The complex origins of Chinese names demystified
With more than 4,700 Chinese family names in use today, find out how the Chan in Jackie Chan dates back to 1046BC and why Bruce Lee owes his name to a plum tree
“What is your name?” ought to be a straightforward question but, for many Chinese, it is often accompanied by self-conscious explanations, repeated corrections and, finally, resigned capitulation (“Just call me John!”). Even in Hong Kong, where Han Chinese form the overwhelming majority, many non-Chinese residents find Chinese names “difficult” – although, in fairness, the fault is not entirely theirs.
The modern naming convention is actually quite simple: the family name is placed in front of the given name. For example, the name of the chief executive of Hong Kong, “Leung Chun-ying”, written as “梁振英” in Chinese, is standard, with the family name “Leung” (梁) placed in front of the given name, “Chun-ying” (振英).
All would be well if all romanised Chinese names followed this format, but that is not the case. Romanised family names are placed in all manner of positions. They may be rendered in the form of a Western “last name” because the person has taken on or been given a non-Chinese, usually Western, name in addition to his Chinese one, e.g. Peter Wong; or he may choose to go by his initials, which usually involves placing his surname last, e.g. C.Y. Leung. In the case of the hybridised Western-Chinese name John Tsang Chun-wah, the surname is the second word (“Tsang”).
While one’s family name can be placed in front, at the back or somewhere in between in romanised form, in Chinese it always precedes the given name. Hence, while the chief executive can either be “Leung Chun-ying” or “C.Y. Leung” in English-language press reports, in Chinese he will always be “梁振英”, never “振英梁”.
As in most patrilineal societies, the Chinese family name is passed down from father to child. A son will pass the same name to his children but a daughter will not: her children will take her husband’s family name.
The very first Chinese family names, however, might have originated in a matrilineal society. Many of these earliest clan names, known as xing, contain the ideograph for “woman” (女), such as Ji (姬), Ying (嬴), Yao (姚), Jiang ( 姜 ) and so on, which are probably representative of an era between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago, when people knew who their mother was but would have been less sure of their father’s identity. The word xing (姓) is made up of two ideographs that read “born of a woman”, and a person’s xing name placed them within a kinship group that forbade marriage between its members.
The appearance of another kinship indicator, the shi (氏), was first recorded in the Zhou dynasty (1046–256BC), by which time Chinese society had become firmly patrilineal and social organisation much more complex. The shi name was essentially a subset of the xing name, and individuals might have taken one because they desired greater differentiation among themselves.
For example, imagine a noble family with Ji as their xing name and who had been conferred a few castles and the surrounding lands by their king. Their domain was, say, the state of Zheng. In time, the descendants of this noble family would have taken on the name “Zheng” as their shi name to differentiate themselves from other Ji families, elsewhere. So, a member from this family with the given name, say, Boya, would have been identified thus: “Boya, with the xing Ji and the shi Zheng”, followed by a string of aliases such as style names, courtesy names and the like.
Over generations, the descendants of this Boya might have dropped or even forgotten their xing name (Ji) and begun using their shi name (Zheng) exclusively. Some descendants might also have changed their shi names to reflect new circumstances, such as migration or acquisition of a prominent title by one of their own.
And then there were commoners without xing names but who took on shi names that identified where they lived, what they did for a living and so on. It was all very confusing!
Fortunately, when the first emperor of the Qin dynasty unified China into a centralised empire in 221BC, his administration standardised many aspects of everyday life, including names. The xing and shi names, which by then had become interchangeable in practical terms, were formally merged into the single concept of the family name.
By the Western and Eastern Han dynasties (206BC-AD220), which followed the Qin, the naming convention had become stable, with almost every individual sporting a well-established family name followed by a given name, a style that remains the norm. Nevertheless, throughout the imperial period, many people, especially members of the elite, took on or were referred to by aliases in addition to their name, but this practice was dropped in the early 20th century.
