In a previous article I discussed China’s traditional family hierarchy and how it continues to influence Chinese society in modern times. Here, I’d like to introduce how common familial terms (e.g. mom, dad, auntie, uncle, etc.) have evolved in modern times. Specifically, I’ll share some of my own observations and experiences on how China’s younger generations use the terms “little sister” and “older brother” to show respect, as well as build and maintain relationships. These term offer an interesting look at modern Chinese society and can be very valuable for Westerners who want to try doing things the “Chinese way” in order to get a taste of local life and culture.
Little Sisters and Older Brothers
In my experience, the terms Mèi Mei [妹妹, younger sister] and Gē Ge [哥哥, older brother], have become very common over the last several decades. While Mèi Mei used to only refer one’s actual younger sister, it is now also commonly used as a colloquial form of address for younger women. Gē Ge, meaning older brother, is now also a more general term for boys or men. These terms are used in many parts of China, though different regions can often have their own versions or pronunciations. They are commonly used among friends, at the workplace, online, and even on the dating scene. And while knowing the terms is easy enough, if you use them improperly, it is possible to embarrass yourself or confuse your Chinese friends and colleagues.
Related Article: Learn How to Pronounce “Mèi Mei” and “Gē Ge”
Creating a Warm and Respectful Environment
These two terms are largely used to create a warm and familial environment, often between friends and coworkers. They can also be used to engender trust and create a collaborative working environment and stronger relationships. Interestingly, the terms are also used to express interest in and to flirt with a member of the opposite sex. But no matter the intended usage, I’ve found the use of both terms to create an emotional reaction in the Chinese, which relates strongly to the terms’ perceived and implied meaning.
The terms Mèi Mei and “Ge Ge” have changed somewhat over the past 20 years. In the 1980’s, they chiefly functioned as a form of address that distinguished between different ages, even when there were no family ties. Today, they focus less on age, and are commonly written shorthand as MM and GG. Using these terms can close the distance between two people, no matter whether they have previously met, or how well they know each other.
– Fiona Ma, White Collar Worker, Shenzhen
Addressing a girl or woman as a little sister in Chinese implies that she is young, attractive, and desirable. Addressing a boy or man as an older brother implies that he is mature and handsome, and in some cases that he possesses power and authority. In my experience the platonic use of these terms among the Chinese can be likened to casual flirting. This type of flirting can often create a strong and positive emotional in most people (not just the Chinese), and emotions are one of the important elements necessary to build and maintain relationships in China. And as relationships and status are so important in Chinese society, these terms often act to help maintain relationships and make things flow smoother.
Differences Between Forms of Address
It’s worth noting that there are small, yet distinct differences between using the term little sister or older brother with terms you might use to address a stranger. To give a few examples, when you are ready to order at a restaurant (mainly those in Southern China), you can call a waiter over with the terms Měi Nǚ [美女, beautiful girl] or Shuài Gē [帅哥, handsome guy]. When addressing a man or woman older than you in public that you do
not know, you can use the terms Dà Gē [大哥, older brother] and Jiě Jie [姐姐, older sister], respectively. And while Dà Gē and Gē Ge can both be translated as “older brother,” the former conveys more respect while the latter is more familial.
How Can Westerners Effectively Use These Terms?
For the Westerner interested in trying out Mei Mei or Ge Ge in conversation, I have prepared the following pointers, based on my experience:
- Only use Mèi Mei or Gē Ge with people you know, such as friends or colleagues.
- Before trying out one of the terms, first pay attention to how your friends and colleagues address one another, to see if these terms are commonly used in your own social circles (not everyone uses them).
- Pay attention to how a friend or coworker reacts to either term, so you can decide whether it is welcome, or causes awkwardness.
- Don’t use either term constantly. Instead save them for specific occasions, such as making requests or offering praise or congratulations.
- Men should generally not use the term Gē Ge to address another man, and instead stick to Dà Gē or other polite forms of address. However, it is perfectly acceptable for women to refer to other women and girls as Mèi Mei.
