November 24, 2020
Proverbs and idioms reflect cultural belief systems. As a result, Chinese proverbs and idioms about family are a great way to gain insight into historical and modern Chinese values.
In this article, we’ll first explore Chinese attitudes towards the family. Then, we’ll examine 12 Chinese proverbs and idioms about family and consider how they reflect traditional cultural attitudes.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
Proverbs and Idioms: A Cross-Cultural Phenomenon
Proverbs and idioms reflect society’s values. Each civilization encodes its collective wisdom and prejudices into figures of speech, stories and easily remembered phrases.
Familiar English-language proverbs and idiomatic phrases touch on everything from health and hygiene (“An apple a day keeps the doctor away”) to psychology (“Great minds think alike”) and morality (“Turn the other cheek”).
China’s millenia-old civilization has also produced a wealth of proverbs and sayings. Family is a central pillar of Chinese culture, so it should come as no surprise that many Chinese proverbs and idioms revolve around this important subject.
Traditional Conceptions of the Chinese Family
Confucius (孔子 Kǒngzǐ) is a thinker whose ideas are essential to understanding the ongoing importance of the family in Chinese society. Indeed, Confucian principles governing how each person is bound by obligations to others are at the heart of the Chinese worldview.
Filial Piety and the Confucian Hierarchy
Confucianism’s central obligation is filial piety (孝顺 xiàoshùn). Perhaps more accurately translated as “filial subordination,” it hinges on the virtue of obeying one’s parents and elders. Indeed, the Chinese principle human relationships (father-son, husband-wife, ruler-subject) stem from this core parent-child relationship.
The Confucian hierarchy emphasizes the importance of families harmoniously ruled by benevolent elder patriarchs. Such families traditionally served as the basis for every other social and political relationship.
In fact, people judged every aspect of the world, or 天下 (tiānxià), by whether it conformed to or violated these familial principles. Members of ancient Chinese society also used Confucian principles to decide what was right or wrong, virtuous or immoral, just or unjust, beautiful or ugly, and brave or cowardly.
Close Family Bonds
For thousands of years, two key factors fostered extremely close family bonds. One was the Chinese collective household system, which integrated different married couples into the same family. The other was the custom of multiple generations living under the same roof. Because of this practice, cousins grew up together as siblings. Indeed, people considered children primarily as members of the same age-group or generation rather than as offspring of particular parents.
The children of these households learned to navigate and explore the world under the watchful eye of many older family members. The heavy demands of rural agricultural-based economic life further pressed these extended families into tight cooperative units.
Lineages, Descent Lines and Clans
Chinese culture places strong emphasis on the family and on reverence for ancestors. This is demonstrated by the many ways one can express one’s relationship with one’s relatives, both living and dead.
A lineage organization is a group of descendants who have collectively organized for the purposes of recording their genealogy and ritually worshipping or commemorating their ancestors. The size and scope of lineage organizations varies enormously and often depends on the wealth and prestige of individual members.
Wealthy lineages sometimes collectively own an ancestral hall or shrine. There, descendants can come to worship ancestors and consult spirit tablets. Some well-endowed lineage organizations award scholarships and engage in charitable work. Some even act as emergency banks where members can gain access to loans during times of financial instability.
Some poorer lineage organizations simply have a place, sometimes in a designated room of an ancestral home, to honor the ancestors on important holidays (such as Tomb-Sweeping Day or Ghost Festival). Ceremonies to honor the ancestors usually involve making symbolic food offerings, burning joss paper and lighting fragrant incense.
A descent line consists of all the fathers and sons in one’s family tree. It goes back to the beginning of time, starting with the first father who founded the line. As long as one continues to produce male heirs, the descent line will continue indefinitely.
If one doesn’t have a son, it’s possible for a line to die out. Confucian society considered not bearing a male heir to be one of the worst things imaginable. This was because it also meant, in Chinese tradition, that no one could make sacrifices to ancestors or maintain the ancestral hall.
Clans or Same-surname Associations
Clan and same-surname associations either in China or overseas are broader and looser coalitions of individuals who share an ancestor. Members of these groups generally lack a clear understanding of the specifics of their collective descent relationship. In the absence of clear records, sharing the same last name is an important part of these groups.
These “same-surname associations” (同姓会 tóngxìnghuì) often served—and continue to serve—as sources of mutual-aid and mutual protection. Worship of the collective ancestor still occurs. However, the absence of reliable records like spirit tablets or other genealogies hinders the practice of many traditional rituals.
