Say I made a restaurant reservation under my name, which is pronounced “Wong” in Cantonese. Almost inevitably, I’d have to qualify it with a prefix – “Kong-ha Wong” – to differentiate between the “Wong” (which means “yellow”) that’s my surname and the “Wong” that’s pronounced exactly the same way but is the word for “king”. There would be no such problem in a Mandarin-speaking milieu as the two surnames are pronounced differently – Huang and Wang, respectively.

So, what is this “Kong-ha” that people like me add to our surname when we say it in Cantonese?

Kong-ha, or Jiangxia in Mandarin, is a clan temple name (tanghao) that traditionally categorised people into family names and lineages. These names, which can be found on plaques and lanterns at ancestral temples, originated in literature, family legends or geography (for example, Jiangxia was in ancient China, in present-day Hubei province, where the Huang clan was supposed to have settled, multi­plied and then spread across China and the world).

A clan temple name could be shared by several sur­names, but people with the same surname could have different clan temple names, depending on the geo­graphic origins of their ancestors. Chinese choronyms such as Jiangxia, Yingchuan (for people whose surname is Chen, or Chan in Cantonese) and Xihe (Lin or Lam) are going the way of the dodo.

The complex origins of Chinese names demystified

Few Chinese today know or care about clan temple names – they are quaint historical relics that occasion­ally intrude into the modern world – when one needs to make a reservation, for instance.

By the way, people with the other “Wong” (“king”) as their surname would use the prefix “Saam-waak Wong”, where “saam-waak” (“three strokes”) isn’t a clan temple name but approximates the way the character is written.