- I would strong caution those new to China against using the terms Mèi Mei and Gē Ge with romantic intent. While they are also commonly used in China
in this context, it can be easy for Westerners to mix up the slight nuances that exist being the platonic and romantic usages of Mèi Mei and Gē Ge.
At the end of the day these terms are an important part of how modern Chinese communicate and interact. While they are not absolutely necessary for the Westerner living, working or traveling in China, they can certainly add some local flavor to everyday life. In addition, for the Westerner interested in building relationships the Chinese way, these terms can be a useful addition to one’s linguistic and cultural toolkit. Enjoy!
Thanks for reading!
Do you have any questions or comments on using the terms “little sister” or “older brother” in Chinese society? Are you interested in learning more about building and maintaining relationships in China? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.
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Hello Sean. Looks like you wrote this article a long time ago but I would like to clarify something. I just watched a mainland Chinese movie called “Go Brother! Go”! starring Zhang Zifeng, Peng Yuchang and Zhao Jinmai as the main characters. In the movie, Zifeng and Yuchang were brothers and sisters and they called each other by their names the entire movie. There’s also the movie Wandering Earth where the main girl character Han DuoDuo (Zhao Jinmai) called her adopted elder brother by his name. My question is how widespread is this phenomenon of siblings calling each other by their names in present day China?
Hi, thanks for your interest. I can’t really comment too much on this issue from my own personal experience as most of the people I know, personally and professionally in China, do not have siblings due to the One Child Policy. From what I have seen in popular culture suggests that different regions and even different people might have different customs in this regard.
As you mentioned from your example, it seems quite natural for Chinese people to choose to call siblings by their actual names, but they may also call them by shortened nicknames (such as an “ah” along with one character from their given names), or even just call them variations of brother or sister. That’s just my experience, but perhaps there might be some sort of research on this that you could look into further, it’s certainly an interesting topic!
I recently met a younger Chinese woman with whom a romantic relationship developed. I am older than her so why does she call me baby brother?
Hi Andrew, while in my experience the relationships (both platonic and romantic) between older men and younger women are often in line with what I described in the article, it’s not always the case. In China (as well as everywhere else) there are also cases where the woman takes on a more dominant role and the man takes on a more subdued role.
So that is one possibility here – maybe the girl feels like she wants to have more power/control in the relationship. However, it seems more of a rare occurrence that she would use the “little brother” term to do so. There are other possibilities too. Perhaps she simply views you as cute and wants to take care of you by taking on an “older sister” type of role.
Here it’s important to remember that humans are complex no matter what culture they are from. The knowledge I share in my articles is certainly useful when trying to understand the Chinese people as a whole. But people as individuals can be different and unique. So you may simply want to ask her why she calls you “little brother”.
Here the baby brother means : [Xiǎo Gē Ge 小哥哥 ], it’s more lovely and more intimate.
Hi Sean–Back in grad school at The University of Texas at Austin, I was the only grad student member of the Vietnamese Students Association. The club was huge, and was further divided into families. I had 2 club officers assigned as my VSA Mother and VSA Father & had VSA brothers & sisters in my family. Clubs had their own activities going on (such as a Superbowl party at my VSA Father’s apartment, etc.), in addition to the activities of the club proper.
A question for you: I understand that this is not an uncommon practice in Asia in workplaces, schools, etc. & my experience here in Taiwan bears this out. Is your experience similar in the PRC and if so, do the older/younger brother/sister forms of address that you write about tie into this?
Hi Daniel, thanks for sharing your own experiences. I personally have not seen anything as regimented as you describe in the Chinese companies I have worked for. The MM and GG terms seem to be used more among members of the same team or division, or between those that know each other well. It’s certainly possible that it takes place at other Chinese organizations though.
Thanks, Sean. Another good article. It reminds me of how people in the US use Daddy and Baby Girl as a way to express a connection, although it seems more respectful.
Hi Carol, thanks for commenting. Baby Girl could definitely be compared to Mei Mei, though my own interpretation is it’s more firmly in the flirting zone. The usage of Mei Mei in my experience has a much wider scope. Mei Mei can be both respectful and flirtatious.