A complete Chinese name can consist of two or three characters. The first character is the family or clan name known as the surname name in English while the personal name may contain a middle and last character. Notice that the surname location is the reverse order to English practice, e.g. Mao Zedong (毛澤東), where Mao (毛) was his surname and Zedong (澤東) was his given name. Sometimes, a complete name can consist of only two characters, e.g. Chen Yu (陳豫) where the surname is Chen (陳) and the given name is Yu (豫). Even a double or compound surname can have one single given name, e.g. Sima Qian (司馬遷) where Sima (司馬) is a double surname and Qian (遷) the given name. More on Chinese Names
According to Dr. K. C. Wu (“The Chinese Heritage" ) from the past the Chinese have always venerated their ancestors, and they believed that the well being of the ancestors and the descendants were directly linked to each other. Their interest was also mutually inseparable, and it gradually became the foundation for the creation of the family system. This phenomenon led to the early appearance of family names in China because they were needed to separate and distinguish people from one another in accordance with their parentage. Without surnames it would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for men to trace back their lineal descent. The Chinese have used surnames even before recorded history. In Chinese, the Western term surname also means a family name or a clan name.
Ancient China was a matriarchal society (muxizhidu [母系制度] or muxishehui [母系社會]) as evidenced by the early family names (commonly referred to as surnames in Western term) that invariably contain the root or radical for "woman" (女) which is depicted on the left hand side of a complex surname character or embedded elsewhere within it, e.g. E (娥), E (婀), Gui (媯), Ji (姬), Jiang (姜), Lao (嫪), Lou (婁), Si (姒), Shi (始), Wei (委), Wei (威), Yan (偃), Yao (姚), Ying (嬴), Yun (妘). Such family names are therefore limited in number today. A family name is called Xing (姓) and notice this word in essence means "born of woman" as it contains a combination of both the "woman" (nu) (女) and "born" (sheng) (生) characters. The Xing (姓) was inherited by the children (sons and daughters) came only from the mother's surname and was thus designated as a family name. There are also other ancient family names which do not contain the "woman" (nu) (女) radical like Cao (曹), Dong (董), Feng (風), Gui (歸), Ji (吉), Jian (芊), Kui/Wei (隗), Man (曼), Mi (羋), Qi (祁), Qi (漆), Ren (任), Zi (子).
However, in ancient times a clan name, called Shi (氏) was originally only applied to aristocrats (guizu [貴族 ]). These clan names do not contain the "woman" (女) radical within the complex character structure and was given by decree to an aristocrat upon enfeoffment on the basis of his fief. Hence, an aristocrat may possess a clan name, Shi (氏) as well as a family name, Xing (姓). Shi (氏) clan names now predominate over Xing (姓) family names.
Eventually China slowly morphed into a patriarchal society (zongfazhidu [宗法制度] or fuxishehui [父系社會]). Xing (姓) and Shi (氏) became synonymous terms to mean both a family and/or clan name.
Over time Shi (氏) later became a unique term which is only applicable for women in a special connotation as by Chinese custom women retain their own surnames even after marriage. This is often seen in family and clan genealogy records as well as inscriptions on tombstones. Unfortunately, this term has often been misinterpreted to mean Mrs or Ms in English which is incorrect. In the excerpted page image from my zupu notice that about half way down the page after the character pei 配 (married to) the surnames shown below each end with the character shi 氏. The only English equivalent explanation can be found in the French word "nee" which means "surname at birth". The first surname shown under Column 1 is 配黃氏 and this means "Married to (配) Huang (黃) nee (氏) ". This Western practice is commonly found in published obituaries for women.
Of course, Shi (氏) is also commonly used to depict a surname, eg. in a banquet invitation or displayed banner given by a family, say by the Yang Family which is shown as Yang Shi (楊氏) which looks and sounds more elegant than Yang Xing (楊姓) plus it was not one of the original Xing (姓) but rather a Shi (氏).
When expressed in its combination form as Xingshi (姓氏) it encompasses all family names and clan names of old and in today's parlance would mean surnames in the Western sense.
Surnames can contain a single character or two or more characters. Single character surnames are the most common, like Kong (孔), Yang (楊), Zhou (周), et al. There are also a small number of two character surnames, like Ouyang (區楊), Sima (司馬), Situ (司徒), etc. Some ethnic minorities have three character surnames but these are very small in number.
