Today I want to discuss ancient Chinese naming practice since I have a personal fascination with names both in terms of their meaning and how they sound to the ears. This tends to apply to a lesser degree to English than my native language of Chinese but I still tend to grope for the right names to go with non-Chinese characters.
So the key point about naming practice in ancient China is that it varies by social class (which is closely tied to one’s occupations). In general, there are four classes within the rank of ‘good citizenry’. Ranked according to prestige (even though the one to which the term was attributed to never meant for the four classes to be compared and ranked), they were:
- “Shi” (originally referring to generals and soldiers but later misinterpreted as/become a term referring to scholars and particularly government officials with administration duties as the Chinese society favours learning over martial prowess)
- “Nong” (farmers)
- “Gong” (craftsmen)
- “Shang” (merchants): in some dynasties, merchants were frowned upon and listed outside the ranks of ‘good citizens’.
Above the ‘good citizenry’ are government officials (“Guan”) and royalty.
There were also four (five) “cheap occupations” that are not allowed to marry those of “good citizenry” and become officials. These occupations had a high chance of becoming ‘hereditary’ but were not a certainty. Also, individuals born to poor farmers might be forced to take up one of these ‘cheap occupations’ sometimes. They include:
- “Chang” (prostitutes)
- “You” (actors of Chinese opera and all its various local variations, all male in ancient times)
- “Li” (underlings to the Mayor of a small Town that encompass those that have policemen duties as well as others with administrative duties. Either way, they do not have official titles like the Mayor)
- “Zu” (prison guards)
- “Bin” (undertakers)- it’s mainly the fact that people think of undertakers as ill-luck. I think it varies by dynasty whether they are listed under the ‘cheap occupations’.
Then below these ‘cheap occupations’, there are slaves (“Nu”) and certain classes of criminals who are considered part of the “cheap citizenry” whose brand actually carries over to later generations.
So how exactly are ancient Chinese names different from modern ones? Well, the key difference is in the Chinese characters used and not used in names across different periods. For example, you would not see the Chinese character for Ruler, Jun, included in the names of respectable people in ancient times since it was thought disrespectful to the Emperor to do so. Same goes for the character for Pride, Ao. In fact, unlike its English equivalent, pride was always used in a derogatory sense in ancient Chinese text as opposed to neutral.
Furthermore, it is common for individuals to have a little name in addition to their official names. What a little name is is that it is known only to family (parents, siblings, wife and other relatives of same generation or older generation than the person) and meant as a stand-in name while parents ponder over the official name or meant as an affectionate term. Nowadays, this practice is common in some localities such as Shanghai (where every child has one) whereas in other places such as Hong Kong this would be like a nickname that only some parents chose to give to their children. For the upper class, they even have three names. In addition to a little name and an official name, they have a ‘social name’ called “biao zhi or zhi’ (biao can mean praise, model or example while zhi means word in Chinese) for friends and acquaintances to call him by once they reach adulthood whereas his official name is then called only by elders and when the person refers to him/herself. It was considered discourteous to refer to an acquaintance of the same generation as you by their official names. Others of lower classes such as prostitutes, actors and slaves might sometimes have ‘zhi’ also (if they were originally of high birth since occasionally individuals born to the upper class did fall down into these three positions due to political strife, change of rulers etc. that occurred in ancient China). But on the whole, it is common for prostitutes and actors to adopt assumed names and for slaves to be renamed by their owners. Hence, they might also be said to have a form of ‘social name’ in the same vein of the upper class.
For respectable females, usually their names are not known to outsiders but are rather referred to by their birth surnames or the surnames of their husbands. In practice, this might vary depending on dynasty since it appeared that it was after the Tang dynasty when the Chinese society became more discriminated against women. However, it is hard to say given that not many respectable women’s full names were recorded in history, at least according to my knowledge.
Below, I offer a run-down of the different names that could exist for males and females in ancient Chinese times depending on their social classes.
Origin of Surname: taken from ranking within one’s own family. Meng was a
term used to denote the eldest son within a family
Little Name: Er Gou
Meaning of Little Name: Er is Two while Gou is Dog. Because child
mortality rates used to be high in ancient times, many parents gave their
children a ‘cheap name’ involving animals at birth in the hopes that
the child would be more resilient in terms of survival. It might also
have the connotation that the child was “born through [the Will of]
Heaven and raised up by Heaven”. Also, the child was second in birth order.
Official Name: Ze Lin
Meaning of Official Name: Ze has the meaning of a water source or more
generally moist. Lin is heavy rainfall. It is likely a name not given
by the parents but by some educated person (maybe a village Elder or
teacher). The name could convey wish for good rainfall that is
important to farmers and could also additionally be the result of a
Chinese fortune teller divining that the child’s life lacks the element of
Water and the name was a compensation for this.
Social Name: None
Social Class: Nong (farmer)/Li (Mayor underling)/Zhu (prison guard)
Origin of Surname: taken from the name of a State, usually meaning that
ancestor was of peasantry and adopted the name of his own state for
convenience or as a sign of patriotism. One of the ten most common
Little Name: Chang Sheng
Meaning of Little Name: Chang means long while Sheng means birth or
living. Conveys wish for the child to have a long life.
Official Name: Lin
Meaning of Official Name: Lin is the female of the sacred beast Qi Lin in
Chinese myth. In particular, the term Lin Er is a term of praise
equivalent to saying ‘an outstanding son’.
Social Name: Feng Xian
Meaning of Social Name: Feng means revering or attending to while Xian
refers to ancestors. Clearly a name advocating filial values.
Social Class: Guan (official)/ Shi (scholar)/ Shang (merchant)
Origin of Surname: a surviving surname from the time when ancient China
was a matriarchal society
Little Name: Yu Jia Er
Meaning of Little Name: Yu means jade, Jia means older sister, Er refers
to a son or more generally child. Jia Er acts as a gender-specific
suffix roughly translating as “little sis” while being named Yu
conveys that her birth family is wealthy or influential.
Official Name: Jing Shi
Meaning of Official Name: Jing means quiet while Shi means to contemplate,
conveying the wish for the child to have an introverted and
thoughtful nature. Again, this is a signal that her birth family was
Social Name: Shi Shi (*a double name with both characters being the same)
Meaning of Social Name: Shi means teacher, but might have too much meaning
since it’s an assumed name. However, it could be that she wanted to
maintain a little of her official name although the Shi character in
her official name is different from the Shi characters in her social name
Social Class: Chang (prostitute)
Surname: Ou Yang
Origin of Surname: taken from the name of the fiefdom of Ou Yang Ting to
which ancestor was Lord of
Little Name: Da Ya
Meaning of Little Name: Da means big while Ya can refer to a little girl
or a maid. She was the eldest daughter of her parents.
Official Name: Chun Hua
Meaning of Official Name: Chun is Spring while Hua means flower,
possibly the girl was born in Spring
Social Name: None
Social Class: Nong (farmer’s daughter)/ Gong (craftsman’s daughter)/ Shang
(daughter of a merchant family that is not well off in wealth/status)