The Origin of Chinese Family Names

The Zhou Dynasty was the most important times of the origin of Chinese family names.

When the Zhou Dynasty was founded, the Heaven-Son, the king of the Zhou Dynasty and the supreme leader of the Chinese nation, conferred feudal states on ministers, sons and relatives who had military achievements. In the long-time history of the Zhou Dynasty, more than one thousand feudal states were built.

The monarchs of most feudal states were mainly from several old clans — Ji (姬), Jiang (姜), Si (姒), Gui (妫), Yao (姚), Ying (嬴), Ji (姞). The Ji clan was from Huang-Di (黄帝); the Jiang clan was from Yan-Di (炎帝); the Si clan was from Yu (禹); the Gui clan was from Shun (舜). The ancestors of these clans all were the great chiefs of tribes in far remote times.

The Zhou Dynasty had a perfect feudal system. The King of Zhou conferred feudal states on his ministers, sons and relatives; a feudal monarch conferred feudal regions on his ministers, sons and relatives; a feudal lord conferred parts of his land on his sons. Feudal monarchs obeyed the King of Zhou, feudal lords obeyed their monarch, and family-ministers (家臣) obeyed their lord. Family-ministers were the ministers of a lord, so they had no obligation to obey the monarch, and the ministers of a state had no obligation to obey the King of Zhou.

The advanced feudal system diversified family names. Before the Warring-States Period, people had a clan name (姓) and a family name (氏). The clan name showed the ancestry of a person, and a family name showed the social status of a person. People from the same clan couldn’t marry with each other. People who were from the same clan would give themselves according to the names of their ancestors, their official positions, residence locations and feoffs. The names of ancestors and feoffs were two important origins of family names. For example, Confucius was from the Zi (子) clan, the ruling family of the Song (宋) State. One of his ancestors was named “Kongfu” (孔父), so the father of Confucius gave Confucius a family name “Kong” (孔) when the baby was born. Since the Warring-States Period, the difference between clan names and family names gradually disappeared. So, in the later times, every person only has a family name.

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