Ancient Chinese naming practice

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. 

Males 

Surname: Meng
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)

Surname: Wu
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
Chinese surnames 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)

Females

Surname: Yao
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
well off.
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)

Chinese Superstition- Physical Oddities and Polycoria

Following on the last post about Chinese number superstition, I decided to do another on a related topic. So ancient Chinese had various fortune telling methods, one of which was looking at people’s facial features. For example, long ears or a long gap between the nose and the upper lip were considered a sign of life longevity. Today, I’m going to talk about one particular physical oddity, the condition known as polycoria which is where someone has two pupils in one eye. Note, however, that in ancient China, sometimes people were mistakenly thought to have polycoria when they have moles inside their pupils. 

So what is the superstition around polycoria? Well, it is thought that polycoria is the sign for lords, Emperors and paragons of virtue and learning. Now, how does that tally up with atual history? It does somewhat. 

For brevity, I will just list the five most prominent historical figures (this is according to me so don’t quote me for precision *wink*) by chronological order of birth:

  1. Yan Hui- the top disciple of Confucius, died at the age of forty, praised for his virtue by his teacher and lauded by later generations
  2. Xiang Yu- commonly known as the Conqueror of the Western Chu, a feudal lord vying against his sworn brother Liu Bang (who later founded the Han dynasty) for control of ancient China after the collapse of the Qin dynasty (the first official dynasty under which the whole of ancient China was united as one land)
  3. Wang Mang- originally a government official of the Han dynasty, he seized control of the throne and founded the Xin dynasty which lasted a scant 14 years 
  4. Li Yu- last sovereign of the Southern Tang dynasty, which occurred during the turbulent period known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period where the northern and southern part of ancient China were continuously split, right before the founding of the relatively long and prosperous Song dynasty. He was a famous poet but generally considered an incompetent ruler. 
  5. Zhi Di- third emperor of the Ming dynasty, fourth and surviving eldest son of his father who founded the dynasty. He usurped the throne from his own nephew, who was son of his eldest brother and the Crown Prince (but died before his own father). 

Beliefs about Numbers in Ancient China

I decided to write a post about a Chinese fun fact today and having no ideas, I Goggled it. What caught my eyes was number superstition. So today I am going to trace back the beliefs about numbers (or rather single digits since I want to limit the scope of this post) in ancient China:

One: there is no superstition around this number per se, but it was regarded as the ‘mother of all creatures’ due to the section in the famous Taoist text by the philosopher Lao Zi which gave a theory of how the world was born which said ‘The Way gave birth to One, One gave birth to Two, Two gave birth to Three, Three gave birth to Everything.”

Two: online sources would say this is considered a lucky number in Chinese due to the saying “good things come in twos.” I’ve traced back this idiom back to a modern biography about a late Qing or Manchurian dynasty merchant/government official. Therefore, I conclude that there is no superstition around the number 2 per se. 

Three: as far as I can make out, ancient Chinese seem to use three in an abstract rather than concrete sense such that three is often a synonym for many. 

Four: I think this is more modern superstition as opposed to coming from ancient times and it’s probably more prevalent in Hong Kong (well, I cannot really speak for mainland China, I was born in Shanghai but I only spent my pre-primary school years there and I only started remembering things at the age of 5). In essence, four and death sounds a bit similar in Chinese. 

Five: Except for its relation to the Five Elements or Wu Xing, a geomancy/Feng shui concept from the I Ching or Book of Changes, a text for fortune telling, this number does not have much meaning

Six: There was an ancient text that related the sixth of June on the Chinese calendar to smoothness and so six was considered a lucky number 

Seven: I can’t really track down why this number would be considered lucky. I personally can see why it would considered unlucky, though: July according to the Chinese calendar contains the Ghost Festival and accordingly, July is considered the Ghost Month

Eight: Apparently, why this is considered lucky actually has a root in ancient times. This surprised me- I thought it was like 4, based upon similarity of its sound to a verb in Cantonese which means attaining a fortune. But apparently, its roots comes from Taoism in which eight represents wholeness and completeness given that its founding text, the Book of Changes, is based upon eight trigrams and the eight cardinal directions also represents the whole universe in Taoism spatial conception. 

Nine: This is a number traditionally associated with the Emperor, partly because it is the highest single digit. In particular, ancient China was conceptualised as Nine Provinces (Chiu Chou), the Emperor wears a robe featuring a dragon with nine-toed claws whereas his brother and cousins can only wear robes featuring dragons with claws that have less toes than nine etc. 

Chinese Punctuation

In general, I think of myself as pretty familiar with Chinese culture. But it was not until I read a Chinese online novel in the last few years that I learnt the following (you never know what you would learn randomly with novels!): in ancient days, there was no such thing as punctuation in Chinese! I’m not sure when did punctuation first come into use in China- I Googled it but the closest information seemed to indicate that in the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD), punctuation marks were still not a standard in Chinese. That is, only occasionally there would be marks printed to indicate breaks in the text and different marks were used between two different texts (but I wonder if the two examples cited were in fact spaced quite far apart from each other in time). 

Anyway, what does this mean in practice? That ancient texts have to be read with ‘interpretations from others’, leading to controversy over the meaning of the sometimes the exact same sentence within the exact same text.  

A famous example (and also the one described in the online novel I read) was over a ten character sentence said by Conficius recorded in the Analects, essentially a compilation of speeches by Conficius and his disciples.  For ease, I’m just going to put down the Mandarin pinyin for this controversial sentence over how to deal with the populace/civilians: 

Min ke shi yong zhi bu ke shi zhi zhi

According to the Chinese Wikipedia, there are 5 variants of how you can break up this sentence with punctuation, now creating slightly different meanings!

Variant 1: Min ke shi yong zhi, bu ke shi zhi zhi

Meaning: Sometimes it’s necessary to only let the populace/civilians follow directions without letting them know about the rationale behind the directives

Variant 2: Min ke, shi yong zhi, bu ke, shi zhi zhi 

Meaning: If the populace have a good grasp, then leave them be. If the populace do not have a proper handle, then educate them.

Variant 3: Min ke shi, yong zhi, bu ke shi, zhi zhi

Meaning: If the populace can be utilised, then let them follow orders. If the populace cannot be utilised, then let them be understanding/rational.

Variant 4: Min ke shi, yong zhi bu ke, shi zhi zhi

Meaning: If the populace can be utilised, then you cannot just leave them be, you have to educate them.

Variant 5: Min ke shi yong zhi? bu. ke shi zhi zhi

Meaning: Can you leave the populace be? No. They need to be educated.

That is my little share for today. In May, I personally look forward to getting back in track with my writing and then in general, a continual improvement in the Coronavirus situation.