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China is an incredibly vast and diverse country with a glorious 5,000 year old civilization and 56 official ethnic groups scattered throughout its ancient lands. Through the millenniums, the names of the Chinese people have come to function as declarative symbols of every family, due to its own unique characteristics from its formative period to its developmental period. Though both Chinese names and Western names share some commons traits, (e.g.: both are composed of a family name and a given name), the differences are even more noticeable (e.g.: full Chinese names are composed of a family name and a given name, with the family name coming first just before the given name). In order to avoid confusion among namesakes, Chinese given names are usually made up of two Chinese characters, but there are some that only contain one character.
History of Chinese Names
The naming structure of the Chinese people has a long history rooted in matriarchal clan societies where many clans were mother-dominated. In order to distinguish between different families and marriages, the ancient people used titles to name the various clans. The titles usually had a close relationship with creatures and natural phenomena (e.g.: bear, bull, cloud), which later evolved into different surnames.
Types of Chinese Family Surnames
According to statistics, more than 22,000 family names have been used by the Chinese people throughout history; some have been deserted while others have survived over time. About 3,500 family names are in use today, among which the top 3 most widely used are Li, Wang, and Zhang, accounting for 7.9%, 7.4%, and 7.1% of the entire Chinese population respectively. The total number of people with the top 3 family names has reached 0.27 billion, according to the Hundred Family Surnames text originating from the Song Dynasty (960-1279). As well, 100 common family names make up over 87% of the entire Chinese population, among which the 19 most popular are Li, Wang, Zhang, Liu, Chen, Yang, Zhao, Huang, Zhou, Wu, Xu, Sun, Hu, Zhu, Gao, Lin, He, Guo, and Ma. Many of the names are also popularly distributed by region throughout the country; for example, the family name Wang ranks No. 1 in Northern China, Chen ranks No.1 in Southern China, and Li ranks No. 1 in the Yangtze River Delta.
Most of the family names consist of just one Chinese character and are called one-character surnames. Some, on the other hand, are compound surnames which are composed of two Chinese characters; examples include Zhu Ge, Si Tu, Ou Yang, Tai Shi, Duan Mu, Shang Guan, Si Ma, Dong Fang, Du Gu, and Nan Gong. There are 60 compound surnames recorded in the Hundred Family Surnames text.
As a rule, newborns are typically given the surnames of their fathers; however, they are also allowed to choose the surnames of their mothers if they wish. As a right legally protected by Chinese law, one can elect to change his or her surname when young.
Application and Cultural Connotations of Chinese Given Names
Chinese given names often contain unique meanings that express best wishes for the newborn child. Some hint to the birthplace, birth time, or natural phenomena, for example: Jing (Beijing), Yu (rain), Chen (morning), Xue (snow), and Dong (winter). Others represent human virtues, for example: Ren (benevolence), Zhong (loyalty), Xin (integrity), Li (courteousness), Zhi (cleverness), and Yi (righteousness). Some given names also express wishes and hopes for happiness, longevity, and health, for example: Fu (happiness), Shou (longevity), and Jian (health). The given names for males often express masculine features, for example: Hu (tiger), Long (dragon), Gang (steel), and Wei (grandness). Alternatively, the given names for females often express feminine features, for example: Feng (phoenix), Hua (flower), Yu (jade), and Juan (moon).
As well, many people have nicknames assigned to them and often used in childhood by family members and close friends.
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