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A Chinese surname, also called a clan name or family name ( or 氏; shì), is one of the over seven hundred family names used by Han Chinese and Sinicized Chinese ethnic groups. The term "the hundred surnames" (百姓 bǎi xìng) is colloquially used in Chinese to mean "the people" or "commoners". Chinese family names are passed from the father to his children. In cases of adoption, the adoptee usually also takes the same surname.
For some popular Chinese family names, see List of common Chinese surnames.
Origin of surnames
Generally prior to the Warring States Period, only the royal family and the aristocratic elite could take surnames or family names. Historically there was also difference between xing and shi. Xing were surnames held by the immediate royal family. They generally are composed of a nü (女, meaning "female") radical which suggests that they originated from matriarchal societies based on maternal lineages.
Prior to the Qin Dynasty China was largely a feudal society. As fiefdoms were divided and subdivided among descendants, so additional sub-surnames known as shi were created to distinguish between different seniority of lineages among the nobles though in theory they shared the same ancestor. In this way, a nobleman would hold a shi and a xing. After the states of China were unified by Qin Shi Huang, surnames gradually devolved to the lower classes and the difference between xing and shi blurred.
Shi surnames, many of which survive to the present day, generally share twelve paths of origin:
- From xing: These were usually reserved for the central lineage of the royal family, with collateral lineages taken their own shi. Of the six or so common xing, only Jiang (姜) has survived as a frequently occurring surname.
- From state names: Many commoners took the name of their state, either to show their continuing allegiance or as a matter of national and ethnic identity. Common examples include Song (宋), Wu (吴), Chen. Not surprisingly, due to the population size of the peasantry, these are some of the most common Chinese surnames.
- From the name of fiefs or place of origin. Fiefdoms were often granted to collateral branches of the aristocracy and it was natural as part of the process of sub-surnaming for their names to be used. An example is Di, Marquis of Ouyangting, whose descendants took the surname Ouyang. There are some two hundred examples of this identified, often of two-character surnames, but few have survived to the present.
- From the names of ancestors: Like the previous example, this was also a common origin with close to 500 or 600 examples, 200 of which are two-character surnames. Often an ancestor's style name would be used. For example, Yuan Taotu took the second character of his grandfather's style name Boyuan (伯爰) as his surname. Sometimes titles granted to ancestors could also be taken as surnames.
- From seniority within the family: In ancient usage, the characters of meng (孟), zhong (仲), shu (叔) and ji (季) were used to denote the first, second, third and fouth eldest sons in a family. These were sometimes were adopted as surnames. Of these, Meng is the best known, being the surname of philosopher Mencius, for example.
- From occupation: These could arise from both official positions, as in the case of Sima (司马), originally akin to "Minister of War". They could also arise from more lowly occupations, as with Tao (陶), meaning "potter" or Wu (巫), meaning "shaman".
- From ethnic groups: Non-Chinese peoples in China sometimes took the name of their ethnic group as surname. The best example is Hu (胡), which originally referred to all "barbarian" groups on the northern frontier of China.
Distribution of surnames
Not surprisingly, surnames are not evenly spread throughout China. In northern China, Wang (王) is the most popular surname, being shared by 9.9% of the population. Next are Li (李), Zhang (张) and Liu (刘). In the south, Chen (陈) is the most popular, being shared by 10.6% of the population. Next are Li, Huang (黄), Lin (林) and Zhang (张). Around the major crossing points of the Yangtze River, the most popular surname is Li, taking up 7.7%, followed by Wang, Zhang, Chen and Liu.
