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Chinese language and Chinese names

The Chinese names have been an essential part of Chinese culture throughout history. In modern times, a Chinese name comprises a surname (姓Xing) and a given name (名Ming). While in ancient times, a Chinese name may possess a Xing 姓 and a Shi 氏, which can be both surnames but are included in the contemporary Xing as one. In ancient times, the Xing was the clan name or gene name and was also an identifier for the organization of exogamous blood. At the same time, the Shi was the inferior identifier for families in a clan. In the ancient era, Xing and Shi interacted complicatedly with similarities and differences. Simply put, a clan with a Xing can include several Shi, and the Shi is the subordinated clan name derived from the main clan.

Specifically, the two surnames have the following differences:

First of all, the source of Shi is more precise and concrete than the Xing. In ancestral tracing, the lineage is vague because of the Xing represented by the clan organization’s long history. Thus the Xing of the actual ancestor has not been able to clear on the tracing. From the ancient Xing preserved since the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC – 256 BC), each Xing is from an imaginary ancestor, and this ancestor is often half human and half divine figure. Their deeds are saved in the form of legend in ancient literature, and no actual ancestor can be said. On the contrary, most of the ancestors of the Shi can be traced precisely because the family organization represented by the Shi is relatively late in history with a more precise lineage recording or family tree.

Secondly, the function of marking the blood relationship of Xing is fading out, which is kept by Shi. At the end of primitive society, a clan’s economic and social functions have basically disappeared, as well as its meaning as a social organization structure. By then, the Xing is no longer represented by a physical blood organization; people with the same Xing no longer have strict rights and obligations. But the Shi remains as an entity of the blood in an organization. For people with the same Shi, the relationship is clear, and the rights and obligations between each other are also strictly bound. It is often a joint loss, glory and prosperity for a clan or family with the same Shi.

It is the natural society development to combine Xing and Shi, considering the request from anthropology and sociology. In the records of the Warring States period (481–221 BC), the concepts of Xing and Shi gradually were not distinguished. Women gave up the Xing and the Shi used in the pre-Qin period (221 BC), while men began to use the Xing and the Shi originally for women in the pre-Qin; the system of the people with the same Xing could not marry was destroyed. The idea of the Shi was gradually decoupled from the connections with the land, government officials and other prerequisite elements, conducting the metamorphosis into a kind of virtual symbol of blood relations. The situations in which the Xing is to distinguish between marriage and the Shi is to differentiate between noble and inferior have been transformed. From the Western Zhou (1045 BC – 771 BC) to the middle of the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BC), the ordinary people had no surnames, which was changed by the implementation of the early Zhou to give the surname. As for the Spring and Autumn period after the middle, with the collapse of the patriarchal hierarchy, the noble family surnames were utilized by ordinary people. However, from the available materials, the actual popularity of the family name was realized until the end of the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD) or the middle period of the two Han dynasties (9-25 AD).


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