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Choice Chengyu: Relatively Speaking

Phrases to describe one’s nearest and dearest

Blood is thicker than water: This well-worn chestnut is one of few idioms to take the exact same form in English and Chinese (血浓于水), though it is not clear if the phrases in the two languages are related.

Given the importance Chinese traditionally placed on family lineage, it is not surprising that many four-character idioms (chengyu) exist to describe one’s ties to blood relatives, or 亲戚 (qīnqi). Whether they reward you with “red envelopes” at Chinese New Year, or pepper you with intrusive questions, everyone has relatives, and can appreciate the following phrases:

骨肉至亲 Flesh and blood kin

骨肉, literally “bone and flesh,” is a metaphor for one’s blood relatives that appears in many family-related chengyu. This idiom describes one’s closest relatives, whether by lineage or emotional ties:


Gǔròu zhìqīn yīng jiāqiáng túanjié.

Blood relatives should be united.

六亲不认 Disowning one’s closest relatives

The term 六亲, literally “six relations,” appears in many chengyu about family. In the ancient history text Zuo Zhuan (《左传》), 六亲 referred to six types of family relations that were considered to be the most important, namely father and son, brothers, father’s sisters, uncle and nephew, one’s wife’s father, and one’s son-in-law’s father. In the Daoist text Laozi (《老子》), the six relations were father, son, older brother, younger brother, husband, and wife.

Over time, 六亲 became a colloquialism simply meaning “close relatives,” and the idiom 六亲不认 refers to a heartless person who feels no kindness or gratitude toward anyone—not even their nearest and dearest:


Qián kěyǐ ràng rén liùqīn bú rèn.

Money can cause a person to forget their closest relatives.

三亲六眷 Three kin and six relatives; a multitude of kin

This is another chengyu that comes from ancient methods of categorizing one’s family members. The “three kin” were three categories of kin: one’s relatives one’s father’s side, one’s mother’s side, and one’s wife’s side. The “six relatives,” indicated by the archaic character 眷 (juàn, family dependent) referred to individuals: one’s father, mother, older brother, younger brother, wife, and children (some explanations put one’s parents-in-law in the place of the brothers). As a chengyu, the phrase is a way of referring to a large family or a big group of one’s extended kin:


Nǚ’er dàxué bìyè, fùmǔ hěn gàoxìng, sānqīn liùjuàn bēnzǒu xiānggào.

When she graduated from university, her parents were so happy that they shared the news with all the relatives.

沾亲带故 Claims of kinship and friendship

Sometimes, you need to refer to an even bigger group of people than all of your relatives. 故 is an an archaic way of referring to one’s friends, and this chengyu describes an assortment of people who can claim relation or friendship with oneself:


Tīngshuō tā zài shèhuì shàng chūrén tóudì, suǒyǒu zhānqīn dàigù de rén dōu fēnfēn lái tǎohǎo tā.

After he became a success, everyone who was remotely connected to him came to curry favors.

显亲扬名 Distinguish one’s parents and honor one’s name

In this idiom, the character 亲 refers to one’s closest relatives of all—one’s parents. It describes actions that make parents proud and bring honor to one’s family:


Tā yìxīn xīwàng kǎoshang míngpái dàxué, yǐ zhì xiǎnqīn yángmíng.

Her only wish is to get into a good university and make her parents proud.

皇亲国戚 Relative of the emperor and kin of the nation; powerful people

Bringing honor to one’s relations is all well and good, but the truly illustrious families were those who governed a country: in the past, the emperor’s relatives often took high political office, and could even rule the country as regents. 皇亲国戚 is a metaphor for a person who is so powerful, they might as well be related to the emperor himself:


Tā de gǎigé dézuì le gōngsī lǐ suǒyǒu de “huángqīn guóqī.”

His reforms offended all the big-shots in the company.

情同骨肉 As dear as flesh and blood

Family can come in all shapes and sizes, and a friend can sometimes feel as close as a blood relative—hence this chengyu:


Wǒmen jǐ gè rén shi huànnàn zhī jiāo, qíng tóng gǔròu.

We have gone through many hardships together, and are as close as family.

Cover image from VCG


author Hatty Liu

Hatty Liu is the former managing editor of The World of Chinese, and an award-winning communications researcher. Born in China, and raised in China, Canada, and the US, she leverages her cross-cultural identity to create more empathetic knowledge across national boundaries.

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