The origin of Chinese surnames

2 parents holding their child with chinese surnames around them
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Chinese surnames and their origin

According to conjecture, Fu Xi who lived more than five thousand years ago was the first user of the ‘Feng’ Chinese surname. The origin of Chinese surnames could be traced back to primitive human times of matriarchal society. At that time, people only knew their mothers and not their fathers. Many ancient Chinese surnames such as Ji, Yao, Jiang all have the female character inside the word. At the Zhou dynasty, females had surnames while males only had status surnames. When the society transitioned to patriarchal society, one’s surname became inherited from their father. At the latter stages of the warring kingdoms era, surname and status surnames combined into one representing a person’s family. This is the Chinese people’s present day understanding of surnames.

Chinese surnames originated from many different ways. Some came from status surnames, some came from kingdom names and some came from local region names, some came from position titles, some were rewarded surnames by the king and some changed their surnames out of concern.

Over 33,000 surnames existed in Chinese history and now more than 7000 are still being used. In the latest Chinese surname rankings, Wang, Li and Zhang are ranked top three. There’s a saying, Zhang San, Li Si, Wang Ermazi. This means that these three Chinese surnames are very common. These three surnames account for 21% of the Chinese national population at 270 million. They are the three largest same surname groups in the world.

Chinese family sitting at a table posing for the camera

Why is Zhao first?

The traditional ‘Hundred Family Surnames’ was an introductory reading material written by a scholar in the Song dynasty living at Qian Tang. He organised the common Chinese surnames into four letter poems for ease of reading and remembrance.

Because the emperor of the Song dynasty had the surname Zhao, he used Zhao as the first of the surnames. The Ming dynasty version of the ‘Hundred Family Surnames’ is also filled with political influence. In the order of surnames, Zhu became first. By the Qing dynasty, the imperial made ‘Hundred Family Surnames’ was personally checked over by emperor Kang Xi. This version didn’t list the surname of the emperor first. It instead listed the surname of Confucius and Mencius first. Just like that, over the past few thousand years ‘Hundred Family Surnames’ became a symbol collectively recognised by people.

Naming DNA

The ancestors of the Chinese people were too smart. More than five thousand years ago, they used surnames to label their family. This was not only to mark the difference from other people but also more importantly to avoid inbreeding. This was marking the Y chromosome. The passing down of surnames was the passing down of Y chromosomes. Every chinese inherits the surname of their ancestors as soon as they are born. This symbol follows them throughout their entire life and will continue to be passed down through the generations.

Map of china in which locations of the origin of certain chinese surnames are pointed out

How many strange surnames do you know?

Number as Chinese surnames: You might not know that numbers could be surnames too whether it was small case or upper case one two three four five six seven eight nine ten. These are all surnames that have been used by Chinese people. Other than this, there’s also hundred, thousand, ten thousand, ten million and trillion.

Direction as Chinese surnames: East, South, West, North, Left, Right, Up and down. Amongst these, North is rather rare while Up and Right are the surnames of Chinese ethnic minorities.

Item as Chinese surnames: It’s frequently said the first things you see when you open the door are logs, rice, oil, salt, sauce, vinegar and tea. Interestingly, these seven items are surnames too. Log and Rice are rather common. Oil is a surname of the Lisu ethnic minority. Salt and Vinegar surnames are common in Sichuan. Sauce is recorded in Taiwan while Tea is mainly in Yunnan province.

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