Chinese Names: History, Evolution, and Meanings

Name, as a sign or cultural symbol that indicates the blood tie within a certain social structure, has very complex and rich implications and, as a system culture, possesses comprehensive cultural characteristics. Due to the difference in race, language, faith, etc., the name system in different countries and races will undoubtedly be greatly varied, the Chinese name system is, in particular, worth mentioning.

As we all know, every person has his or her name since he or she was born and one may bring his name into social activities. However, in ancient Chinese society, names have a far deeper meaning.

In the long history of China, the culture of Chinese names has been an important part of Chinese life. In the fields of politics, culture and social activities, the name is crucial. As early as one million years ago, the Chinese began to be the residents on the ancient land and the relevant materials have already proven it. The history of the family name dates back to the matriarchal clan society, which is 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. The feature of matriarchal clan society means that in the clan the women are the leaders of important issues. And marriages are allowed only among different clans.

Chinese Surnames and Meanings

In ancient China, one person usually had several names, and naming involved “姓、氏、名、字”(xing, shi, ming, and zi). Today, for simplicity, people use “姓氏”(xing shi) to refer to a person’s surname, and “名字”(ming zi) to refer to one’s given name. Xing and shi, ming and zi are not used separately. In ancient times, however, each of these four words meant a different thing. A study of ancient Chinese documents shows that xing originally referred to the names of different matriarchal tribes. It also had something to do with the place where people lived. Therefore, family names, which are used to judge the different places and clans, emerged.

For example, according to the historical records, Emperor Yandi’s mother lived by the Jiang River(姜水), so her xing (surname) was Jiang(姜); Emperor Huangdi’s mother lived by the Ji River(姬水), so xing was Ji(姬). The other source was the totems ancient tribes worshipped. For instance, the names of some animals that ancient tribes worshipped, such as 龙(Long, meaning dragon), 熊(Xiong, meaning bear), and 凤(Feng, meaning phoenix) were adopted as names for certain tribes and therefore became xing. People within a tribe shared a common xing. The purpose of adopting xing was to clarify one’s race and ancestry and to determine whether it was appropriate for one person to marry another.

Xing and shi were closely related, and shi had the following sources: Vassals had the names of their territories as their shi, for instance, Chen shi (陈氏), Song shi(宋氏). Normally, the Vassal’s sons were called Gongzi(公子), Gongzi’s sons were called Gongsun(公孙), Gongsun’s sons took their grandfather’s zi as their shi. Officials had the names of their titles as their shi, for instance, Sima Shi(司马氏), and Sikong Shi(司空氏); common people only had names, without shi. Even influential common people did not have shi; they could only add their profession before their names such as Butcher Ding, Mason Shi, Doctor He, etc. Later some professions became common surnames.

Xingshi (surname)was related to one’s clan name or family name, and ming and zi (given name)were one’s given names. Xingshi was shared while ming and zi were for individuals. People got their xingshi(surnames) the moment they were born, while they got their ming and zi(given names) later.

1) Evolution of Chinese Surnames

According to the research of Gu Yanwu of the Qing Dynasty, there are about 22 oldest family names in China. Maybe there are more, but a lot of them disappeared in history. About 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, China entered the patrilineal clan society. During this time, society went from a clan society to a class society. One of the main features of this period is the emergence of conflict among the clans by different ancestors. The clans that won in the conflict were considered superior to the clans that lost. So the new structure of class society appeared. In addition, a lot of social members who had feats gained new territory and awards. And they were allowed to go to their new territory with their families, affiliates and the captives they got hold of in the conflicts. These people also gained a new symbol related to their territory – clan name.

After the unification of China by Qin, there was a combination of family names with clan names. The condition changed several times during the 2,000 years of feudal society. The dynasties changed and every time there was a new territory, new family or clan names emerged. Names became the symbols of class and a special culture was formed around the names. The culture was handed down through the inherent. And the center of the culture is the consciousness of recognizing the ancestors.

2) Significance of Chinese Surnames

In old China, one’s surname was revered because the individual bearing it was but a small link in the long history of an illustrious clan. One would never change his name, especially his surname. If a person did so, he or she had probably committed a grave and heinous crime and wanted to sever ties with the past through a name change. Such a person would most likely move away from home to start life anew.

People with the same surname shared a commonality and considered themselves relatives regardless of the number of generations removed, the geographical distance or lack of consanguinity. Since the commonality was derived from a common ancestor at some point in time, it was considered an insult when a person with the same surname disclaimed family or other close relationships. For the same reason, old Chinese custom prohibited marriages of couples with the same surname.

How Many Surnames are There in China?

It is often claimed that there are approximately 500 surnames in China. This belief seems to derive from a well-known book entitled Hundred Family Surnames, written by an unknown author in what we know as Hangzhou today at the beginning years of the Song Dynasty. The book was widely used as a vocabulary text for students in old China, and it lists 484 surnames, of which 408 consist of one character and 76 of two characters. This list, however, is by no means exhaustive. At present, according to the latest statistics, there, historically speaking, used to be 11,969 surnames and there are around 200 Chinese surnames commonly used today, only 100 of which are the most commonly seen as single-character surnames. Names are derived from many sources, such as the names of ancient states or townships, official titles, given names, posthumous names, and specific localities or trades.

