I recently watched two videos by Off The Great Wall, a YouTube channel that makes videos concerning the Chinese culture and also things about Mandarin and Cantonese. It’s an excellent channel, and I highly recommend that you subscribe to it and watch their videos. But back to the videos I was talking about. These videos talk about the immensely complicated and detailed family tree in Mandarin and Cantonese. You can see the videos at (Mandarin) and at If you’re a Mandarin or Cantonese speaker, see if you can recognize all the words!
So, let’s get down to business. The kinship systems in Mandarin and Cantonese are essentially the Indian kinship systems on steroids, with names for extremely specific members of the family across several generations. I find that this says something about the cultures in question. I have noticed that in countries where specific terms exist for certain members of the family, there often are joint-family households or families living in close proximity. In India, grandparents, and even great-grandparents live in a main house with the children and grandchildren. Even aunts and uncles may live with them. From what I have heard from my Chinese friends, it is similar in China.
There is a great sense of familial togetherness, honor, and respect for the elders in both Chinese and Indian culture. I’m not saying that this is not the case in Western cultures, but in many European countries, families are typically nuclear families, with only parents and children living in the house. Grandparents may live with them, but it is considerably rarer than in India and China. In the US, parents often make a point of children moving out and living on their own with their own families, with a stress on the independence factor. I have a feeling that this has something to do with the kinship terminology.
In Spanish, Portuguese, and other Romance languages, there are few terms that extend beyond great-grandparents, cousins, and uncles and aunts. In Chinese, in contrast, according to the video, relatives can be distinguished by the side of the family they’re on in relation to you, who they’re married to, and their age. In the Chinese culture, there is a great stress on knowing your family very well, and it is considered poor upbringing (from what I have been told) to not know the correct terms or use them incorrectly.
Terms that extend beyond great-grandparents in Romance languages are often technical terms for genealogical purposes, whereas in Mandarin and Cantonese, the equivalent terms are used often, even if the relative in question is no longer living or not present. In Indian languages, there is more emphasis on terminology that concerns in-laws, and people insist on using them correctly. While you certainly would never call your mother-in-law saas to her face, but you would use that word to call her indirectly. With all these things in mind, it would be very easy to say that Western cultures are not as close with their families.
However, there is a counterargument to all of this: Latin American and Southern Italian families. These cultures are well known for their tight-knit extended family households, but Spanish and Italian lack the specificity of the Indian languages and Mandarin and Cantonese. However, this could be a result of societies that are historically agrarian, include village communities, and have tribal divisions, in which all members of the family would participate in daily matters and create the community. These are factors that are common to Latin America, Southern Italy, India, and China, though the American South is a notable exception due to the whole US’ rapid industrialization and technological advancement in 19th and 20th centuries.
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