A study by geneticist Yuan Yida has found that in each province of China, there is always a surname which appear particularly often. In Guangdong it is Liang (梁) and Luo (罗), in Guangxi it is Liang (梁) and Lu (陆), in Fujian it is Zheng (郑); in Taiwan it is Cai (蔡); in Anhui it is Wang (汪); in Jiangsu it is Xu (徐) and Zhu (朱); in Zhejiang it is Mao (毛) and Shen (沈); in Jiangxi it is Hu (胡) and Liao (廖); in Hubei it is Hu (胡); in Hunan it is Zhang (谭); in Sichuan it is He (何) and Deng (邓); in Guizhou it is Wu (吴); in Yunnan it is Yang (杨); in Henan it is Cheng (程); in Gansu it is Gao (高); in Ningxia it is Wan (万); in Shaanxi it is Xue (薛); in Qinghai it is Bao (鲍); in Xinjiang it is Ma (马); in Shandong it is Kong (孔); in Shanxi it is Dong (董) and Guo (郭); in Inner Mongolia it is Pan (潘) and in the three provinces of Manchuria it is Yu (于).
After the Song Dynasty, surname distributions in China largely stabilised. Villages were often made up of individuals with the same surname, often with a common male ancestor. They usually intermarried with nearby villages, creating clusters of individuals with similar genetic material.
Surnames at present
Of the thousands of surnames which have been identified from historical texts prior to the Han Dynasty, most have either been lost or simplified. In recent centuries some two-character surnames have often dropped a character. Since the founding of the People's Republic of China, moreover, some surnames have been graphically simplified.
Although there are thousands of Chinese family names, The 100 most common surnames, which together make up less than 5% of those in existence, are shared by 85% of the population. The three most common surnames in Mainland China are Li, Wang and Zhang, which make up 7.9%, 7.4% and 7.1% respectively. Together they number close to 300 million and are easily the most popular surnames in the world.
Most commonly occurring Chinese family names have only one character; however, about twenty double-character family names have survived into the modern time. Some famous ones include Sima (司馬, simp. 司马), Zhuge (諸葛, simp. 诸葛), Au Yeung (歐陽, simp. 欧阳 Ouyang in pinyin, occasionally Anglicized, or rather, Irishized, as O'Young), and Szeto (in Cantonese) (司徒 in pinyin: Situ ). There are family names with three or more characters, but those are extremely rare and are not ethnically Han Chinese, for example, Aixinjueluo (愛新覺羅, also romanized from the Manchu language as Aisin Gioro, which was the family name of the Manchu royal family of the Qing dynasty.
Popularity of family names has regional distributions. Some common Northern names are rare in the South. For example, the 55th most popular family name Xiao (肖) is almost unheard of in Hong Kong, as this "new" surname was "created" from oversimplifying the traditional surname "蕭" during the Cultural Revolution. 陳 (simp. 陈) is perhaps the most common last name in Hong Kong (romanized as Chan) and is also common in Taiwan (romanized as Chen), whereas in Singapore, it is romanized as Tan. Fong (方), which is only the 47th most common overall, is much more common in San Francisco's Chinatown in the United States. As with the concentration of family names, this can also be explained statistically, as a person with an uncommon name could move to an unsettled area and leave this family name to large numbers of people.
Transliteration of Chinese family names (see List of common Chinese surnames) into English poses a number of problems. It is common for the same surname to be transliterated differently and for different family names with similar pronunciations to be transliterated identically.
In writing Chinese names, Chinese family names are placed before the given name, e.g. Cheung Kwok Wing. Hence the Western concept of first name and last name only creates confusion when used with Chinese names. In Westernized Asian countries or for those residing in the West, often a Western name is chosen, e.g. Leslie Cheung (張國榮). When the Western name and Chinese name are put together, it often becomes hard to tell what the family name is. Using Leslie Cheung as an example, some variants include:
- Zhāng Guóróng — China, transcription using official Hanyu pinyin system, which romanizes Mandarin pronunciation of Chinese characters and adds suprasegmental tone markers.
- Cheung Kwok-wing — China (Cantonese-speaking), romanization of Cantonese pronunciation of Chinese characters.
- Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing — Hong Kong, hybrid of Western/Chinese.
- Leslie Kwok-wing Cheung — United States among others, use given name as middle name.
