Chinese family naming system

So, I just addressed the last of the save-the-date postcards this weekend. I went to my parents' place for Chinese New Year dinner and tried to pry a few more relatives' addresses out of them. I think about wedding guests in a very relational way, with associated responsibilities. For example, if it's through my dad's side that I am related to this person and are therefore inviting them, I expect my dad to help with procuring the necessary information.

We did the same thing in the first round with getting addresses for Dan's side of the guest list, but my parents have been less forthcoming. I think they're a bit of the attitude, "if you can't reach someone via email, why bother with mailing addresses, just use the phone." They played it off as giving me an opportunity to reach out to my cousins for their parents' addresses. Luckily, these cousins came through for me, and very quickly at that, too, so I looked up the last few kinship terms on this helpful chart and wrote them out in my likely worse than a Chinese kindergardener's writing. It's the thought that counts, yeah?


I'd mentioned briefly in the last post about the save-the-date postcards about how I had to look up then which were the right terms to use for different family members, based on how I'm related to them. This chart I found this time around, though, better visually describes the precision to which you can name a relationship in the Confucian system.

Really gives you a sense for a non-Western culture in which your relationship to other people and your relative ages are more important than your individuality, since at family gatherings, you wouldn't really address anyone outside of your own generation with their given names. Instead, you'd use the appropriate kinship term (after a hushed conference with your parents, generally) and respectfully greet everyone. "Hello, 3rd uncle older than my father, 3rd uncle's wife. Hello, 2nd aunt older than my father, 2nd aunt's husband."

It's a complicated system, but it mostly makes sense since it's all based around the principles of increasing respect with increasing age (and a bit of, more important to distinguish males than females, which sometimes sets my mom off on how Confusion culture is patriarchal, which I'm really amused by because she mostly lives a feminist life but doesn't usually go off on feminist rants). It makes more sense to me than the Western system with all the "once removed" or first/second/etc. business. I can mostly remember the Chinese kinship terms now, though it's nice to be to easily look them up now too (yay Internet!) but I can never remember the right designations in the Western system.

Anyway, just wanted to share a bit of Chinese culture there, since in general people seem to find it interesting that I often have no idea what my relatives' real full names are (in English or in Chinese), because I only know them by their numbered designation.

4 comments:

Love Your Way said...

You are blowing my mind-hole, girl.

Sarah said...

This is fascinating. I knew it was complicated, but I have no idea how.

Ms. Bunny said...

I know what you mean with the addresses. I got in a minor tiff over inviting my mom's cousins (I haven't seen them in yeeeeeeeears but my mom insists we invite them). You would think after I gave in, she would quickly give me the addresses. But it's been worse than pulling teeth.

Lisa said...

I second Lizzie's mindhole comment. this is so cool, thanks for sharing with us. also, the whole searching for addresses thing was so annoying, best of luck with that! I hope yours goes smoother than my 'adventure' to find addresses

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