Addressing In-Laws – Ancient Traditions in Modern Culture. (Elementary)

In the previous article, we mentioned that modern Chinese wedding ceremonies involve many elements from western traditions, such as wearing a white wedding gown, exchanging rings, and walking down the aisle to Mendelssohn’s wedding march. However, there are some unique wedding traditions that never lost their place in Chinese weddings. One such tradition is 拜高堂 (bài gāotáng).

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In ancient China, the most important part of a wedding ceremony was the 拜堂 (bài táng), of which there are three parts. In order, these parts are: 拜天地 (bài tiāndì), worshiping Heaven and Earth; 拜高堂 (bài gāotáng), worshiping the bridegroom’s parents; and 夫妻对拜 (fūqī duì bài), the bridal couple bowing to each other. These days, the practice of 拜天地 (bài tiāndì) and夫妻对拜 (fūqī duì bài) are not very common in modern wedding ceremonies in cities. 拜高堂 (bài gāotáng), while worshiping the parents is still practiced.

The worship of parents is usually done by kowtowing to the parents. This is done not only to express sincere thanks for the parents support, but also to show that the parents hold an important place in the new couple’s hearts that will never change. So, 拜高堂 (bài gāotáng) is still practiced in Chinese wedding ceremonies, although bowing has gradually taken the place of kowtowing.

You may already know that the common form of address for parents in Chinese is 父母 (fùmǔ). You may then wonder why parent worship is called 拜高堂 (bài gāotáng) instead of 拜父母 (bài fùmǔ). What is 高堂 (gāotáng)? Well, in the traditional Chinese house, the 高堂 (gāotáng) was the central living and sleeping chamber of the family’s parents. It was the place that children went to visit to their parents and pay their respect. This term eventually became the polite form of address for one’s parents.  Nowadays, you may come across this polite form of address when someone asks you about your parents. For example, 高堂最近可好?(Gāotáng zuìjìn ké hǎo?) “How are your parents lately?” During the 拜高堂 (bài gāotáng), parents will give the new couple red envelopes with money inside.

The red envelopes used in this situation have been given an amusing name: 改口费 (gǎi kǒu fèi), which means the fee for the new couple to change the form of address for their parents.
After accepting the 改口费 (gǎi kǒu fèi), the new couple will call each other’s parents father and mother. When in private, couples may call their in-laws 爸爸 (bàba) “dad” and 妈妈 (māma) “mom.” Actually the newly married woman should call her father-in-law 公公 (gōnggong) and her mother-in-law 婆婆 (pópo). But this is done usually when talking to others about her in-laws, thus avoiding confusion with her own parents. The groom also has new names for his in-laws. He will call them 岳父 (yuèfù) and 岳母 (yuèmǔ).

The origins of 岳父 (yuèfù) and 岳母 (yuèmǔ) makes for an interesting tale. In China, there are five great mountains, called 五岳 (wǔ yuè). (Want to travel in China? Try a Travel Chinese lesson first!) During the Tang Dynasty (618-907B.C.), the emperor would travel to Mount Tai, the greatest of the 五岳 (wǔ yuè), to worship and also to give promotions to his subjects. One of the emperor’s subjects on one of these trips to Mount Tai had a son-in-law with a low rank. In secret, this man promoted his son-in-law without the emperor’s consent. When the emperor asked about this promotion, no one knew what to say. Not wanting the father-in-law to get in trouble with the emperor, one of the other subjects spoke up. He said: “He was promoted with the help of Mount Tai.” Since then, people address their wives’ father as 泰山 (tàishān) “Mount Tai” as a sign of great respect. 泰山 (tàishān) is rarely used in daily life anymore, but calling your wife’s father and mother 岳父 (yuèfù) and 岳母 (yuèmǔ) is still very common.


1. How does a Chinese man address his mother-in-law when talking to others? ___
A. 公公 (gōnggong)                B. 婆婆 (pópo)

C. 岳父 (yuèfù)                       D. 岳母 (yuèmǔ)

2. What does 高堂 (gāotáng) mean in Chinese?____
A. father-in-law

B. parents

C. mother- in-law

3. How does a married woman address her mother-in-law? ____
A. 岳母 (yuèmǔ)

B. 婆婆 (pópo)

C. 泰山 (tàishān)


1. D      2. B      3. B

Related Post:

Learn the Chinese phrases for wedding anniversaries
General Chinese (Beginner Level)
General Chinese (Intermediate Level)

4 thoughts on “Addressing In-Laws – Ancient Traditions in Modern Culture. (Elementary)”

  1. These are so wonderfully interesting , I just love the glorious Chinese culture! Long live glorious CHINA !
    dony ( tang)

  2. mother in laws

    I think this is among the so much vital information for me. And i’m glad reading your article. But wanna statement on some general issues, The web site taste is great, the articles is truly great : D. Good task, cheers

  3. Mistake here:
    ” … 泰山 (tàishān) is not rarely used in daily life anymore, but calling your wife’s father and mother 岳父 (yuèfù) and 岳母 (yuèmǔ) is still very common. ”

    “is not rarely used” should be “is rarely”

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