In China, the first question to start up a conversation between two strangers usually is: May I have your name, please?
-- How Many Names in China?
The full name of a Han Chinese is composed of two parts: the surname and the given name, while the opposite of the arrangement of names is widely practiced in many other countries outside Asia.
Today, there are more than 8,000 Chinese surnames, of which 3,000 surnames are used by the Han Chinese. Among these names, Li, Wang and Zhang are the most commonly heard, given to about 250 million Chinese.
The surname is generally composed of one character or syllable, such as Zhang, Wang, Li, or Zhao, among which Li is the most popular. There are also two-syllable surnames, or compound surnames, such as Ouyang, Zhuge, Sima and Gongsun.
A given name is usually two words but also can consist of just one syllable. A full Chinese name always has two or three characters, but can also have four if there is both a compound surname and two-syllable given name. Since ancient time, a one-syllable surname and two-syllable given name has been the norm in China.
Traditionally, a Chinese surname is often passed down through the father, and Chinese women always retain their family name even after marriage.
-- Main Sources of Early Chinese Surnames
1. Following the maternal line. The Chinese have had surnames long before the period of the Three Emperors and Five Kings (21st century BC), that is, during the time when recognition was given only to one's mother and not one's father. It is said that the mother of the first fabulous Emperor in Chinese history was named Nv Deng, so the surnames of her offspring were all named Nv.
2. Following the worship for Totem. There is a close relationship between surnames and totem worship; the early Chinese adopted the names or symbols of certain animals as their surname, such as Long which means dragon.
3. Following the vavasory. Legend has it that in the Western Zhou Dynasty (11 century-771BC), a man was enfeoffed the city of Zhao by the emperor, then his surname was changed into Zhao, and so did that of his offspring.
4. Following the placename. The surnames originated from the name of the village in which one lived or to which the family belonged.
5. Following one's official position and profession. The clan-name derived from the title granted, sometimes by the emperor to a noble for an achievement.
6. Following the transliteration of minorities' names, such as Chanyu, Zhangsun and Yuchi, etc.
The distribution of Han Chinese surnames has regional disparities. The surnames of Li, Wang, Zhang and Liu are common in northern China, while Chen, Zhao, Huang, Lin and Wu are popular among southern people.
-- Categories of Chinese Surnames
At present, there are about 300 most commonly used surnames in China. According to the latest statistics from China, Chinese with the surname Zhang alone number more than 100 million, making it one of the most popular surnames in China. It is said that the number is equal to the sum of Britain and France's population.
Another set of statistics reveals that the number of Chinese with the first 10 major surnames makes up 40% of the Chinese population. The 10 major Chinese surnames are: Zhang, Wang, Li, Zhao, Chen, Yang, Wu, Liu, Huang and Zhou. Below are the next 10 major surnames: Xu, Zhu, Lin, Sun, Ma, Gao, Hu, Zheng, Guo and Xiao -- Chinese with these surnames make up over 10% of the population. The third category of 10 major surnames includes Xie, He, Xu, Song, Shen, Luo, Han, Deng, Liang and Ye. The following 15 surnames form the fourth largest group: Fang, Cui, Cheng, Pan, Cao, Feng, Wang, Cai, Yuan, Lu, Tang, Qian, Du, Peng and Lu.
In addition, Chinese surnames can be classified into several groups according to their meaning, respectively representing number, season, direction, profession, animal, plant, and color, etc.
-- Surnames of a Hundred Families (Bai jJia Xing)
The book, Surnames of a Hundred Families, which was popular in China during the old days, was written more than 1,000 years ago during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). It recorded 438 surnames, of which 408 were single-syllable surnames and 30 were double-syllable surnames. The surnames are arranged in rhymed lines without repetitions. In the original copy that was lost, pictures of famous historical figures were illustrated on the upper part of every page while the text was printed on the lower part. The unknown author successfully combined the study of family names, philology, sociology and pedagogy into one book, making it one of the most popular books in history.
An earlier story has it that during the reign of Emperor Tang Tai Zong (627AD) in Tang Dynasty, Gao Shilian, a government official, made a survey and found that there were a total of 593 different surnames. He then wrote and published a book called "Annal of Surnames" which became a reference for selecting qualified personnel as government officials and for arranging marriages.
-- Amusing Anecdotes
1. The names of Chinese people are usually expressed as family name first and given name second. For example, a man called Zhang Wei has a family name of Zhang and a given name of Wei. Among closer acquaintances, the names of older people are usually prefixed with Lao… which literally means old. For instance, Lao Zhang means Old Zhang. Younger acquaintances, on the other hand, are often prefixed with Xiao… which means younger, so Xiao Wang means Younger Wang. For those who know each other very well, given names are quite often used between them.
2. In ancient times, the emperor's name could never be uttered. Those who had the same name as the emperor's would face castigation and sometimes execution. In the Western Han Dynasty (206BC-23AD), when Liu Bang became the emperor, anyone with the syllable "bang" in his or her names had to change it.
3. Many Chinese want their offspring to live well, without illness or misfortune. Such wishes are reflected in one's given name. After the establishment of the People's Republic of China, children were named for historical significance, hence names like Jianguo (build the country), Jianjun (build the army) and Guoqing (National Day). During the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, Hong (meaning red or revolutionary) became very popular, with many people chose their given name as Yonghong (forever red) or Chaoyang (toward the sun).
With renewed stability in the 1980s, a lot of people began to name their offspring as Zhifu (getting rich) or Xinghua (rejuvenate China).
4. A word's pronunciation and meaning can distinguish the gender of a Chinese as well. Women's names traditionally include words relating to composure, expression, flowers and birds, or jewelry, such as Ting (graceful), Mei (enchanting), Hua (flower), Feng (phoenix), Huan (ring), Yin (silver) and Yan (beautiful). Many women today are moving away from this custom. Men's names always imply honor to one's ancestors, militaristic bearing or virility, such as Shaozu (bring honor to our ancestors), Zhenbang (rejuvenate the country), Gang (steel), Zhijian (firm in spirit) and Jinsong (sturdy pine).