According to the latest statistics issued by the Ministry of Public Security of China in 2007, the most common surnames in China, in descending order, are Wang (taking up approximately 7.25% of the total Han people), Li (7.19%) and Zhang (6.38%). The population of these three surnames is over 270 million. The next seven surnames, of which the population is separately over 20 million, are Liu, Chen, Yang, Huang, Zhao, Wu and Zhou. Xu, Sun, Ma, Zhu, Hu, Guo, He, Gao, Lin, Luo, Zheng, and Liang are the 12 surnames of which the population is separately over 10 million.

Chinese Given Names and Meanings

A Chinese may have many given names throughout his life. One month after birth, an infant is given a “milk name”. This name is used by family members, relatives and close friends. The name is usually selected either by the family elder or by a literate friend. Names for boys reflect the parents’ wishes for good health, longevity, prosperity, expected talents, virtues, diligence, filial piety, patriotism or intelligence. Girls are named after exotic flowers, pretty birds, musical instruments or jewels. Girls might also be named for feminine attributes such as beauty, grace, thrift and purity. In some rural families, however, girls are not given names but are simply referred to as the “oldest girl”, “second girl”, “third girl” and so forth.

Frequently, all the boys in one family would be given names that shared the same first character or adjective. This is sometimes done with the girls in the family as well. Since the two characters of the given name go together, they should be spelled together as a single word or occasionally hyphenated when the name is anglicized.

Another method for selecting a given name is based on the child’s horoscope and its relationship to the “Five Elements”. A fortune teller, after studying the month, day, and hour of the birth, determines whether the infant has a full complement of the Five Elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth. If any element is lacking in the child, a character with the radical or root of the missing element is used in the name to correct the deficiency and make the child “complete”. For example, if the child was lacking water, he might be given the name 海(Hai, meaning sea), 江(Jiang, meaning river), 波(Bo, meaning wave), etc., because those characters are based on the radical of water.

In comparison, meanings in given names are always chosen to reflect elements of the era. In the old days, characters meaning “wealth”, “fortune”, and “happiness” were very common in names. Characters with the meanings of “gifted”, “handsome”, and “clever” were often chosen by parents as well wishes for their children to be beautiful, capable, and intelligent. In the 1950s and 1960s, boys were named mostly in accordances with the characteristics of the time, such as 建国(Jianguo, meaning building the country), 国庆(guoqing, meaning celebrating the nation), and 超英(chaoying, meaning surpassing the British). The reform and opening policies of China have also provided more choices of characters, such as 博(bo, meaning strive for), 思(si, meaning thoughtful), and 宇航(yuhang, meaning aeronautics). Parents would like to have their children learn more knowledge, be more thoughtful, and have great aspirations. Some people also like to use translated Western names such as David, Richard, Lisa and Linda.

There are no “juniors” in Chinese names. A son is never named after his father, nor do parents name their children after relatives. Each child is considered an entirely unique individual. When a child gets enrolled in school, he or she is given a “school name” or “book name”. This name is used by his or her teachers and schoolmates and alluded to his or her intelligence, diligence or scholarship.

In old China, it was considered improper for a married woman to reveal or use her given or maiden name. For example, if her maiden surname was Li and she was married to a man whose surname was Wang, she called herself Wang-Li Shi, which meant Mrs.Wang nee Li. However, since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, women have been granted equal rights as citizens as men. They can keep their former maiden name after marriage.

Nicknames and Other Names

Nicknames are common. These names are often based on a physical defect, a peculiarity in personality in the individual’s life. Some nicknames may be given with goodwill and used by others without hostility, manifesting the friendly relationships between the addressee and the addressed. But some others may be derogatory or even hostile, aiming at jeering at or ridiculing or hurting the feelings of the addressee. Therefore, it is essential that caution be taken to those who have the habit of giving and addressing others nicknames just in case that diverse effect may be caused.

Writers, artists, and actors used to have “special names” that were equivalent to pen names or stage names. In Chinese history, a scholar who passed the old imperial examination and became a government official was given an “official name”. Some important such as emperors and some privileged people were given a “posthumous name” after they died, and a deceased emperor was usually granted a “temple name”.

Generally speaking, Chinese names usually consist of three characters, which differ from those in western countries and the spelling of which is also different from that of the English-speaking world, with the first character being the surname and the following two characters, taken together, constitute the given name. The first character of the given name is, in most cases, an adjective modifying the second character, a noun. Now more and more people have single-character given names, such as 姜江(Jiang Jiang), 沈虞(Shen Yu), and 张欣(Zhang Xin), the first being the surname and the latter the given name.

The Spelling of Chinese Names

The anglicization of Chinese names used to have created much confusion, because a name might be spelled in many ways depending on the dialect spoken and how the translator interpreted the sound of the name. Moreover, although Chinese write their surname first and then the two characters of the given name, as in a directory or name file, many Westerners assume that the last character is the surname. In time, through common Western usage, some Chinese have even replaced their surname with the anglicized given name.

Some Chinese living abroad have also changed their surnames and given names to conform to names used in their adopted countries. In the United States, for example, the surname He has been changed to Holt, Luo has become Loew, Xie has become Shea and Zhong has become June.

Currently, overseas Chinese people, still have the tradition to recognize their ancestors in Mainland China. In recent years the culture of Chinese names has become a huge historical treasure of China as it can help people to learn Chinese history in a different way. A series of the core features of ancient Chinese society such as the autocracy system, family social system, and the rules of act are all shown through the name culture, which is the reason why it is constantly noted in the field of academia. Nowadays, since more and more foreigners are interested in Chinese culture and taking pains to learn Chinese, many of them feel quite interested to have a Chinese name exactly according to the Chinese way, which indicates the charm of the Chinese culture and the fun learning Chinese can bring to people.

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