On Surnames, Part 2

Right, about time I finally got around to this.

Previously, we talked about the Hundred Family Surnames, and the character for ‘surname’ itself. In this post, what we will discuss are the different appellations and terms which are traditionally attached to surnames – such things as prominent prefectures (郡望) and hall names (堂號). Also, we’ll look at my own surname, Zhou 周 as an example of all these lovely things, because my surname is all very illustrious and grand and awesome!



The Chinese have this saying to illustrate a tough, upright man:


‘Travels without changing name, sits without changing surname’

Of course, this isn’t strictly true – surnames do change, and new surnames do pop up all the time (while old surnames fade into extinction). Whereas the Hundred Family Surnames recorded 600 or so, it is estimated that there are about 3,000 or so surnames in use these days. Considering there are about a billion Chinese, that’s really not very many, and yet people still manage to identify each other not just as being of the same surname, but also of the same clan.

How is that done? That’s where traditional tools like clan prefectures come in.

Ask most people where their hometown is, and they’ll tell you where they are born. Ask a Chinese, however, and there are a few possible answers. Even the normal modern term for hometown, 籍貫 ji2 guan4, can refer either to where you were born and raised, or where your parents or even grandparents were born. And on top of that there is the ancestral hometown, or 祖籍 zu3 ji2, which is where the clan originated. As such, while I am born and raised a Singaporean and my family has been there for three generations, my ‘ancestral hometown’ is Anxi County in Fujian Province – a place I’ve never even been to before!

Prominent Prefectures

Stretching even farther back than this is the concept of the prominent prefecture, or 郡望 jun4 wang4. Since we love to have famous ancestors and people sharing the same surname, the prominent prefecture represents certain areas of ancient China where the surname gained a certain measure of fame or prominence. Different clans will have different prominent prefectures, sometimes written on signboards and placed above the family gates, to represent which clan exactly they have come from.

Taking Zhou as an example, the ancientness and commonness of this surname means there are nearly twenty such prefectures. Mine, personally, is 汝南 ru3 nan2, a prefecture which still exists today as a county in Henan Province. (Never been there either.)

Hall Names

Having a historical record of where your clan came from is all very well, but another way of recording where the clan’s origins lay is even more poetic, involving direct references to those famous ancestors. Like the prominent prefectures, these names contain just two characters, alluding to different historical figures.

Again, taking Zhou as an example, two famous hall names reflect two people famous for very different reasons. The first is 細柳 xi4 liu3, ‘narrow willows’; the second is 愛蓮 ai4 lian2, ‘lotus-loving’.

Narrow Willows:

The name refers to a large military barracks during the Han Dynasty, situated near the capital in Chang’an and the headquarters of general Zhou Yafu 周亞夫 (). Zhou was a famously strict disciplinarian, and when Emperor Jing visited the barracks unannounced, he was actually kept waiting at the gate by the military guards. Even when the Imperial Seal was displayed to the troops in an effort to prove his identity, they simply replied, ‘this is a military camp; we take orders from the general, not the Son of Heaven.’

Subsequently, when a large scale rebellion broke out in the Empire, it was Zhou Yafu’s well-disciplined troops which bore the brunt of the fighting and suppressed the rebels; therefore his descendants remember him by his headquarters.


Zhou Dunyi was a famous scholar and philosopher of the Song Dynasty, one of the forerunners of the great Zhu Xi who laid the foundations for Neo-Confucianism. He was also the person who introduced the yin-yang symbol as we know it, with the wavy black and white halves.

As with so many famous philosophers, though, he is mostly known not for the dense metaphysical writings but for his accessible and rather representative little anecdote, called On the Love of the Lotus (愛蓮說, ai4 lian2 shuo1). In a little essay on what sort of flowers people are into, he worked in his personal view on what an ideal gentleman should be like; and that is why ‘Lotus-Loving’ has become the hall name of his descendants.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s