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
Chinese surnames derive basically from the following
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
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