1.1 Families and Communities in China

7 min readdecember 31, 2022

Emily Guo

Emily Guo



AP Chinese 🇨🇳

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Introduction to Chinese Families and Communities

This guide covers Chinese family structure and terminology. In traditional Chinese culture, family is a BIG DEAL and is super important to people's lives.
In this guide, you'll learn about the different roles and responsibilities of family members, as well as the importance of filial piety and respect for authority. We'll also cover the extended family and the different terms used to refer to aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives.
This guide will help you understand more about Chinese family culture and the importance of family in Chinese society. Get ready to ace your AP Chinese exam with your new knowledge!

What does a Typical Chinese Family look like?

Chinese Family Structure

Traditionally, family (家庭jiātíng) is extremely important to the Chinese. Much of life is centralized around family. A mother will be referred to by her child as 妈妈(māma), while the father will be called 爸爸(bàba). Historically, there have been other names to refer to parents, although the only ones commonly used formally will be 母亲(mǔqīn) for mother and 父亲(fùqīn) for father. There are specific names to refer to each member of your immediate family and extended family, shown in the table below. It is complicated, but don't be scared! Start with your immediate family members and slowly work your way through the extended family! There is a lot, but you can do this! You don't need to memorize the whole list, but being familiar with it is very helpful!) :

Related Vocabulary

Immediate Family

  • Mom—妈妈 (māma) or 母亲 (mǔqīn)
  • Dad—爸爸 (bàba) or 父亲 (fùqīn)
  • Wife—老婆 (lǎopó) or 妻子 (qīzi)
  • Husband—老公 (lǎogōng) or 丈夫 (zhàngfū)
  • Older Sister—姐姐 (jiějiě)
  • Older Brother— 哥哥 (gēgē)
  • Younger Sister—妹妹 (mèimei)
  • Younger Brother—弟弟 (dìdì)
  • Daughter—女儿 (nǚ'ér)
  • Son—儿子 (érzi)

Extended Family

  • Grandparents :
    • Maternal Grandmother—外婆 (wàipó) or 姥姥 (lǎolao)
    • Paternal Grandmother—奶奶 (nǎinai)
    • Maternal Grandfather—外公 (wàigōng) or 姥爷 (lǎoyé)
    • Paternal Grandfather—爷爷 (yéyé)
  • Aunts & Uncles:
    • Mom's Brother—舅舅 (jiùjiu)
    • Dad's Older Brother—伯伯 (bóbo)
    • Dad's Younger Brother—叔叔 (shūshu)
    • Dad's Sister's Husband—姑父 (gūfu)
    • Mom's Older Sister—姨妈 (yímā)
    • Mom's Younger Sister—阿姨 (āyí)
    • Mom's Brother's Wife—舅母 (jiùmā)
    • Dad's Older Sister—姑妈 (gūmā)
    • Dad's Younger Sister—姑姑 (gūgū)
    • Dad's Older Brother's Wife—伯母 (bómǔ)
    • Dad's Younger Brother's Wife—婶婶 (shěnshen)
  • Cousins (based off if they have the same last name as you):
    • Dad's Brother's Son (older than you) (same last name)—堂哥 (táng gē)
    • Dad's Brother's Son (younger than you) (same last name)—堂弟 (táng dì)
    • Dad's Brother's Daughter (older than you) (same last name)—堂姐 (táng jiě)
    • Dad's Brother's Daughter (younger than you) (same last name)—堂妹 (táng mèi)
    • Dad's Sister's or Mom's Sibling's Son (older than you) (different last name)—表哥 (biǎo gē)
    • Dad's Sister's or Mom's Sibling's Son (younger than you) (different last name)—表弟 (biǎo dì)
    • Dad's Sister's or Mom's Sibling's Daughter (older than you) (different last name)—表姐 (biǎo jiě)
    • Dad's Sister's or Mom's Sibling's Daughter (younger than you) (different last name)—表妹 (biǎo mèi)
  • Nephews & Nieces:
    • Sister's daughter—外甥女 (wàishēngnǚ)
    • Brother's daughter—侄女 (zhínǚ)
    • Sister's son—外甥 (wàishēng)
    • Brother's son—侄子 (zhízi)
  • In-Laws:
    • Wife's mother—岳母 (yuèmǔ)
    • Husband's mother—婆婆 (pópo)
    • Wife's father—岳父 (yuèfù)
    • Husband's father—公公 (gōnggong)
    • Older Sister's Husband—姐夫 (jiěfū)
    • Older Brother's Wife—嫂子 (sǎo zi)
    • Younger Sister's Husband—妹夫 (mèifū))
    • Younger Brother's Wife—弟妇 (dìfù)
    • Daughter-in-Law—儿媳妇 (ér xífù)
    • Son-in-Law—女婿 (nǚxù)
  • Grandchildren:
    • Granddaughter (through your son)—孙女 (sūnnǚ)
    • Granddaughter (through your daughter)—外孙女 (wàisūnnǚ)
    • Grandson (through your son)—孙子 (sūnzi)
    • Grandson (through your daughter)—外孙子 (wàisūnzi)
AND THAT ⬆️ wraps up the extremely complicated family tree in Chinese-speaking societies. Any questions? 👀

