What do the Chinese call their grandparents? It turns out that there is no simple answer. First, there are two Chinas: The People's Republic of China and Taiwan, also known by its official name, the Republic of China. In addition, there are different dialects within the countries. Also, because of the difference in alphabets, there is some disagreement about how to spell the words using the English alphabet.
The official language of both the People's Republic and Taiwan is Mandarin, also known as Standard Chinese. In Mandarin, there are different names for maternal and paternal grandparents. In Standard Mandarin, the most commonly used name for a paternal grandfather is yeye, sometimes rendered as yehyeh or jeje. The formal term is zu fu.
For maternal grandfathers, there is a difference between Northern China and Southern China. In the North, the most common term is lao ye. In the South, wai gong is commonly used, and you also hear a more informal version, gong gong. The formal term is wai zu fu.
In Taiwan, grandfathers are called a-gong or gong-gong. There is no differentiation between maternal and paternal grandfathers.
These terms would be capitalized if used as a particular grandparent's name.
Traditional Chinese Family Structure
Family structure has always been very important to the Chinese. The following observations refer to traditional Chinese families. Even in China, many of these traditions are changing, and Chinese living in other countries are definitely moving away from the old ways.
Still, remnants of the traditional Chinese family structure survive in most families.
Chinese families are patrilineal, meaning that lineage is traced through the father. That's not unusual, but the Chinese tradition takes it a step further. When a woman marries, she is removed from her own family's lineage and affiliated with her husband's family. Chinese families are traditionally virilocal, meaning that the sons stay with their parents and the daughter relocates with their husband's family.
Chinese family structure is patriarchal. The oldest member of the family — usually the grandfather or great-grandfather — is considered to be the head of the family. His sons and grandsons live with him until his death. At that time, the sons can decide to continue to live together, with the eldest son becoming the patriarch, or to divide the household.
Traditionally, the more senior a person's position in the family, the more respect he or she receives. Family members are venerated even after death. Usually it is the responsibility of the eldest son to ensure that family ancestors are honored with special rituals at certain times of the year.
Chinese Spring Festival
Certain traditional Chinese celebrations are designed for the living as well as for ancestors.
Spring Festival or Chinese New Year is a lengthy holiday — 15 days long — with an interesting history. During this time Chinese are expected to go back to their family homes for a visit. As a result, public transportation can be nightmarish! But the wealth of traditions around this time of year make any inconvenience worthwhile, for most Chinese families.
Grandparents As Child Care Providers
In spite of the patriarchal nature of Chinese society, modern Chinese grandfathers are often involved grandfathers, happy to do the most humble offices for their grandchildren. Many of them willingly and happily participate in child care for their grandchildren. In China, grandparent child care has made it possible for many mothers to have high-powered careers that would be quite impossible without the cooperation of grandparents.
In some areas of modern China, grandparents provide 90% of the child care. Although no similar statistics are available for Chinese grandparents living in the United States, it is very common to observe Chinese grandparents of both genders walking children to school, taking children to after-school activities and shopping with them.
According to a survey done for MetLife, Chinese grandparents value education, health and honesty above other attributes. They see their grandparenting role as passing on their heritage. They strive to transfer their customs and hand down their knowledge about the family ancestry. In addition, they enjoy teaching their grandchildren about holiday traditions and observances.
Many of these values can be seen in traditional Chinese proverbs. These are common sayings that might very well be spoken by a Chinese grandfather.
- "A book tightly shut is but a block of paper." In order for a book to be of any value, it must be opened, read and studied.
- "A gem is polished by rubbing. A man is perfected by trials." Character is built by facing hardships and challenges.
- "Dig the well before you are thirsty." It's important to plan ahead.
- "Keep your broken arm inside your sleeve." Don't put your weaknesses on display.
- "When you have only two pennies, buy bread with one and a lily with the other." It's important to feed one's body, but it's also important to nourish a love of beauty.
- "The palest ink is better than the best memory." To be sure of remembering something, write it down.
- "A child's life is like a piece of paper on which each person leaves a mark." Chinese grandparents are mostly very mindful of the marks they leave on their grandchildren's lives.