Inherited orders in Chinese language

For those who study Chinese, they would soon notice some inherited orders in Chinese language. 

These orders make sense. Sometimes I wonder why everyone else did not develop the same order.

Let’s take a look at the following four.

Mailing address in Chinese

If you want to send a package to mainland China, the sequence of the mailing address should be something like this:

China Province City Road Building Floor Room

For example, 中国河北省廊坊市大中路六十五号广业大厦五楼6 (Zhōngguó héběi shěng lángfāng shì dà zhōng lù liùshíwǔ hào guǎng yè dàshà wǔ lóu 6 shì)

The order starts from the name of the country and gradually narrows it down to a room in a building. 

This order makes sense.

Date in Chinese

Writing date in Chinese follows the same principle, starting from the year and gradually narrowing it down:

Year Month Date

For example, 2021.12.9 (the year 2021 December the 9th day)

This order is logical. 

Put this Chinese order “2021.12.9” next to “12.9.2021” or “9.12.2021”, I’m quite sure that on one will ever get confused what “2021.12.9” represents.

Family titles in Chinese

Many students didn’t like learning family titles in Chinese, those daunting and useless words like 姥姥 (lǎolao), 外婆 (wàipó), 叔叔 (shūshu), 堂姐 (táng jiě), 表弟 (biǎo dì) and so on. Very few students have had any opportunities to use these titles.

My opinion is that, not learning these words is not a problem. However, it is nice for students to learn about these words, which give us a sense of cohesive orders in Chinese more than anything else. They are like laser beams, revealing complicated and complex social orders. 

Human beings have always been searching for orders, and trying to identify patterns. 

In the west, most scientific achievements are reflected by naming things. A tree is not just a “tree”. It has to be a “oak tree” or a “beech tree”. A star is not just a “star”. It has to be “Vega” or “Sirius”. However, when it comes to naming family members and relatives, western scientific spirit did not work. Everyone is lumped under “uncle” or “aunt”. 

Chinese society is so advanced in this aspect. All the intricate relations have been sorted out long time ago and special names have been designated to each family members and relatives. For example, when I write “我的叔叔” (wǒ de shūshu), readers will immediately know that the person I refer to is my father’s younger brother. This is different from “我的伯父” (wǒ de bófù, my father’s older brother), and “我的舅舅” (wǒ de jiùjiu, my mother’s brother). “叔叔” (shūshu), “伯父” (bófù), and “舅舅” (jiùjiu) are all uncles, yet each of them is given a distinctive title in Chinese language. 

If my father has two or more younger brothers, they will be addressed as “二叔” (èr shū) or “三叔” (sān shū). If my mother has two brothers, they will be addressed as “大舅” (dà jiù)  and “二舅” (èr jiù). 

The sense of order and relation is always very clear.

Level of achievements

When it comes to personal achievements, there is also a clear order in Chinese language. It goes from small to big, as the following words show:

  • 修身 (xiū shēn, to cultivate one’s moral character)
  • 齐家 (qí jiā, to manage one’s household)
  • 治国 (zhì guó, to administer the country)
  • 平天下 (píng tiānxià, to pacify the world)

One must become a good person first, then go on to make one’s household a good place, then go on to make the country a good place, and finally influence the entire world. 

In the west, the often seen phrase which has some similarity to the above four levels of achievements is “work/life balance”, which shows a struggle that a busy person faces when dealing with work requirement and household demands for quality time with children. 

This struggle is no where to be seen in the order of 修身, 齐家, 治国, 平天下 (xiū shēn, qí jiā, zhì guó, píng tiānxià). Households can not be ignored for the sake of running a bigger place. In fact, household happiness is the foundation, or the prerequisite, of running a bigger place.

These four levels of achievements describe what a person should be striving for. I admit that, this kind of person is very ideal. And in reality, such ideal person is rare. 

Nevertheless, this order makes great sense.


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April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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