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The following article was published in our article directory on July 2, 2010.
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The Skinny on Chinese Surnames

Article Category: Culture

Author Name: James Tien

Throughout the years, Chinese surnames were traditionally a royal privilege not permitted the common laborer or tradesman. As recently as 500 B. C., using a surname was an honor bestowed by the emperor or ruling nobles.

Cumbersome rules were imposed when commoners were permitted to take family names. Quite a few elite names were allowed only to those of high birth or current power. For centuries, only the blue-bloods of the currently reigning houses could give themselves what were called "xing" -- royal names. The prevailing warlord might reward the family of a village chieftain by allowing their clan to attach a xing to their given names. Over the centuries sub-surnames came into being as well. They were called "shi" and denoted seniority, rank and importance.

The most commonly occurring Chinese family names today are written with a single Chinese character. Many double-character family names were simplified during the Cultural Revolution and by the Communist government, however about 20 have survived into modern times, including Sima, Zhuge and Situ. Even more rare are surnames with three characters or more, such as Aixinjueluo, which was the surname of the Qing dynasty's Manchurian royal family.

For example, the descendants of the historic figure Di of Ouyangting took the surname Ouyang in his honor. Another historic figure, Yuan Taotu, chose as his surname the second syllable of his grandfather's name, Boyuan.

In the 1980s, almost 500 distinct family names were in use in Beijing. Today, among the most commonplace are Li, Wang, Zhou, Zhang, Zhu and Zhao. Wang is shared by 9 percent of northern Chinese. Chen is prevalent in the former British enclave of Hong Kong, formerly Portuguese Macao and what was Japanese-occupied Formosa, today's Taiwan. Li is commonplace along the Yangtze River's major crossing points. Fong, which is only the 47th most commonplace on the mainland, is prevalent in San Francisco's Chinatown.

In a 1990 study, the 200 most frequent family names accounted for over 96 percent of all Chinese surnames. Thousands of family names are no longer in use. As in anywhere else in the world, surnames become extinct when a family has no child who passes along the family name.

Today, most Chinese families use the father's birth surname and most Chinese brides take the family name of their new husband. However, the tradition of using Chinese surnames first and given names second has been influenced by the Western tradition of using surnames last. On the mainland, most Chinese continue the traditional sequence. However, Chinese living in the West not only use their surnames last, but frequently take nicknames that are more western -- such as Cheng Yu-chieh going by the name Jack Cheng whenever in the US.

Another problem faced with Chinese names is the way it is romanized. In China they are romanized using Pinyin but in other parts of the world is it free for all. There are many dialects and the same surname is pronounced and romanized in a number of ways. For example the surname Lin, can be written as Lim, Lam, Lum etc.The same goes for the popular Chinese name Mei meaning beautiful. It can be written as Meei, May, Bee etc.

About the Author: James Tien is a Chinese culture writer. He recommends Absolutely Feng Shui for more information on Chinese Boys Names and Eight Characters.

Keywords: chinese surnames

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