Family Name, Ming, Zi and alias of Han Chinese

“Strokes in the surnames” is our commonly used phrase. “Surname” here specially refers to the family name, namely the character denoting the name of each family. However, before the Qin and Han dynasties, surnames (Xing) and clan-names (Shi) are different, representing different content and meaning. “Surname” originates from the matriarchal clan commune time, and many surnames are related with their own matriarchal clan’s name or other characteristics. Surname mainly plays the role of “clarifying the blood relationship,” and a man and a women of the same surname can not marry each other. Clan-names become the branches derived from surnames. Till the patriarchal clan commune time, surnames and clan-names have become the marks of diffrerent patriarchal clans or tribes. After entering the class society, only the nobles can have clan-names. After the Spring and Autumn Period and Warring States, the surname and clan-name gradually confuse with each other. After the Qin and Han Dynasties, the surname and clan-name are combined and generally called surname, which goes down to today.

Then, how many surnames of the Han Nationality are there? The well-known book, “Surnames of a Hundred Families” (the Qing Dynasty edition) records 504 surnames altogether, of which 444 are single-word and 60 are double-word. However, the real number of surnames is far beyond that. As early as in the Eastern Han Dynasty,Ying Shao records about 500 surnames in the surname chapter of his book General Meaning of the Custom. It reads in the clans chapter of General Records, the book of Song Zhengqiao, “there are 32 kinds of people who have the surnames and are awarded the clan-names,” approximately 1,745 surnames altogether. After a comprehensive study, Zhang of the Qing Dynasty concludes that there should be 5,129 surnames altogether. Now there is still no accurate statistical number of surnames. According to the rough estimate, more than 3,000 ones are still being used.

Similar to the surnames, the “names (Ming Zi)” we use now to refer to the given names carry different meanings in the ancient times, when people have both “Ming” and “Zi”. Besides, they also have alias.

So-called “Ming” is actually the distinguishing name of people in the society, which is a mark of differentiating one person from another. The ancient people generally have two names, one of which is called the infant name, for example, the infant name of CaoCao (Emperor of the Wei Kingdom in the Three Kingdoms (220-265)) is called Ah Man; Liu Chan, the son of Liu Bei (Emperor of the Shu Kingdom), is called Adou. Another given name is only used when people grow up, also called the formal name. However, in the long history of the feudal society, the common women only have an infant name. Before the Qin Dynasty, people generally have single-character name, which is later gradually replaced by the two-character name ever since the Qin and Han Dynasties, and accordingly the ways of giving names to people become much more varied.

“Zi” is another title deriving from the meaning of “Ming” and functions as the explanation and supplement to the latter.

Zi” is not given to people untill they are grown-ups, which indicates that they start to receive others’ respect from that moment on. For example, Zhu Geliang is styled as Kong Ming; Yue Fei is styled as Peng Ju; Zhao Yun is styled as Zi Long. Originally, giving “Zi” to a person has been the privilege of the nobles, and later the practice expands to the intellectual circle. When in the Ming and Qing dynasties, it starts to be generally spread among the common people.

“Hao” is another name for people, which features its artistic color. The scholar-officials in imperial times, especially the literators, often have their own another names. For example, Li Bai is called Lotus Hermit, Du Fu called Shaolingyelao, Wang Anshi called Banshan, Tang Bohu called Liurujushi. Ming and Zi are given by others, so they can not express the individuals’ wishes. However, the alias is completely different, being a self-expression tool of the literators, who can fully show their own life experience and hobbies.

In brief, Ming, Zi and alias are all people’s names, which is only given in different ways. The ancient people attach great importance to the social status and etiquette, so they are very fastidious with their use. Ming is generally a name called by themselves, the superior, or the elder, containing a modest connotation; Zi and alias are used for calling others, either of the same generation or the senior and superior. If people do not follow these rules, they are considered to be impolite. Especially, it is believed to be a “great disrespect” or even “great rebel” when calling the emperors, parents and seniors their Ming,  and those people are surely to be condemned, and even to receive severe punishment.