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So Many People, So Few Surnames
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The world's most populous nation has a long history of using surnames. But in an increasingly industrialized society, surnames are losing some of their functions. Yet their formation, development, and evolution through the ages mean surnames have become an important part of Chinese culture.

How surnames originated and developed is a fascinating subject involving various spheres from sociology, history, linguistics, philology, geography, folk customs, demography, to toponymy. A look into Chinese surnames opens a small window onto an interesting part of China's vast and varied culture.

Many cultures in the world became extinct with the demise of the nations that created them. Chinese surname culture has survived and developed over the past four or five thousand years. Surnames have been used to represent the origin of clans and families, recording the kindred formation of the Chinese nation. They have played an important role in making China a cohesive nation.

So Many People, So Few Surnames

Most Chinese surnames in use today were handed down from thousands of years ago, and some statistics argue that there are about Chinese 5,600 surnames, while the more accountable data is from 4,000 to 6,000, of which about 1,000 are most frequently used. Many surnames have clear origins and have evolved throughout history with rich and interesting stories. For instance, the surname Liu has five separate origins; meaning people with this surname today may actually be unrelated to each other. Meanwhile, other surnames, like Gu and Wu, originate from the same ancestor.

The Book of Family Names (Baijiaxing), a popular children's primer in ancient China, was written in 960. It listed 408 single-character surnames, and 30 double-character ones. These are some of the most common ones:

The top ten surnames used by about 40% of Chinese - more than 400 people: Zhang, Wang, Li, Zhao, Chen, Yang, Wu, Liu, Huang, and Zhou.

The second ten most popular surnames, used by more than 10% of Chinese: Xu, Zhu, Lin, Sun, Ma, Gao, Hu, Zheng, Guo, and Xiao.

The third ten most popular surnames, used by about 10% of Chinese: Xie, He, Xu (written with a different character from another Xu), Song, Sheng, Luo, Han, Deng, Liang, and Ye.

The following 15 surnames are also used by about 10% of the population: Fang, Cui, Cheng, Pan, Cao, Feng, Wang (written with a different character from another Wang), Cai, Yuan, Lu, Tang, Qian, Du, Peng, and Lu.

So in total, more than 70% of the Chinese population uses the same 45 surnames. The other 30% are less frequently used surnames like Mao, Jiang, Bai, Wen, Guan, Liao, and Chi etc.

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).

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.

(China Daily July 20, 2007)

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