Families in Chinese Society

In the past, as reflected through some of the family terms listed above (notice the use of the word 外 (wài), meaning outside, to describe those related through females in the family). Once a woman got married, she lived with her husband's family. This brings her "closer" to the family she married into, therefore the relatives on her side are considered 外.
In addition to this, traditionally, Chinese societies are patriarchal and men are seen as carrying down the lineage. In traditional Chinese culture, the family structure is all about showing respect and loyalty to your parents and ancestors. It's a hierarchical system, with the oldest male at the head of the household making decisions for the whole family. Compared to other countries, when a woman in a Chinese-speaking society gets married, she does not take her husband's last name. This stresses the fact that the woman is seen as 外, once again tying back to how her relatives are also considered 外.
In this structure, the father is the main provider and head of the household. He's responsible for financial support and important family decisions. The role of women in families was to continue the family line and bear sons. They were then expected to be taking care of the home for the family. Men typically were the money makers and supported the family in public. The eldest son usually has the most responsibility in the family and is expected to carry on the family name and take care of his parents when they're older. The eldest daughter may also have an important role, especially if there's no son. Younger kids are expected to help out with household chores and show respect to their elders.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The image above is from 1904, where a Chinese immigrant is with his 3 wives and 14 children. This depicts the historical traditions and how a woman was expected to be submissive to her husband. Of course, times are changing and Chinese society is becoming more modern, so the traditional family structure has evolved a bit. But the idea of filial piety and the importance of the family unit are still very strong in Chinese culture.
That brings it to the present, where there have been changes slowly made to the traditional culture, but since it has been such a large part of Chinese culture, the change is progressively slow. In comparison to the West, relying on family and being dependent on one another is an important part of Chinese society, while independence is strongly supported in the West. This can be reflected through the living habits of Chinese-speaking communities. Many households have three generations living under one roof, leading to the grandparents having a larger say in the youngest generations' life through influence.

Related Vocabulary

  • 家庭(jiātíng)—Family
  • 屋子(wūzi)or 房子(fángzi)—House
  • 父权制(fùquánzhì)—Patriarchal
  • 父系的(fùxì de)—Patrilineal
  • 传统(chuántǒng)—Traditional
  • 现代(xiàndài)—Modern
  • 洋气(yángqì)—Western Style
  • 城市(chéngshì)—City
  • 乡下(xiāngxià)or 农村(nóngcūn)—Countryside/Rural
  • 结婚(jiéhūn)—Marry
  • 离婚(líhūn)—Divorce
  • 单身妈妈(dānshēn māmā)/单亲妈妈(dānqīn māmā)—Single mother
  • 单身爸爸(dānshēn bàba)/单亲爸爸(dānqīn bàba)—Single father

Chinese Social Customs, Traditions, and Values

Chinese families and communities place a strong emphasis on social customs, traditions, and values. Here are a few examples:
  1. Filial piety: Respect, obedience, and loyalty to one's parents and ancestors are highly valued in Chinese culture. Children are expected to show their parents respect and to care for them in their old age. Filial piety is so important that we dedicated a whole section of our study guide to it ! (see next section ⬇️)
  2. Respect for authority: In traditional Chinese society, there is a strong emphasis on hierarchy and respect for authority. Elders are typically respected for their wisdom and experience, and it is expected that younger people will show them deference and obedience.
  3. Harmony: Maintaining harmony and avoiding conflict is considered very important in Chinese culture. Conflicts are often resolved through mediation and compromise rather than confrontation.
  4. Hard work: Hard work and diligence are highly valued in Chinese culture. Success is often measured by one's ability to work hard and achieve goals.
  5. Loyalty: Loyalty to family, friends, and community is highly valued in Chinese culture. It is expected that people will support and stand by their loved ones, even in difficult times.
  6. Education: Education is highly valued in Chinese culture and is seen as a way to improve one's status and prospects in life.
  7. Traditional festivals: Chinese families and communities often celebrate traditional festivals, such as the Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival, which are occasions for family gatherings and cultural traditions.
  8. Respect for tradition: Chinese culture places a strong emphasis on preserving and respecting traditional customs and values. This includes respect for one's ancestors and the importance of maintaining cultural traditions.

Family Influence on Values, Beliefs, and Traditions

Respect for Elders

In Chinese 🇨🇳 culture, as well as many other Asian cultures, respect for your elders is very important, and it's based off the idea that elders have more knowledge and wisdom than the younger generations. Knowing the Confucianism concept filial piety is valuable because it is such a core value.
For a little background, Confucius explained the concept of filial piety in the 4th century BCE in the book 孝经 (xiào jīng) (Classic of Filial Piety). This book became commonly used throughout education in China for the following centuries Confucianism has been an extremely important part of Chinese culture.
Filial piety (孝顺(xiàoshùn)) says that children must respect, obey, and take care of their elders, including their parents. This is because parents provide so much to their children while they are growing up, so the children are always needing to repay that favor by obeying, respecting, and helping their parents for their entire lives. Even so, they are always considered indebted to their parents. Filial piety can be considered one of the most important traditional values to the Chinese. Individuals who follow filial piety are treated as good children. If they are unfilial, they usually are treated as being separate from the community and are shunned.

Related Vocabulary

  • 孝顺(xiàoshùn)—Filial Piety
  • 尊重(zūnzhòng)—Respect

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