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.
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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