Clan names, Shi (氏), were derived in several ways. For example:
- Country names__ like Qin (秦), Song (宋), Zheng (鄭), Wu (吳), Zhao (趙), Cao (曹), Zhou (周). These are all the names of past feudal states (countries).
- Fiefdoms__ an emperor bestows a fief upon a minister whose later descendants retained the fief name, like Su (蘇), Peng (彭), Xiao (蕭), Chen (陳).
- Ancestor’s name__like Hu (胡) from ancestor Hu Gongman (胡公滿).
- Titles and official positions__like the compound surname Sima (司馬) which was the title for the Minister of War, or Situ (司 徒) the title for the Minister of Education.
According to the Chinese Public Security Bureau, as of April 24, 2007 the most populous surname in China is now Wang (王) with a population of 92,881,000 or 7.25% of the total population. This displaced the previous leading Li (李) surname to second place.
After the family or clan name known as a surname in English comes the middle name or family hierarchy name, also called the Generation Name.
Men belonging to the same generation within a clan will share a common name, which can be positioned either in the middle or at the end. This name serves as a classifier to the hierarchical ranking for the generations as specified in the clan's Generation Poem (字輩詞), and is referred to as the Generation Name (輩字). This should not be confused with a common name adopted by a family for its male children and is thus not a true clan generation name because it is only used by that particular family.
Besides the standard characteristics of a proper name as shown above there are also several other types of names an individual may adopt but not necessarily all of them. These are:
Nickname: called Ruming (乳名) or “milk name” can also be called Infant Name or Xiaoming (小 名). These are names given to an infant akin to what Westerners call Pet Names, i.e. name that are only used within the family.
Style or Courtesy Name: Zi (字), also referred to as Biaozi (表字) is a special name that is conferred on an individual at age 20 years during a Coming of Age Ceremony (成年禮) followed by a Capping Ceremony (加冠禮) in ancient China. During this ceremony the individual’s hair is plaited together and coiled into a chignon (a knot at the back of the head above the nape) so he can wear a hat. At the same time he is given a Style Name which will contain a Generation Name. Some people refer to the Style Name, Zi (字) or adult name as Hao (號) which is not strictly correct.
Assumed name: Hao (號) is a name that can be created by the individual himself or may be given to him by others. There are various methods of developing a hao. Some people used the name of a place of residence, e.g. Sun Yat-sen used his birth county name of Zhongshan (中山) as his hao and this is the name he is known by to the Chinese as Sun Zhongshan (孫中山) but never Sun Yat-sen (a Cantonese pronunciation) (Sun Yixian [孫逸仙]) as used in English. He himself preferred to use Sun Wen (孫文). His birth name was Deming (德明) and his Zi (字) was Zaizhi (載之) where his Generation Name was Zai (載). Other methods include expressions of the individual’s life desires and ambitions.
Tabu Name: Hui (諱) occurs after a Style Name has been bestowed upon an individual following the Coming of Age Ceremony (成年禮) and the Capping Ceremony (加冠禮). This Style Name is also referred to as an adult name. Thereafter, the individual’s birth name is no longer used outside of the family, hence the term tabu name.
Pen name: Biming (筆名) is used mainly by writers or artists akin to the Western practice of a literary or pseudo name as was the case with the well known American author Mark Twain whose real name was Samuel Clemens.
This can sometimes get out of hand as an individual may adopt a plethora of pen names as was the case with a famous writer whose original name was Zhou Shuren (周樹人) who had about 40 pen names and his most well known one was Lu Xun (鲁迅). There are two methods of developing a pen name, one is to use the divide rule. In this method the person’s original name is split into two components as in the case of another writer whose real name was Zha Liangyong (查良鏞). He took his personal name, divided them up and came up with Jin (金) and Yong (庸) and his pen name became Jin Yong (金庸). The second method was to use a name of similar sound as was the case with the late Zhou Enlai (周恩來) whose code name (alias) was Wuhao (五號) which he crafted into Wuhao (五豪).
Stage name: Yiming (藝名) are used by people in entertainment and is still practiced to this day. Here are two examples of modern day usage, actor Jackie Chan’s stage name is Chenglong (成龍) to mean “became a dragon” while the late Bruce Lee’s stage name was Xiaolong (小龍) to mean “little dragon”.