Some publications and legal documents will print the family name in small capital letters to allow it to be easily distinguished, e.g. Leslie Cheung Kwok Wing.
Chinese women usually retain their maiden names after marriage. Outside of Mainland China they will sometimes place their husbands' family names in front of theirs. For example, former Chief Secretary for Administration of Hong Kong, Mrs. Anson Chan is known as Chan Fang On-sang (陳方安生) where Fang is her maiden name.
The sociological use of surnames
Throughout most of Chinese history, surnames have served sociological functions. Because of their association with the aristocratic elite in their early developments, surnames were often used as symbols of nobility. Thus nobles would use their surnames to be able to trace their ancestry and compete for seniority in terms of hereditary rank. Examples of early genealogies among the royalty can be found in Sima Qian's Historical Records, which contain tables recording the descent lines of noble houses called shibiao (世表).
Later, during the Han Dynasty, these tables were used by prominent families to glorify themselves and sometimes even to legitimise their political power. For example, Cao Pi, who forced the abdication of the last Han emperor in his favour, claimed descent from the Yellow Emperor. Chinese emperors sometimes passed their own surnames to subjects as honours. Unlike European practice in which some surnames are obviously noble, Chinese emperors and members of the royal family had regular surnames except in cases where they came from non-Han ethnic groups. This was a result of Chinese imperial theory in which a commoner could receive the Mandate of Heaven and become emperor. Upon becoming emperor, the emperor would retain his original surname. Also as a consequence, many people also had the same surname as the emperor, but had no direct relation to the royal family.
The Tang Dynasty was the last period when the great aristocratic families, mostly descended from the nobility of pre-Qin states, held significant centralised and regional power. The surname was used as a source of prestige and common alliegance. During the period a large number of genealogical records called pudie (譜牒) were compiled to trace the complex descent lines of clans and their marriage ties to other clans. A large number of these were collected by Ouyang Xiu in his New History of Tang.
During the Song Dynasty, ordinary clans began to organise themselves into corporate units and produce genealogies. This trend was led by the poet Su Shi and his father. As competition for resources and positions in the bureaucracy intensified, individuals used their common ancestry and surname to promote solidarity. They established schools to educate their sons and held common lands to aid disadvantaged families. Ancestral temples were also erected to promote surname identity. Clan cohesion was usually encouraged by successive imperial governments since it aided in social stability. During the Qing Dynasty surname associations often undertook extra-judicial roles, providing primitive legal and social security functions. They played important roles in the Chinese diaspora to South-East Asia and elsewhere, providing the infrastructure for the establishment of trading networks. In southern China, however, clans sometimes engaged in armed conflict in competition for land. Of course, clans continued the tradition of tracing their ancestry to the distant past as a matter of prestige. Most of these origin myths, though well established, are spurious.
As a result of the importance of surnames, rules and traditions regarding family and marriage grew increasingly complex. For example, in Taiwan, there is a clan with the so-called "double Liao" surname. The story is that the founder of the clan was adopted and so took the surname Liao, but in honor of his ancestors, he demanded that he be buried with the surname Chen. As a result, his descendants use the surname Liao while alive and the surname Chen after death. In some places, there are additional taboos against marriage between people of certain surnames, considered to be closely related. Conversely, in some areas, there are different clans with the same surname which are not considered to be related, but even in these cases surname exogamy is generally practiced.
Surname identity and solidarity has declined markedly since the 1930s with the decline of Confucianism and later, the rise of Communism in Mainland China. During the Cultural Revolution, surname culture was actively persecuted by the government with the destruction of ancestral temples and genealogies. Moreover, the influx of Western culture and forces of globalisation have also contributed to erode the previous sociological uses of the Chinese surname.
- Chinese Surnames (Simplified), with Real Audio
- Chinese-sounding surnames in the 1990 US census
- 《百家姓》 The Hundred Families' Surnames with literal meanings of the surnames.
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