Father (母亲 - Mǔqīn and 父亲 - Fùqīn): In a traditional Chinese family, the mother is responsible for the household and upbringing of children, while the father is the primary breadwinner. These roles are evolving in modern China - as with many cultures - as women increasingly pursue careers.

- Children (子女 - Zǐnǚ): Children are expected to respect and obey their parents, and their success is seen as a reflection of the family's honour. Parents often place a strong emphasis on their children's education and success, believing it reflects well on the family. Ultimately, in a country where most families have a single child, the child is the investment.

- Extended Family (亲戚 - Qīnqi): Extended family members provide support and assistance when needed, reinforcing the sense of belonging.

- Grandparents (祖父母 - Zǔfùmǔ): They are respected figures who often help raise and educate the grandchildren. This help is vital, so the mother can take on a job and make money for the family in her more modern, updated role.

Chinese Family Values

- Filial Piety (孝 - Xiào): This Confucian concept emphasizes the duty of children to respect and care for their parents. It remains a cornerstone of Chinese family values.

- Respect for Elders (尊老爱幼 - Zūn Lǎo Ài Yòu): Chinese culture places great importance on respecting and caring for the elderly.

- Collectivism vs. Individualism: Collectivist values, such as a family's well-being, are prioritized over individual desires. The word family gets thrown around a lot to describe any collective, but the premise is to create an environment that everyone is proud to be in, and each member is willing to help one another out.

Common Questions About the Chinese Family

Is Family Important to Chinese People?

Yes, family is highly valued in Chinese culture.

Does China Have a One-Child Policy?

The one-child policy was in place, but it has been relaxed in recent years. As explained in this article by Brookings, the one-child policy was relaxed in 2016.

How Many Children Can Chinese Families Have?

As mentioned above, in 2016 the one-child policy came to an end, allowing families to have two children. The law has been altered since 2021, meaning that three children are now legally permitted. The policy changes have been driven by worries regarding an expected drop in population, an imbalance of males to females throughout China, plus other factors.

Do the Chinese Prefer to Have Sons Over Daughters?

The simple answer is yes.

Sons carry on the family name, meaning that sons were preferred because of the one-child policy. The elimination of the policy has also impacted the preferences of parents.


The Chinese family structure is a complex web of relationships, values, and traditions that continue to evolve alongside China's rapid modernization. Family remains a core pillar of Chinese society, and understanding these dynamics is crucial to appreciating the rich tapestry of Chinese culture and heritage.

As China continues to change and adapt to the contemporary world, many aspects of life in China are likely to be impacted. Yet, the position of importance placed on family is likely to stay for many centuries to come.

About the Author

Mehmet has been a struggler, learner, and maybe one day a solid grasper of the Chinese language and country thanks to his decade-plus spent in the Middle Kingdom.