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.


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