Jade and Chinese Kinship Terms

金縷玉衣- Jin lu yu yi – Jade burial suit, with silk thread

I love jade. I just gave my oldest of my niece the name “xiao yu” little Jade. Sounds like a hooker name, but hey, maybe it’s not. I think “silver willow” or “soft ostrich” would be more hooker-sounding.

Last night this guy from Taiwan said that “There’s no real jade left in the world anymore.” I had just bought 7 jade rings for The Tea Party, and was a bit miffed to hear this. I think he’s talking about all of the knockoff jade types that are sold- not just glass but other forms.

But first: Chinese Family Names. They are so complex. Instead of just Niece and Nephew, we have “oldest brother’s female child” kind of specificity. There aren’t a lot of sites on the web about this, in English. I found two that have conflicting ideas on how I should refer to my niece: This color coded graph that looks like it was made by some ornery grandparents who were tired of their grandkids in America getting it wrong each time, and this official looking one, that only has the informal Mandarin words. In my UC-Berkeley classes, we learned about seven terms, that I now know are the informal (read: babytalk) versions. Dada, mama, sissy, and bro. (baba, mama, jiejie/meimei, gege/didi). It’s all good. It’s just that now I want to step it up a bit and I’m confused.

So first, I asked the Guys Who Sit in the Cafeteria at Work – and zap amazing-smelling Chinese food for their 2 hour lunch break- some nuances of family kinship terms. They argued, as they usually do, between whether I should call my three older sisters: da jie jie (big, ollder sister), zhong jiejie (medium older sister) and xiao jiejie (little older sister), using the big-medium-small to distinguish older female siblings, or to use the numbering system: yi jiejie (1 older sister), er jiejie (2 older sister) and san jiejie (3 older sister). I’ve heard both in movies and literature, but never knew why to do one or the other. These guys also didn’t have an answer for me regarding some MahJong rules. Useless, the lot of them!

So older brother’s girl child: Tang zhi nu (the official sounding one) OR 姪女 zhi nu (no tang). Me? to her, i’m 姑母 gu mao, but again we get in the weird situation of saying “of 4 father’s sisters”, so I may be si gu mao (fourth of dad’s sister).

A friend last night told me that because of the 1-child policy a lot of the depth of kinship terms have been wiped out. I can’t find a reference to this, but I did find a reference to iron brothers and sisters, creating kinship out of non-biological ties. Because of the one child policy, and moving into urban centers, the nuclear family expands beyond biological bounds.

The SF Gate food columnist Olivia, who is visiting family in Shanghai, writes that:

…In this case, “ayi” indicates these are my mother’s younger sisters. One of them, I address as “si ayi,” meaning she is the fourth of the girls. The other ayi is something like the 16th (yes — No. 16!), and I call her by her nickname, Hei, followed by ayi. The sisters older than my mother, I address as “yima.”

So similar sitaution, but it’s the maternal sister, not paternal sister, which is my case. So my niece can’t call me “si ayi” since she’s related to me through her father, so I am “si gu ma”.