Friday, November 21, 2008

100 Chinese Surnames; Sorry--Wang Number

Bill Brown ... Xiamen University

Sorry, Wang Number!
Adapted from "Magic Xiamen--Guide to Xiamen" (within China)
"Magic Xiamen--Guide to Xiamen" (outside China)

Chinese have about 8,000 surnames, with Han Chinese using about 3,050 of them. But roughly 87 percent of Han Chinese share the same 100 or so most common names—hence “the people” is expressed “Old 100 Names” (Lǎobǎixìng, 老百姓). The three most common surnames, Lǐ (李), Wáng (王), and Zhāng (张), are used by about 250 million Chinese—almost the population of the U.S.A.! Over 100 million people are surnamed Zhāng.

Just imagine if all Americans were Lǐ, Zhāng, or Wáng. You could dial the Wáng number 1/3 of the time! Do that to your girlfriend and she might give you the old “Dear Zhang Letter” (unless she gives you some Lǐ way).

Forty percent of Chinese share the 10 most common surnames. Zhang (张), Wáng (王), Lǐ (李), Zhào (赵), Chén (陈), Yáng (杨), Wú (吴), Liú (刘), Huáng (黄) and Zhōu (周). Chinese surnames are passed down through the father, but women keep their family name even after marriage.

In old days, it was a capital crime to speak the Emperor’s name aloud, or even to have the same name as the Emperor—which must have created havoc when the Emperor had the same name as 50 million others. When Liǔ Bāng (刘邦) became emperor during the Hàn Dynasty (汉朝 206 BC to 23 AD), people surnamed "Bāng" faced either a name change or a bang in the head (this was the Chinese Big Bāng Theory). This en masse name changing probably drove census takers out of their senses.

In more recent times, given names reflected parents' desire for their children's happiness—or for their political correctness. During the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution, children were named “Flourishing China” (Xìngguó, 兴国), or “Build the Army” (Jiànjún, 建军), “Love Country” (?ihuá 爱华), or “National Day” (Guóqìng 国庆). And “Red”, of course, was a major theme of many names. Imagine naming your little one “Face the Red” (Cháohóng 朝红), Forever Red (Yonghong 永红), “Red Soldier” (Hóngbīng 红兵). No wonder so many of that generation saw red.

Nowadays parents are more likely to give names that emphasize economics over politics: Zhìfù (致富) means to get rich.

Generally, women’s names have words relating to beauty, nature, jewelry, etc. Examples: “Beautiful” (Měi 美), “Flower” (Huā 花) or “Graceful” (Tíng 婷 ). Men's names reflect strength or military bearing: “Steel” (Gang1 钢) or “Strong Pine” (Jin4song1 劲松).

In my youth, I too was nicknamed after a pine: knothead.

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