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Learn Mandarin: How to Use Chinese Characters to build Family Relationship Names

written by: Sujanti Djuanda • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 6/6/2012

Chinese families are hierarchical and paternal, (father’s families are internal and mother’s families are external). There is a title for each immediate and extended family member on both paternal and maternal side. Generally, they're built from the same radicals/characters in different combinations

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    Families

    【jiā=home】

    【rén=people】

    家人【jiārén=families, the literal meaning is home people】

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    Chinese Immediate Family Members

    Husband and Wife

    【zhàng=a form of address for certain male relatives by marriage】

    【fū= husband】

    丈夫【zhàngfū= husband】

    【qī= wife】in which 【nǚ】is the base-structured radical; it’s often used to describe anything that related to female.

    【zǐ= person】

    妻子【qīzi= wife, the literal meaning is wife person】

    【fū= husband】

    【qī= wife】in which 【nǚ】is also the base-structured radical

    夫妻【fūqī= husband and wife】

    【lǎo=old】

    【gōng= male】

    老公【lǎogōng= <informal> husband, the literal meaning is old male】

    【pó= old woman】using【nǚ】for the base-structured radical

    老婆【lǎopo=<informal> wife, the literal meaning is old woman】

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    Examples in use

    Parents【fù=father】

    【mǔ= mother】

    父母【fùmǔ=parents, father and mother】

    Description:

    【bà】,【ma】, 爸爸 【bàba】and 妈妈 【māma】 are used to call the parents and mention them in the third-person.

    Example 1:

    I really miss my parents.

    【wǒ=I】【hěn=really】 想念【xiǎngniàn=miss】【wǒ=my】 爸爸【bàba=father】 妈妈【māma=mother】。

    Or you can say," 【wǒ=I】 【hěn=really】 想念【xiǎngniàn=miss】 【wǒ=my】 爸妈【bàma=parents】。"

    我 很 想念 我 爸爸 妈妈。

    我 很 想念 我 爸妈。

    Example 2:

    Father, I want to buy an iPod

    爸爸【bàba=father】, 【wǒ=I】 【xiǎng=want to】 【mǎi=buy】 一个【yīgè=an】iPod。

    爸爸,我 想买 一个 iPod。

    Mother, I want to buy an iPod

    妈妈【māma=mother】,【wǒ=I】 【xiǎng=want to】 【mǎi=buy】 一个【yīgè=an】iPod。

    妈妈,我 想 买 一个 iPod。

    When Chinese people call their both parents at the same time, they usually use the abbreviation 【ba】for 爸爸【bàba】and【ma】for 妈妈【māma】.

    Example:

    Dad, Mom, I want to buy an iPod.

    【ba=father】, 【ma=mother】, 【wǒ=I】 【xiǎng=want to】 【mǎi=buy】 一个【yīgè=an】iPod

    爸,妈,我 想 买 一个 iPod.

    *Chinese people don’t say," 【fù=father】, 【mǔ=mother】,【wǒ=I】 【xiǎng=want to】【mǎi=buy】 一个【yīgè=an】iPod"。

    * incorrect ,母, 我 想 买 一个 iPod。

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    Sons and Daughters

    【ér=child】

    【zi=child】

    儿子【érzi= son, the literal meaning is child child】

    【nǚ=female】

    【ér=child】

    女儿【nǚ'ér=daughter, the literal meaning is female child】

    Brothers and Sisters

    【gē= older brother】

    哥哥 【gēgē=older brother】

    【dì= younger brother】

    弟弟 【dìdi=younger brother】

    【jiě= older sister】in which 【nǚ】is used as a radical describing female.

    姐姐 【jiějie=older sister】

    【mèi= younger sister】in which 【nǚ】is also the left radical,

    妹妹 【mèimèi=younger sister】

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    The Extended Family

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    Grandfathers and Grandmothers

    【yé= grandfather】

    爷爷 【yéye= (paternal) grandfather】

    【nǎi= milk】in which 【nǚ】as the left radical, it’s often used to describe anything that related to female.

    奶奶 【nǎinai=(paternal) grandmother, the literal meaning is milk milk】

    【wài= external】

    【gōng= male】

    外公 【wàigong=(maternal) grandfather, the literal meaning is external male】or

    公公 【gōnggong= (maternal) grandfather, the literal meaning is male male】

    【wài= external】

    【pó= old woman】in which 【nǚ】is the base-structured radical; it’s often used to describe anything that related to female.

    外婆 【wàipó= (maternal) grandmother, the literal meaning is external old woman】or

    婆婆 【pópo=(maternal) grandmother, the literal meaning is old woman old woman】

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    Uncles and Aunts

    【bó= father's older brother, uncle】in which【rén】 is the left radical, it’s often used to describe anything that related to person.

    【fù=father】

    伯父【bófù= father's older brother, uncle; the literal meaning is father's older brother father】

    【mǔ= mother】

    伯母【bómǔ= wife of father's older brother, aunt, the literal meaning is father’s older brother mother】

    【shū= father's younger brother, uncle】used with

    【fù=father】is

    叔父【shūfù= father's younger brother, uncle, the literal meaning is father’s younger brother father】

    【mǔ= mother】is used with 【shū= father's younger brother, uncle】to make

    叔母【shūmǔ= wife of father's younger brother, aunt, the literal meaning is father’s younger brother mother】

    【jiù= mother's brother】is used with

    【fù=father】and

    【jiù= mother's brother】to make

    舅父【jiùfù= mother's brother, uncle, the literal meaning is mother’s brother father】

    so

    【mǔ= mother】with 【jiù= mother's brother】becomes

    舅母【jiùmǔ= wife of mother's brother, aunt, the literal meaning is mother’s brother mother】

    【nǚ】as the left radical, used to describe anything that related to female. is part of

    【gū= father's sister, aunt, sister-in-law】and with

    【mā= mother】becomes

    姑妈【gūma= father's sister, aunt, the literal meaning is father’s sister mother】

    【gū= father's sister, aunt, sister-in-law】and

    【zhàng=a form of address for certain male relatives by marriage】becomes

    姑丈【gūzhàng= husband of father's sister, uncle, the literal meaning is father’s sister male】

    【ā=Ah】is added word, it doesn’t have a specific meaning. When used with

    【yí= mother's sister, aunt, sister-in-law】becomes

    阿姨【āyí= mother's sister, aunt】

    【yí= mother's sister, aunt, sister-in-law】 is used in

    姨丈【yízhàng=husband of mother's sister, uncle, the literal meaning is mother’s sister male】

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    Building blocks

    Now that you have seen how many family member names are building blocks which become part of another character, to carry the meaning of that character into the new word, you can try to start recognizing radicals inside other characters.

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    Pronunciation

    To learn how to pronounce many of these words, read Learning Chinese: Chinese Tonal Pronunciation Explained to Learn Pinyin

    In this article, you will find out how you should should say 人【rén=people】, 姑【gū= father's sister, aunt, sister-in-law】, 老【lǎo=old】, and 外【wài= external】, to pick an example of each of the four tones.

    Otherwise, you could say 妈【mā= mother】(first tone) with the wrong tone, and have (third tone) mean horse, instead of mom.

    Perhaps not what Mom would appreciate. :)