By (one) Popular Demand: On Surnames, Part 1

For a society as family- and clan-oriented as the Chinese, it’s not much surprise that surnames carry considerable significance to us. Sure, some surnames are funnier than others – Hu is the president of China, eh – but still! Srs Bznss!

As the interview with Mo Yan’s brother (part 1 and part 2) shows, the cultural DNA he was talking about not only includes literature, but also familial legacies – the clan claims a statesman from 2,700 years ago as an ancestor. Trustworthy? I don’t know, though the two are from the same part of China. But there you are.

The character

The word for ‘surname’ in Chinese is 姓 Xing4; the left component is the ‘female’ radical, 女, while the right, phonetic component is for ‘life’, ‘birth’ or ‘growth’, 生. (Which makes sense, of course). The female component needs a little explanation, though; it is there because the current word is actually one of two words for surname, the other being 氏 Shi4

These days, either 姓 or 姓氏 would mean the same thing, since people only have one surname inherited from the paternal line. Three and a half thousand years ago, though, Chinese society was actually matrilineal, so surnames came down the maternal line. Later, when both lines of descent were considered, 姓 referred to the  surname taken from mom, while 氏 referred to the surname from dad. This is also why some of the most ancient Chinese surnames, including those of legendary historical figures, tended to have the female radical – 姚 Yao2, 妫 Gui1, 姜 Jiang1 (the female radical is at the bottom), 姬 Ji1 and 姒 Si4 for instance. All these surnames still exist, in fact; Yao and Jiang are relatively common, while the other two are rare.

The Hundred Family Surnames

So, as can be seen, Chinese surnames hang around a long time, and as with any society there are common and less common surnames. Some of the most common were compiled into a rhyming, mnemonic text – itself a literary tradition in classical Chinese – which we know these days as the Hundred Family Surnames, 百家姓 Bai3 Jia1 Xing4.

The text was compiled during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279), the same dynasty that produced Su Shi and many, many other writers, and groups the surnames into lines of four, beginning with the one-word, and then the two-word surnames. All in all, a mere 504 surnames were collected, 444 of which have one word and 60 have two. This accounted for – and, to be honest, still accounts for – the vast majority of the Chinese population.

Interesting fact: the first four surnames in that little collection are all royal or imperial surnames, reflecting the political conditions of the time. The first, 赵 Zhao4, is the imperial surname of the Song Dynasty; the second, 钱 Qian2 (which means money, and isn’t anywhere near being a common surname) is the royal surname of the Kingdom of Wuyue – a small state in the southeast of China which was lauded for surrendering peacefully to the Song to avoid a bloody war.

Uninteresting fact: besides recording the surnames in an easy to remember format – and to be honest it’s not even that easy to remember – the Hundred Family Surnames tells us practically nothing about the surnames. I intend to do exactly that, though, in the next post – where we will talk about things like Hall Names, Origins, and the like.


A Little Question

So, should my next post be about:

– Ancient Chinese vessels and utensils

– Chinese surnames, or

– Literary groupings of the Tang and Song eras? 


If none of these are up your alley, suggestions are also welcome! 

Nobel Prize Saturday: An Interview with Mo Yan’s older brother (Part 2)

(Part 1 here.)

SB: While writing The Garlic Ballads, Mo Yan said the main motive came from a fourth uncle from around here.

GMX: My fourth uncle was a production team leader, the son of my third granduncle. My grandfather’s generation had three brothers – the oldest was a landlord, the second brother was a middling farmer, and the third brother was quite poor.

So my fourth uncle was my third granduncle’s second son, and he was team leader all the while, and Mo Yan worked with him since when he was about ten. He took very good care of Mo Yan. At the time he had just been contracted, the farmers’ morale was very high and life was getting better. And there was a sugar plant in Gaomi, one of the larger sugar plants in the north, and he was contracted to drive oxcarts and deliver beets.

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Nobel Prize Saturday: an interview with Mo Yan’s older brother

(Disclaimer: Again, translation for personal use and edification only.)

Another year, another Chinese Nobel Lit laureate! Well, the previous one (Gao Xingjian, in 2000) is technically French by now, so I guess this is the first one. Guan Moye 管谟业, better known by his pen name Mo Yan 莫言 (which means ‘don’t speak’ in Chinese) has been famous for quite a while in China; one of his novels, Red Sorghum, was adapted for film by none other than Zhang Yimou, a directorial debut and breakthrough work at the same time.

Sina Books did an interview of the author’s older brother Guan Moxian, and given the occasion I thought I might do a little translation of it. (Original interview, in Chinese, here.) The interview’s pretty long, so I’ve broken it into two parts.

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曲江二首 – Two poems, written at the Meandering River

Du Fu (712 – 770) is the one part of the Tang Poetic Trinity I’ve been holding back – partly because he is my favourite of the three. While the three contemporary masters perhaps didn’t see it as such, they all lived through an event which would prove a watershed of history – the An-Shi Rebellion (756 – 763), a seven-year revolt named after its two leaders which tore the Tang Dynasty apart at its very peak and undermined the central government fatally. Only Du Fu would survive the calamity; Wang died in 761, and Li in 762.

The way the civil war treated each of the three men, though, perhaps best reflects their character. Wang, captured by the rebels, somehow could not be persuaded to join them; then the Imperial Court suspected him of that exact defection, but were somehow persuaded that he was innocent. So, both sides having washed off his back like water, he returned to his Buddhist life, and remained so even as his titles and ranks were gradually restored to him. The calm within him had carried him through even this calamity.

Li, ever on the move, kept on the move during the war, and was also accused of treason and nearly put to death. Eventually he was exiled to a distant corner of the empire, but even this trip to the Tang version of Siberia proved just another trip in the spirited poet’s life, as he meandered through the realm meeting friends, writing poems and getting smashed. There was no dampening his spirit; he was on the road; he was wild and could not be tamed.

Du Fu, too, was forced into wandering, moving to Chengdu in Sichuan, where the Tang government-in-exile was. But as his nature was heavy, so his journeys were slow, full of pauses and ponderous. He had family to take care of; he did not have the spirit of Li Bai, or the calm of Wang Wei. What he had, more than either of them, was a sharp ear and a sharp eye – and plenty to watch and listen to.


The Meandering River lay to the south of Chang’an, and during better times was a renowned scenic area for all the well-heeled and literate of the capital. The two poems below, however, were not written in better times; they were composed in 758, in the midst of the Rebellion.

Du Fu had escaped Chang’an when it was captured by rebels in 756; in 757, Tang forces recaptured it. But a year was enough to unmake the entire world around the capital, as Du Fu would know – he had been held in Chang’an for months before escaping to join the government-in-exile. Perhaps it was the tenacity of nature (as he noted in another poem) which led him to visit the Meandering River; perhaps it was that the human world had done its best to reject him – the court he had risked death to rejoin, shuttling through mountains twice, had continuously sidelined and neglected him. Either way, he came and he wrote.

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