Today, there are more than 4,700 Chinese family names in use – not including variants – and, according to a 2007 census by the Ministry of Public Security, the most common in the mainland is Wang (王), of whom there are a whopping 93 million. The next most common family names are: Li (李), Zhang (張), Liu (劉), Chen (陳), Yang (楊), Huang (黃), Zhao (趙), Zhou (周) and Wu (吳). Even if the Chinese family names in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and the rest of the world are included, the top 10 surnames remain unchanged. About 40 per cent of the world’s Chinese answer to one of these names.
FAMILY NAMES, AND the kinship ties they embody, have a special place in the Chinese psyche. In many immigrant Chinese communities there exist mutual-help associations whose main membership criterion is the possession of a specific family name, regardless of where one’s home province or village was in China. Although less so these days, people with the same family name articulate a connection with each other by saying their ancestors belonged to “the same family 500 years ago”. Indeed, centuries of meticulous record-keeping has enabled people to trace their forebears back many generations, and the study of these genealogies and other historical texts by scholars has given us the origins and histories of most Chinese family names.
The above categories encompass the majority of Chinese family names, but they are by no means exhaustive or mutually exclusive. Given the sheer size and population of the Chinese nation over several millennia, the same family name might have originated with different people at different places and times, as demonstrated in the stories that follow.
The brief accounts are abridged versions of the complex origins of the most common names, and many of the stories are just that. Written in historical texts but not independently verifiable, some of the alleged ancestors might not have even existed. Read them as one would legends or conjectures.
The default romanisation for the names follows the Hanyu Pinyin system, and the most common Cantonese romanised forms found in Hong Kong are also given. Note that ethnic Chinese outside the Greater China region, such as those in Singapore, Malaysia and North America, have their own romanised names. For example, Huang (黃) can be Wong, Ng, Ung, Wee, Ooi, Oei, Hwang, Hoang and so on.
Cantonese: Wong, not to be confused with the other Wong (黃)
Famous Wangs: Wang Yi (王毅), foreign minister of China; Wong Kar-wai (王家衛), film director; Wang Leehom (王力宏), Taiwanese-American singer.
Cantonese: Li, Lee
Famous Lis: the late Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀), first prime minister of Singapore; Li Ka-shing (李嘉誠), property magnate; the late Bruce Lee (李小龍), international film star.
Famous Zhangs: Zhang Dejiang (張德江), chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and top official responsible for Hong Kong and Macau affairs; Zhang Yimou (張藝謀), film director; the late Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing (張國榮), Canto-pop star.
Famous Lius: The late Liu Shaoqi (劉少奇), one of the top political leaders of China in the 1950s and 60s; Andy Lau Tak-wah (劉德華), Canto-pop singer and actor; Joseph Lau Luen-hung (劉鑾雄), fugitive tycoon.
Famous Chens: Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), former president of Taiwan; Joseph Zen Ze-kiun (陳日君), cardinal and bishop emeritus of Hong Kong; Jackie Chan (陳港生, known professionally in Chinese as 成龍), Academy Award-winning actor.
Famous Yangs: Chen-Ning Franklin Yang (楊振寧), co-winner of the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics; Michelle Yeoh Choo Kheng (楊紫瓊), Malaysia-born international film star; Jerry Yang (楊致遠), Taiwanese-American co-founder of Yahoo!
Cantonese: Wong, not to be confused with the other Wong (王)
Famous Huangs: the late Anna May Wong Liu Tsong ( 黃柳 霜 ), the first Chinese-American Hollywood movie star; the late Ng Teng Fong (黃廷芳), Singapore and Hong Kong property magnate; Joshua Wong Chi-fung (黃之峰), secretary general of Hong Kong political party Demosisto.
Famous Zhaos: the late Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽), former premier of China; Cecil Chao Sze-tsung (趙世曾), business magnate; Vicki Zhao Wei (趙薇), actress and singer.
Famous Zhous: the late Zhou Shuren (周樹人), 20th-century literary giant who wrote under the pen name Lu Xun; the late Zhou Enlai (周恩來), premier of China; Jay Chou Chieh-lun (周杰倫), Taiwanese entertainer.
Famous Wus: John Woo Yu-sen (吳宇森), film director; the late Momofuku Ando, born Wu Baifu (吳百福), Taiwanese-Japanese inventor of instant noodles; Daniel Wu Yin-cho (吳彥祖), Hong Kong-American actor.