The importance of the family can also be detected through language. Consider, for example, the existence of many family-related Chinese words that contain the character 家 (jiā):
大家 (dàjiā, literally “big family”)——Everybody
国家 (guójiā, literally “national family)——Country
家具 (jiājù, literally “family tool”)——Furniture
The Western nuclear family consists of one father and one mother raising their children. The traditional Chinese extended family, by contrast, consists of grandparents, unmarried aunts, uncles, married sons, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This way of life produced an astoundingly rich vocabulary to define, differentiate and describe relations between family members.
The oldest known dictionary of the Chinese language, the Erh-ya (尔雅 Ěryǎ), contains a mind-boggling 2,000 terms for family relations. Due to the rapid contraction of the family as a consequence of the one-child policy (1979-2015), many of these words have fallen into disuse. However, contemporary Chinese still employs dozens of unique relationship words, many of which don’t exist in Western languages. For example:
表哥 (biǎogē)——Older male cousin
弟媳 (dìxí)——Younger brother’s wife
姨父 (yífu)——Mother’s sister’s husband
Men and Women
As one might expect, the relationship between men and women in China has changed a lot over the years.
Traditional Gender Roles
Men’s traditional role in the family was that of provider, maintainer and protector. Historically, Confucian and Daoist customs, patriarchal cultural beliefs and the exclusion of women from economic and educational spheres all combined to elevate the importance of men and minimize the importance of women. This phenomenon is referred to as 重男轻女 zhòngnán-qīngnǚ in Chinese.
Women were primarily seen in light of their ability to produce male heirs who would maintain the descent line, thereby pleasing the ancestors. In fact, the term for “good” in Chinese is 好 (hǎo), which is the character for female (女 nǚ) set alongside the character for a male child (子 zi).
This belief in women’s inferiority compared to men is the source of several sayings still in use today, such as 男尊女卑 (nánzūn-nǚbēi). Translated literally, this saying reads “men are high, women low.” It means “women are inferior to men.”
When not pregnant or giving birth, Confucian society expected women to focus their energies on homelife and childrearing. The Confucian doctrine of the Three Obediences and Four Virtues (三从四德 Sāncóng Sìdé) laid out strict rules for women. While at home, society expected women to follow their fathers. Upon marriage, the Confucians expected women to follow their husbands, and after marriage, their sons.
Contemporary people referred to this custom with the following saying: 在家从父, 出家从夫, 婚后从子 zàijiācóngfù, chūjiàcóngfū, hūnhòucóngzǐ).
In all arenas and at all stages of life, Confucian society required women to allow their male counterparts—fathers, husbands and sons—to take on responsibility for most aspects of their lives. Despite these strict Confucian norms, in practice many women did in fact take up positions of power. One, Wu Zetian, even assumed the most powerful position in the land, becoming emperor in her own right.
Gender Roles in Today’s China
China’s rollercoaster of a 20th century shattered many of these historical patterns and radically reshaped many others. While there are enormous differences between conditions in urban and rural areas, since 1949 Chinese women as a whole have become much more educated, independent and integrated into the workforce (although they’re still substantially underrepresented when it comes to business and political leadership positions).
21st century Chinese society continues to change and transform. China’s megacities are fast producing their own updated expectations for men and women, while the influx of tens of millions of migrant workers from rural areas often reinforces older relationship models.
As is the case with all nations, but perhaps more so in China due to the length and continuity of its history, modernity and tradition have yet to achieve a stable balance—it remains a give and take between past and present. Women continue to assume unprecedented positions of power. At the same time, however, traditional beliefs continue to influence which options and opportunities are—and are not—available.
Chinese Proverbs and Idioms About Family
The proverbs and idioms below reflect the historical centrality of the family to Chinese cultural life, and they also indicate just how multidimensional this notion is.
Some sayings, particularly those expressing intimacy and support of family relationships, will find a place in the hearts of modern readers. Other proverbs and idioms, particularly those relating to the plight of women and the conditions of marriage, will perhaps make the modern reader uncomfortable.
History is sometimes wonderful, sometimes terrible and always complicated, and Chinese history is no different. These proverbs and idioms record China’s evolving attitudes towards the family.
Chinese Proverbs and Idioms About Family: Familial Relationships
国无二君，家无二主 (guówú’èrjūn, jiāwú’èrzhǔ)
A state cannot have two monarchs or a family two heads.
前人栽树，后人乘凉 (qiánrénzāishù, hòurénchéngliáng)
The predecessors plant the tree, the descendants cool off in the shade.
树高千丈，落叶归根 (shùgāoqiānzhàng, luòyèguīgēn)
A tree can grow 10 thousand feet tall but its leaves will always fall back to the roots.
Note: This proverb was often used in situations where someone had been exiled or engaged in long years of travel. It was used to mean that even though a person might live for many years away from home, he or she would eventually return to his or her native soil.
