Can 弟弟 denote a cousin (of younger age)? I was a little surprised by the following excerpts from 那个不为人知的故事 describing 杨锦天 both as 杨昭's 弟弟 and as the son of her 姑姑/paternal aunt (same surname(usually): 堂弟,paternal aunt:表弟,see comment #4 below):

来电话的是杨昭的弟弟杨锦天,。。。 其实这是个可怜的孩子。 三年前的一场事故,让他失去了双亲,杨昭的父母将杨锦天领回自己家抚养。杨昭也是那年回到了这座城市。 她在外很久,久得让她对姑姑一家的惨剧甚至不能感到痛苦。她难过,但是还不到痛苦的程度。至于这个弟弟,杨昭大他七岁,她与他的关系谈不上亲密。

  • Also note "现代汉语词典":弟弟:(1)同父母(或只同父、只同母)而年纪比自己小的男子。(2)同悲而年纪比自己小男子:叔伯~, which still agrees with English usage, whereas it seems "cousin" may only require one of 2 possible common grandparents (if people have 4 common grandparents, then they usually must be brothers or sisters)
    – user6065
    Jan 3, 2017 at 15:22
  • explanation for "堂弟" in Q: 堂房:同宗而非嫡亲的(亲属)same grandfather on father's side (祖父),therefore some dictionary may have inaccurately characterized 堂房 as "having same surname" whereas "same surname" may include the case of cousins with different 祖父, who happen to have the same surname (and have same grandparents on their mother's side) in which case they would be 表兄弟(姐妹) according to 表(2)中表(亲戚)跟祖父、父亲的姐妹的子女亲戚关系,或跟祖母,母亲的兄弟姐妹子女的亲戚关系
    – user6065
    Jan 3, 2017 at 18:13
  • regarding comment #2 above, not exactly what?
    – user6065
    Jan 4, 2017 at 13:07
  • It seems it was dropped from the question by an editor who put the quoted text on colored background. Anyhow may be the comment could be reformulated to ask: if 堂/表弟 is to be replaced by a reduplicated single character what reasonable choices are there? Certainly not 堂 or 表 which might only leave 弟.
    – user6065
    Jan 6, 2017 at 5:29

4 Answers 4


It depends on writer story description, you cannot simply read it out of context.

来电话的是杨昭的弟弟杨锦天 : denote sibling

杨昭的父母将杨锦天领回自己家抚养 :indicate he is not sibling, but cousins, but now adopted by 杨昭 parent.

至于这个弟弟 : denote 杨锦天 is treated as sibling instead of cousin.

This is not uncommon practice in other culture. Due to various unfortunate incidents(war, famine,natural disaster), it is quite common for human society to adapt sibling children as own children.

It is the adopting parent who decide whether to retain the relative title or not.

In such case, 杨昭 parent choose to make 杨锦天 as their own child. As in all cultures, family ties is very important. These small little details does matters.

  • that would weaken general validity of meaning #2 in earlier answer, and justify 弟弟 under the special circumstances described in question (context provided)
    – user6065
    Jan 3, 2017 at 12:55
  • @user6065 True. The later story explain why 杨昭 didn't call 杨锦天 as 堂弟 in the first place.
    – mootmoot
    Jan 3, 2017 at 13:29

Formally no. But it's common in casual spoken Chinese. Especially for the one-child policy generation, no one has any brother or sister, so we call our cousin brother/sister.

For your text, the little boy was adopted after his parents died. Even if he's a complete stranger before the adoption, he's now the woman's parents' child, ie her brother.


It's very complex.

"弟弟" means a lot.

  • your younger brother(s) (亲弟弟)
  • your cousin and he is younger than you (表弟/堂弟)
  • your close friend and he is younger that you. (MUST BE close friend)
  • young man (Some Area's Dialect) (Also called "老弟")
  • Some users have the impression (based on reading experience) that 弟弟 following NP+的,or personal pronoun w/o 的 (e.g. 张三的弟弟, 她的弟弟,她弟弟)would usually refer to one of the 2 top meanings, less likely to the third and much less likely to the fourth.
    – user6065
    Jan 3, 2017 at 10:22

The term '弟弟' only refers to 'younger brothers' (include half brothers or adopted brothers). It doesn't include 'younger male cousin' which has its own specific terms '表弟'(younger male cousins from 1. your mother's brother or sister [姨表]; 2. your father's sister [姑表]) and '堂弟'(younger male cousin from your father's brother)

  • both (姨)表弟 and (姑)表弟 are simply called 表弟.

*The same is applicable to '哥哥'. We do not address '表哥' or '堂兄' as '哥哥'.

The reason 杨昭 referring 杨锦天 as '弟弟' is clear from the excerpts



领养: to adopt (a child); to foster (a child)

杨锦天 was adopted by 杨昭's parents. They raised him as their own son.

Even if 杨昭's parents were not blood related with 杨锦天, he would still be called 弟弟 by 杨锦天

mootmoot wrote:

It is the adopting parent who decides whether to retain the relative title or not.

It hits the mark. Apparently, 杨昭's father did not treat 杨锦天 as his nephew (sister's son). He adopted him to be his 養子 (adopted son)

Your adopted brother, blood related or not, is closer to you than your cousins do.

Side note from comments:

杨锦天 should had a different family name before he was adopted by his uncle from his mother's side. It was natural for him to adopt the 杨 family name from his uncle, who had became his adopted father.

  • users also note that children of 姑姑 (姑妈, 父亲的姊妹)usually have the same last name as her husband, so that it seems unusual that 杨锦天 has the same last name as 杨昭. (表弟 rather than 堂弟 may be appropriate)
    – user6065
    Jan 3, 2017 at 14:52
  • When 锦天 was adopted, it was nature for him to adopt the 杨 family name from his uncle, who had became his adopted father.
    – Tang Ho
    Jan 3, 2017 at 14:53
  • 杨锦天 was originally 杨昭's 表弟. More specifically -- they were '姑表'. (different from 姨表). If he was the son of his adopted father's brother, he would had been 杨锦天's 堂弟.
    – Tang Ho
    Jan 3, 2017 at 15:19
  • regarding adoption,the story only says 杨昭的父母将杨锦天领回自己家抚养, whereas (legal) child adoption/收养孩子 seems to be a civil juristic act (一种民事法律行为)。 This could of course have happened w/o being mentioned, since it is completely peripheral to the whole novel. Name changes/更换户口姓名 in general seem to require approval by the public security organs/公安机关.
    – user6065
    Jan 4, 2017 at 5:53

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