As someone who married into a Taiwanese family, I speak from experience when I tell you that there is nothing more important than family here. Taiwanese people tend to be close with their families and are often willing to go above and beyond to help out a family member in need.
Family Culture in Taiwan
Three-generation households are still fairly common in Taiwan, which keeps family members especially close and allows them to lean on one another for support. Traditionally, women move into their husband’s family home and live with his parents. Parents often continue to help their sons financially into adulthood and even become the main caregivers for grandchildren while parents are at work.
Likewise, young people are expected to respect their elders and help take care of them as they age. A word that is often used in Mandarin Chinese here is 孝順 (xiàoshùn), which translates to “filial piety.” This word refers to a respect for one’s parents and elders, and is the most fundamental Confucian value. If you take good care of your parents and grandparents, people might say “你很孝順" (nǐ hěn xiàoshùn – you are very filial).
Besides taking care of their elders, a major way that people express respect is by addressing relatives by their proper titles. In North America, we’re used to calling most of our relatives by their first names, but that would be seen as rude in Taiwan, especially when it comes to greeting older relatives. Instead, you should greet them by saying who they are in relation to you. For instance, when I see my husband’s dad’s brother, I nod and say, “叔叔” (shúshu - uncle).
Unfortunately, the names for family members aren’t quite as simple as they are in English. The cultural importance of family is reflected in the language, with each family member having a very specific title. For example, Chinese has eight different words for cousins, depending on the gender of that person, whether they are on your mother’s side or your father’s side of your family, and whether they are older or younger than you.
While memorizing all these different terms can be a bit of a headache, they’ll come in handy if you need to introduce your family members to friends, or even more so if you marry into a Taiwanese family. In addition, some of these family titles are also used as polite or friendly ways to address people who aren’t related to you.
Immediate Family Members in Chinese
Let’s start with the basics: your immediate family members. These people are who you would usually call your family, or 家人 (jiārén).
|English||Traditional Chinese||Simplified Chinese||Pinyin|
Just like in English, father (父親 fùmǔ) and mother (母親 mǔqīn) are more formal words. Most children call their dad 爸爸 (bàba) or, even more casually, 爸 (bà), and call their mom 媽媽 (māma) or simply 媽 (mā). You can also combine these words and say 爸媽 (bàmā) as a casual way to say parents, rather than saying 父母 (fùmǔ).
Extended Family Members or Relatives in Chinese
Beyond your immediate family, you also have relatives, or 親戚 (qīnqì). This is where things get tricky! Let’s start by going up a level on the family tree and looking at how to address grandparents.
How to Say Grandparents in Chinese:
- Paternal grandpa: 爺爺 yéye
Or: 阿公 āgōng (from the Taiwanese language)
- Paternal grandma: 奶奶 nǎi nai
Or: 阿嬤 āmà (from Taiwanese)
- Maternal grandpa: 外公 wàigōng
- Maternal grandma: 外婆 wàipó
Notice that the Chinese terms for maternal grandparents both start with the character 外 (wài), meaning “outside.” In Chinese culture, the family unit is traditionally based around the father and his surname, so the mother’s relatives are considered to be “outside” of the family.
Grandparents also address their daughter’s children according to this naming system. So, for their daughter’s children, they would call their grandson 外孫 (wàisūn) and their granddaughter 外孫女 (wàisūnnǚ). In comparison, their son’s children would be called 孫子 (sūnzi) and 孫女 (sūnnǚ).
How to Say Uncle & Aunt in Chinese:
There are quite a few different words for aunt and uncle, depending on which side of the family they are from and whether they are the younger or older sibling. Below are the terms that are usually used in Taiwan.
- Father's older brother: 伯父 bófù
- Father's younger brother: 叔叔 shúshu
- Father’s sister’s husband: 姑丈 gūzhàng
- Mother's brother: 舅舅 jiùjiu
- Mother’s sister’s husband: 姨丈 yízhàng
- Father's sister: 姑姑 gūgu
- Father’s brother’s wife: 嬸嬸 shěnshen
- Mother's sister: 姨媽 yímā
Or: 阿姨 āyí
- Mother’s brother’s wife: 舅媽 jiùmā
How to Say Cousin in Chinese:
If you thought there were a lot of words for aunt and uncle in Chinese, wait ‘til you see the list for cousin! Thankfully, there is a clear pattern to these terms, so they aren’t too hard to memorize.
The terms for cousins on your father’s side all start with the character 堂(táng) followed by the word for older/younger brother or sister, depending on the cousin’s gender and whether they are older or younger than you.
- 堂哥 tánggē = older male cousin on dad’s side
- 堂弟 tángdì = younger male cousin on dad’s side
- 堂姊 tángjiě = older female cousin on dad’s side
- 堂妹 tángmèi = younger female cousin on dad’s side
For cousins on your mother’s side, the terms follow the same pattern, but they all start with the character 表 (biǎo).
- 表哥 biǎogē = older male cousin on mom’s side
- 表弟 biǎodì = younger male cousin on mom’s side
- 表姊 biǎojiě = older female cousin on mom’s side
- 表妹 biǎomèi = younger female cousin on mom’s side
Starting Your Own Family
If you get married to a Taiwanese person and start your own family, you’ll probably also want to know how to introduce them!
How to say wife in Chinese:
- 妻子 qīzi is a more formal but also a more respectable term
- 太太 tàitài
This word also means “Mrs.” and can be used in front of a woman’s husband’s surname. For example, 張太太 (Zhāng tàitài) = Mrs. Chang (Chang is her husband’s surname.)
- 老婆 lǎopó
This word is more colloquial and affectionate and used to talk about one's own wife with close friends “我老婆說...”, or even to address one's own wife directly in which case the second syllable is pronounced drawn out longer.
How to say husband in Chinese:
- 丈夫 zhàngfū
- 先生 xiānshēng
This word also means “Mr.” It can be used as a title for married or non-married men.
- 老公 lǎogōng
This word is more colloquial and affectionate and used to talk about one's own husband with close friends “我老公說...”, or even to address one's own husband directly, again, with the second syllable drawn out longer.
How to say children in Chinese:
- 孩子 háizi = children
- 兒子 érzi = son
- 女兒 nǚ’ér = daughter
Addressing Others as Family Members
In Chinese, it’s common to use the words for family members to address others as well. Talking to others as if they are family makes people feel closer. When addressing elders, this is a sign of respect.
The word “uncle” (叔叔 shúshu) can be used for talking about older men, while the word “auntie” (阿姨 āyí) can be used for older women. The words “older brother” (哥哥 gēge) and “older sister” (姊姊 jiějie) are also often used to express affection to people who are slightly older, especially by children. When using any of these terms for elders, make sure that the person you are addressing is near the age (or older than) your actual aunts/uncles. Otherwise, people might be offended and think you are calling them old!
When learning and using these words for family members, it’s important to take cultural context into consideration. Many of the Chinese words for family members don’t exist in English, or they aren’t used in the same way. Since family is such a central part of Chinese and Taiwanese culture, it’s important to learn about these words and the ideas behind them. With this knowledge and vocabulary, you’ll be well-equipped to handle any family situation in Taiwan!
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