So Many People, So Few Surnames

Updated: 2007-07-20 08:33

The Origins and Development of Chinese Surnames

The origin of Chinese surnames can be traced back to the matriarchal age in primitive society, when Shi (early surnames) were used to distinguish different tribes. Most of the earliest Chinese surnames, or Shi, which are still in use today, have the word "woman" as a character component. Marriage within a tribe of the same surname was forbidden, and children were raised by and given the surname of their mother's tribe. The development of surnames was a sign of societal progression, demonstrating that Chinese people were aware of the disadvantages of close inter-breeding.

With the development of society and the economy, the matrilineal system was gradually replaced by patriarchy and the class system. Another form of surnames, Xing, after the names of emperor-endowed land appeared. By the Warring States Period (475-221BC), the distinction between Xing and Shi disappeared, and the meaning of surnames was the same as it is today.

Unlike western surnames that were mainly formed in the Middle Ages, with some earlier ones in Greek and Roman times, Chinese surnames mostly originated 5,000 years ago, and were consistently developed and passed on in the following generations.

Chinese surnames derive basically from the following origins:

First, surnames came from the name of a place, location, or kingdom name, such as Zhao, Ximen (west gate), Zheng, and Su.

Second, ancient surnames like Ren, Feng, and Zi were inherited.

Third, the names of ancestors like Huangpu, Gao, Diao, Gong, and Shi were taken as surnames.

Fourth, words meaning seniority among brothers, like Bo (eldest), Zhong (second eldest), Shu (younger), and Ji (youngest), are used as surnames.

Fifth, ancient official positions are also used as surnames, such as Shi (historiographer), Cang (official in charge of a storehouse), Ku (official in charge of ordinance), Situ (official in charge of registration of cultivated land, settlement, and unpaid peasant labor), Sikou (minister of justice), and Taishi (astronomy and calendar official).

Sixth, profession and craft were used as surnames as well, for instance, Wu (wizard), Tu (butcher), You (actor or actress), and Bu (divination).

Seventh, ancestor's posthumous titles, like Dai and Zhao, were also used as surnames.

Eighth, when an array of ethnic groups amalgamated with the Han people in ancient China, a lot of these people changed their surnames to single character Han surnames. For instance, Batuo was changed to Yuan.

Ninth, some surnames were changed to avoid using taboo names (usually emperors' names), and vouchsafed surnames. For example, the imperial Li family of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) granted some meritorious officials the surname of Li, so did the imperial Zhu family in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).