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Home History and Culture Understanding Chinese Names
Understanding Chinese Names
Learn Chinese - History and Culture

China's huge population shares a great deal of surnames. According to the ancient Chinese documents, they ranged from 300 to 3,000. But most specialists in this field agree that the most common surnames of the Han Chinese number some 500.

Chinese surnames are said to have originated in the prehistorical matriarchal society. The character for surname, Xing (姓), is a combination of two other characters, Nv (女) and Sheng (生), meaning 'born of woman.' An ancient Chinese name often included four parts: first the family name, followed by the given name, the alias, and then what's known as the 'style.' Take the great poet Li Bai for example. His surname in Chinese is Li (李). His given name Bai (白) means 'white.' His alias is Tai Bai (太白), and 'style' Qing Lian (青莲), meaning 'green lotus.' One would choose his alias and 'style' when he entered adulthood. People called one another by the alias to show mutual respect.

Chinese people always attach great importance to the choice of names. As the old saying goes, under the right name, then can it be within your jurisdiction. In the Chinese earliest dictionary it was explained as follows: name contained the invisible fate and the visible and meaning characters. Fate was something intangible and negative, it coincided with 'the hidden material,' on which the Western scientists are working hard to find out. With concrete form and meaning, name belonged to the positive symbol of characters. It functioned far more than just a code for every specific person. Therefore in the past, when elders named a new born baby, they took several factors into full consideration: the astrological principles, the birthdate, the array of five elements (metal, wood, water, fire, and earth) told by the fortune-teller, the form, pronunciation, and meaning of name. Now superstition being lessened and constraints reduced, there are still some rules of thumb to be followed:

1, balance between the baby's birthdate and the five elements in its life, try to remedy the defects with the name;

2, try to avoid the same initial consonant and simple or compound vowel (of a Chinese syllable), and the same tone in the characters is not preferred either;

3, as to the form, a character with not too many strokes nor the same component will be a good choice;

4, the preference for the meaning of a character changes with time.

The May Fourth Movement in 1919 brought with it what was known as the 'vernacular Campaign' and drastic changes in Chinese culture. So did it influence names. It contended all sorts of characters could be used to form a person's name. Then after the founding of New China, name began to take on a political touch, such as 'Ai Guo' which means 'love the country' and so on. The favorite words included: red, army, revolution, soldier, east, etc.

Another obvious change in Chinese name is that many people now use only two characters. A study shows that, before 1966, about 90 percent of chinese names had three characters. But a recent survey tells us that about half of today's younger people have two character names.


One Hundred Chinese Names
The list of "Hundred Names (百家姓)" was compiled many years ago by order of the Emperor as the 100 most popular surnames (or last, or family names) in China at the time. School children used to memorize them, or at least the first few names from the list.

The top 8 Chinese last names, based on this list complied hundreds of years ago, are:Zhao Qian Sun Li, Zhou Wu Zheng Wang.

In 2006, a new list based on a two-year study of some 200 million names gives the most popular names as:

Li (Lee), Wang, Zhang, Liu, Chen, Yang, Huang, Zhao, Zhou, Wu, Xu, Sun, Zhu, Ma, Hu, Guo, Ln, He, Gao, Liang, Zheng, Luo, Song, Xie, Tang, Han, Cao, Xu, Deng, Xiao.......

See details here.

In many Western countries, there is a short list of popular 'first names,' but countless 'last names.' In China, it is just the reverse. The list of last name is short, and the number of first names is in the billions.

This may be the reason that in Western countries, one customarily tell strangers one's first name ("My name is Bob.") Whereas in China, one generally give out his last name instead ("Just ask for Mr. Wang.")

The "Hundred Names" :

赵钱孙李 周吴郑王 冯陈诸卫 蒋沈韩杨 朱秦尤许 何吕施张 孔曹严华 金魏陶姜

戚谢邹喻 柏水窦章 云苏潘葛 奚范彭郎 鲁韦昌马 苗凤花方 俞任袁柳 酆鲍史唐

费廉岑薛 雷贺倪汤 滕殷罗毕 郝邬安常 乐于时傅 皮卡齐康 伍余元卜 顾孟平黄

和穆萧尹 姚邵堪汪 祁毛禹狄 米贝明臧 计伏成戴 谈宋茅庞 熊纪舒屈 项祝董粱

杜阮蓝闵 席季麻强 贾路娄危 江童颜郭 梅盛林刁 钟徐邱骆 高夏蔡田 樊胡凌霍

虞万支柯 咎管卢莫 经房裘缪 干解应宗 宣丁贲邓 郁单杭洪 包诸左石 崔吉钮龚

程嵇邢滑 裴陆荣翁 荀羊於惠 甄魏加封 芮羿储靳 汲邴糜松 井段富巫 乌焦巴弓

牧隗山谷 车侯宓蓬 全郗班仰 秋仲伊宫 宁仇栾暴 甘钭厉戎 祖武符刘 姜詹束龙

叶幸司韶 郜黎蓟薄 印宿白怀 蒲台从鄂 索咸籍赖 卓蔺屠蒙 池乔阴郁 胥能苍双

闻莘党翟 谭贡劳逄 姬申扶堵 冉宰郦雍 郤璩桑桂 濮牛寿通 边扈燕冀 郏浦尚农

温别庄晏 柴翟阎充 慕连茹习 宦艾鱼容 向古易慎 戈廖庚终 暨居衡步 都耿满弘

匡国文寇 广禄阙东 殴殳沃利 蔚越夔隆 师巩厍聂 晁勾敖融 冷訾辛阚 那简饶空

曾毋沙乜 养鞠须丰 巢关蒯相 查后江红 游竺权逯 盖益桓公 万俟司马 上官欧阳

夏侯诸葛 闻人东方 赫连皇甫 尉迟公羊 澹台公冶 宗政濮阳 淳于仲孙 太叔申屠

公孙乐正 轩辕令狐 钟离闾丘 长孙慕容 鲜于宇文 司徒司空 亓官司寇 仉督子车

颛孙端木 巫马公西 漆雕乐正 壤驷公良 拓拔夹谷 宰父谷粱 晋楚阎法 汝鄢涂钦

段干百里 东郭南门 呼延妫海 羊舌微生 岳帅缑亢 况後有琴 梁丘左丘 东门西门

商牟佘佴 伯赏南宫 墨哈谯笪 年爱阳佟 第五言福


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