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The Origin of Chinese Surnames

Last updated by fabiowzgogo at 2016/12/16

In China, when two people meet for the first time, they always ask each other: “What’s your surname?”

There were “xing” (surname) in China before the period of “Three August Ones and Five Emperors” (San Huang Wu Di) about 5000 years ago. In the matriarchal society that time, children only knew who their mothers were. Thus, the Chinese character “xing” (姓) was combined of “女”(female) and“生”(born), which told us that the earliest surnames were from mothers. People in Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasty had both surnames and titles. The surnames came from the villages they lived or clans they belonged to, and titles came from the lands, ranks of nobility and officials given by the kings, or the posthumous titles they got according to their contribution. Thus, nobles had surnames, first names and titles, while common people got only surnames and first names. People with same title could get married while people with same surnames couldn’t. Chinese had found out the genetic rule long before: consanguineous marriages were not good for the next generations.

During the reign of Emperor Taizong of Tang Dynasty (627 AC), Gao Shilian, the ministry of personnel collected the surnames of common people and wrote a book called Shi Zu Zhi (records of family names). The book was a guideline for people to recommend someone to the positions or bring a couple together.

How Many Surnames Are There in China?

A book named “Hundred Family Names” was once popular in China. It was written during North Song Dynasty (960 AC – 1127 AC). 438 surnames were recorded in this book (408 single-character surnames and 30 compound surnames). It was said that the number had grown to 4000 – 6000, out of which there were only 300 actually being used.

The Characteristics of Chinese Surname

The surnames in China can be divided into 2 kinds: single-character surname and compound surname. Single-character surnames are much more than compound surnames. There’s an old saying in China: “Zhang Wang Li Zhao bian di Liu”, It means that Zhang, Wang, Li, Zhao, and Liu are the surnames most seen in China, and people with the surname “Zhang” have the largest population.  However, the latest statistics show that the number of people with surname “Li” is the largest one now. The new order goes “Li, Wang, Zhang, Liu and Chen”

Compound surnames have two or more than two characters, which are rarely seen. The compound surnames often seen are Zhuge, Ouyang, Sima, Duanmu, and Gongsun.

According the tradition, Chinese people use the surnames of their fathers, only few people take surnames from mothers. Women don’t change their surnames after getting married.

The distributions of the surnames of Han nation are different from area to area. Surnames such as Li, Wang, Zhang and Liu are quite common among people in the North, while Chen, Zhao, Huang, Lin and Wu take larger portion among people in the South.

Given name, courtesy name and literary name are cultural phenomenon in certain historical period, reflecting characteristics of time and society.
Given name: The appellation and symbol of a person.

Courtesy name: Also called Chinese style name. This is another name of a person created according to the meaning of the characters in his given name. In ancient China, courtesy names are traditionally given to Chinese males at the age of 20, marking their coming of age, while females get their courtesy names at the age of 15 on Coming-of-age ceremonies, which means they are ready to get married. In ancient China, only scholar-bureaucrats and intellectuals could get courtesy names, while common people get only given names. The courtesy names are much related to given names, being the explanation or complement. It has been said in Yan's Family Admonitions: “Given name shows who a person is, while courtesy name tells what kind of person he is.”

Literary name: Another title beside given name and courtesy name, often literature related. Scholar-bureaucrats and intellectuals give themselves “polite names”; people get “posthumous names” according to their contributions when they’re alive; “temple names” are commonly given after death to an emperor or king, consisting of two characters: “Zu” (forefather) and “Zong” (ancestor).

Pen name: Ever since the end of Qing dynasty, when people publish articles in papers or magazines, some of them do not want to use their true names. Thus, “pen names” are created.