A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Saturday, August 13, 2016

What's in a (Chinese) Name?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

It’s funny how one thing leads to another; how you can end up discovering something that you previously had never heard of and had nothing to do with what you were originally searching for. Surfing the internet is like that, of course, and it always worries me how much time I potentially waste clicking on interesting things that take me to weird and wonderful places!

I wanted to visit the Xu Beihong museum in Beijing (Xu, you’ll remember, was the Chinese artist known for his amazing pictures of horses). It has been closed for refurbishment for about three years, but I had heard rumours that it had now reopened. Alas when I got there, I was then told it was not due to open for yet another 2-3 months. Someone else who was also trying to access this museum then told me about another artist called Qi Baishi and while I was searching for his museum in Yu’er Hutong, I came across a sign to the Surname Family Tree Cultural Centre.

At first I wondered why on earth I had bothered. After all, I cannot read Chinese, and there is not an English word in sight. The centre is located upstairs in a somewhat tacky-looking shop a hundred metres from the end of the road – assuming, that is, that you have come via exit E of the Nanluoguxiang station on lines 6 & 8.

People appear to be wandering in and out non-stop, though whether that is because they are expecting more tack to buy upstairs, or because they are genuinely interested in the history of surnames is hard to tell. I don’t see anyone actually buying any of the books and charts and backgrounders on sale…

It appears that in ancient times two types of surnames existed, namely xing (姓) or clan names, and shi (氏) or lineage names. Prior to the Warring States period (fifth century BC), only the ruling families and the aristocratic elite had surnames, and the Xing were surnames held by the noble clans. As fiefdoms were divided and subdivided among descendants, so additional sub-surnames (shi) were created to distinguish between different seniority of lineages among the nobles.

After the states of China were unified by Qin Shi Huang in 221 BC, surnames gradually spread to the lower classes and the difference between xing and shi blurred.

There were many common sources for names:
  • For instance, a royal decree by the Emperor, such as Kuang (鄺);
  • a state name, to show continuing allegiance or as a matter of national and ethnic identity (these are some of the most common Chinese surnames);
  • a place of origin;
  • names of an ancestor;
  • seniority within the family (for instance the characters of meng (孟), zhong (仲), shu (叔) and ji (季) were used to denote the first, second, third and fourth eldest sons and these were sometimes adopted as surnames;
  • an occupation (such as Shǐ –史, "historian", Jí – 籍, "royal librarian", Líng – 凌, "ice master", Táo – 陶, "potter", Tú – 屠, "butcher", and so on;
  • from noble titles, such as Wáng (王, "king"), Hóu (侯, "marquis"), Xiàhóu (夏侯, "Marquis of Xia") and Gōngsūn (公孫, "Duke's descendant");
  • or from ethnic groups such as Hú (胡, "barbarian"), Mǎn (滿, "Manchu"), and Mùróng (慕容, a Xianbei tribe).

But surnames are not evenly distributed throughout China. In the north, Wang (王) is the most common surname, being shared by 9.9% of the population. In the south, Chen (陈/陳) is the most common, being shared by 10.6% of the population. Around the major crossing points of the Yangtze River, the most common surname is Li (李), taking up 7.7%. The three most common surnames in mainland China are Li, Wang and Zhang, which make up 7.9%, 7.4% and 7.1% respectively.

Together they number close to 300 million and are easily the most common surnames in the world. In Chinese, the phrase "three Zhang, four Li" (张三李四 – zhāng sān lǐ sì) is used to say "just anybody". These top three have a combined population larger than Indonesia, the world's fourth-most-populous country.

On one wall is a super-sized family tree which even has to fit under the lighting cabling, it is so big…

To cater for those who have obviously stumbled across this cultural centre by mistake, there are souvenir lineage rulers that appear to get the most interest, at least from the younger generation who show little interest in the more intricate details of how they got their names.

Along one counter is a row of bronzed busts of famous ancestors – no doubt waiting to be snapped up by those who cannot resist the urge to have one collecting dust on their mantelpieces back home. A snip at a mere 1288 RMB ($195)! But alas, there are definitely no takers – at least while I am here.

Instead the artist/scholar/guru in residence pours two of his guests a nice looking cup of tea before sitting down again and putting the world to rights with a few well chosen ahhhs and ummms and other fine sounding epithets.

It left me wondering why so many creative people – such as the guy above and the aforementioned Qi Baishi – cultivated their long hair and bushy beards, almost like an artists’ trade mark. I feel more research is needed here. (Yes, I know Romeo had long hair too – though I'm not sure he had a bushy beard; but there is no mention of him being an artist, I think.)

Do any of my blog fans have a hypothesis to relate on this matter?