So Many People, So Few Surnames

Updated: 2007-07-20 08:33

Tenth, family names were changed in order to avoid revenge killings by family enemies.

However, within the twisting context of history, one Chinese surname may have different origins, and many surnames may have come from the same origin. Nowadays, a lot of new surnames have also appeared, for instance, some parents combine both of their single-character surnames to make a new double-character surname for their newborn rather than sticking to the tradition of giving the child the paternal surname. .

Mythological Origins of Chinese Surnames

Ji, one of the earliest Chinese surnames, is said to be related to the Yellow Emperor, a legendary ruler and ancestor of the Chinese nation. According to the Historical Records by Sima Qian, the Yellow Emperor was originally surnamed Gongsun with the given name of Xuanyuan, but he later changed the surname to Ji because he "lived near Ji River for a long time." Because he was considered the greatest emperor in ancient China, more than 70 surnames directly or indirectly originated from the Yellow Emperor's surname Ji.

Legend goes that the Yellow Emperor had 25 sons, and 14 of them got 12 surnames with Ji ranking the top. It is said that Houji, the ancestor of the Zhou people, was the great grandson of Yellow Emperor. He was also surnamed Ji and there is a myth about it. Houji's mother was once on an outing and accidentally found some footprints of a giant, she was very happy and followed these steps. Later she gave birth to Houji. When Houji grew up, he taught people about agriculture and he was endowed the surname of Ji.

The surname Si is related to Emperor Dayu, the founder of the Xia Dynasty (About 21st -16th century BC) who once led the people in preventin floods. It is said Dayu's mother once swallowed Job's tears, gave birth to his son, and gave the child the surname Si, because 'plant' is homophonous to Si.

The surname of the imperial family of the Shang Dynasty (about 16th -11th century BC) is Zi. Their ancestor Qi was the son of Jiandi who was from a humble family. Mythology goes that Jiandi once was bathing in the river and found a swallow's egg on the bank. She ate it and gave birth to Qi. The Chinese character Zi can mean egg and was used as a surname for Qi.

Surnames and Genetics

Aside from the cultural values, Chinese surnames are gradually becoming more recognized in life science. In most cases, surnames are passed down from generation to generation with kindred links. Research into the distribution of surnames could offer some insight into genetic structure, kinship among different groups, and migration of Chinese people.

Customarily, Chinese people inherit their father's surname, which theoretically means people with the same surname would share the same Y chromosome. Surnames as a whole remain relatively stable, yet there also are a lot of cases where people changed their surnames. However, surnames are still an important starting place to trace the origins and formation of the Chinese nation.