If the father is a tiger, then the son will also be a tiger.
Note: This is a Chinese proverb that is equivalent to Western sayings such as “like father like son” or “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
姥姥家的狗，吃完了就走 (lǎolao jiā de gǒu, chīwánle jiù zǒu)
Grandma’s dog leaves as soon as it’s finished eating.
Note: This proverb is usually used by grandparents when playfully talking about their grandkid’s visits.
当麻烦来临，家人会给予你支持 (dàng máfan láilín, jiārén huì gěiyú nǐ zhīchí)
During difficult times, it’s your family that supports you.
Chinese Proverbs and Idioms About Family: Property and Secrets
家有敝帚，享之千金 (jiāyǒubìzhǒu, xiǎnɡzhīqiānjīn)
Be thankful for a bad broom as if it were a thousand ounces of gold.
Note: This proverb suggests that even if something is of little value, if it’s your property you should cherish it.
家家有本难念的经 (jiājiā yǒu běn nánniàn de jīnɡ)
There’s a skeleton in every house.
Chinese Proverbs and Idioms About Family: Marriage
出门看天色，进门看脸色 (chūmén kàn tiānsè, jìnmén kàn liǎnsè)
When you go out, observe the color of the sky, when you come in, observe the facial expressions (of your family members).
Note: This was proverbial advice given to newly married women.
儿多母苦，盐多菜苦 (erduōmǔkǔ, yánduōcàikǔ)
Just as too much salt makes food taste bad, too many children make a mother’s life hard.
嫁鸡随鸡，嫁狗随狗 (jiàjīsuíjī, jiàgŏusuígŏu)
Marry a chicken, follow a chicken; marry a dog, follow a dog.
Note: This proverb, and the one that follows, demonstrate the playful and strategic approach that many Chinese women took to navigating their relative powerlessness when it came to marriage.
家寒嫁汉，穿衣吃饭 (jiāhánjiàhàn, chuānyīchīfàn)
If the house is cold then marry a man, you’ll have clothes to wear and rice to eat.
Want to learn even more about Chinese proverbs and the Chinese language? Find out how CLI’s program options can greatly enhance your understanding of Chinese language and culture, and check out this article on the Anatomy of Chinese Characters! We look forward to welcoming you to Guilin.
Chinese Vocabulary, Idioms and Proverbs About Family
|天下||tiānxià||land under heaven; the world or China|
|表哥||biǎogē||older male cousin; older male cousin on the female side|
|妗子||jìnzi||mother's brother's wife|
|姨父||yífu||mother's sister's husband|
|男尊女卑||nánzūn, nǚbēi||women are inferior to men|
|三从四德||Sāncóng Sìdé||three obediences and four virtues (Confucian code of ethics for women)|
|国无二君，家无二主||guówú'èrjūn, jiāwú'èrzhǔ||A state cannot have two monarchs or a family two heads.|
|出门看天色，进门看脸色||chūmén kàn tiānsè, jìnmén kàn liǎnsè||When you go out, observe the color of the sky, when you come in, observe the facial expressions (of your family members).|
|前人栽树，后人乘凉||qiánrénzāishù, hòurénchéngliáng||The predecessors plant the tree, the descendents cool off in the shade.|
|树高千丈，落叶归根||shùgāoqiānzhàng, luòyèguīgēn||A tree can grow 10 thousand feet tall but its leaves will always fall back to the roots.|
|儿多母苦，盐多菜苦||erduōmǔkǔ, yánduōcàikǔ||Just as too much salt makes food taste bad, too many children make a mother’s life hard.|
|虎父虎子||hǔfùhǔzǐ||If the father is a tiger, then the son will also be a tiger.|
|姥姥家的狗，吃完了就走||lǎolao jiā de gǒu chīwánle jiù zǒu||Grandma’s dog leaves as soon as it’s finished eating.|
|家有敝帚，享之千金||jiāyǒubìzhǒu, xiǎnɡzhīqiānjīn||Be thankful for a bad broom as if it were a thousand ounces of gold.|
|家家有本难念的经||jiājiā yǒu běn nánniàn de jīnɡ||There is a skeleton in every house.|
|当麻烦来临，家人会给予你支持||dàng máfan láilín , jiārén huì gěiyú nǐ zhīchí||During difficult times, it's your family that supports you.|
|嫁鸡随鸡，嫁狗随狗||jiàjīsuíjī, jiàgŏusuígŏu||Marry a chicken, follow a chicken; marry a dog, follow a dog.|
|家寒嫁汉，穿衣吃饭||jiāhánjiàhàn, chuānyīchīfàn||If the house is cold then marry a man, you'll have clothes to wear and rice to eat.|