Origin of Chinese surnames
Prior to the
Warring States period (fifth century BC), only the ruling families and the aristocratic elite had surnames. Historically there was also a difference between clan names or xing (姓) and lineage names or shi (氏). Xing were surnames held by the noble clans. They generally are composed of a nü (女, "female") radical which has been taken by some as evidence they originated from
matriarchal societies based on
maternal lineages. Another hypothesis has been proposed by sinologist Léon Vandermeersch upon observation of the evolution of characters in oracular scripture from the
Shang dynasty through the
Zhou. The "female" radical seems to appear at the Zhou period next to Shang
sinograms indicating an ethnic group or a tribe. This combination seems to designate specifically a female and could mean "lady of such or such clan". The structure of the xing sinogram could reflect the fact that in the royal court of Zhou, at least in the beginning, only females (wives married into the Zhou family from other clans) were called by their birth clan name, while the men were usually designated by their title or fief.
Prior to the
Qin dynasty (3rd century BC) China was largely a
fengjian (feudal) society. As fiefdoms were divided and subdivided among descendants, so additional sub-surnames known as shi were created to distinguish between different seniority of lineages among the nobles though in theory they shared the same ancestor. In this way, a nobleman would hold a shi and a xing. After the states of China were unified by
Qin Shi Huang in 221 BC, surnames gradually spread to the lower classes and the difference between xing and shi blurred.
Many shi surnames survive to the present day. According to
Kiang Kang-Hu, there are 18 sources from which Chinese surnames may be derived,
 while others suggested at least 24.
 These may be names associated with a ruling dynasty such as the various titles and names of rulers, nobility and dynasty, or they may be place names of various territories, districts, towns, villages, and specific locations, the title of official posts or occupations, or names of objects, or they may be derived from the names of family members or clans, and in a few cases, names of contempt given by a ruler.
 The following are some of the common sources:
- Xing: These were usually reserved for the central lineage of the royal family, with collateral lineages taking their own shi. The traditional description was what were known as the "Eight Great Xings of High Antiquity" (上古八大姓), namely
Sì (姒), Yún (妘),
Guī (媯) and Rèn (妊), though some sources quote
Jí (姞) as the last one instead of Rèn. Of these xings, only Jiang and Yao have survived in their original form to modern days as frequently occurring surnames.
- Royal decree by the Emperor, such as
- State name: Many nobles and commoners took the name of their state, either to show their continuing allegiance or as a matter of national and ethnic identity. These are some of the most common Chinese surnames.
- Name of a fief or place of origin: Fiefdoms were often granted to collateral branches of the aristocracy and it was natural as part of the process of sub-surnaming for their names to be used. An example is Di, Marquis of Ouyangting, whose descendants took the surname
Ouyang. There are some two hundred examples of this identified, often of two-character surnames, but few have survived to the present.
- Names of an ancestor: Like the previous example, this was also a common origin with close to 500 or 600 examples, 200 of which are two-character surnames. Often an ancestor's
courtesy name would be used. For example,
Yuan Taotu took the second character of his grandfather's courtesy name Boyuan (伯爰) as his surname. Sometimes titles granted to ancestors could also be taken as surnames.
- Seniority within the family: In ancient usage, the characters of meng (孟), zhong (仲), shu (叔) and ji (季) were used to denote the first, second, third and fourth (or last) eldest sons in a family. These were sometimes adopted as surnames. Of these,
Meng is the best known, being the surname of the philosopher
- From official positions, such as
Shǐ (史, "
historian"), Jí (籍, "royal
Líng (凌, "ice master"), Cāng (倉, "granary manager"), Kù (庫, "store manager"), Jiàn (諫, "
adviser"), Shàngguān (上官, "high official"),
Tàishǐ (太史, "grand
historian"), Zhōngháng (中行, "commander of middle
column"), Yuèzhèng (樂正, "chief
musician"), and in the case of
Shang's "Five Officials" (五官), namely
Sīmǎ (司馬, "minister of horses", akin to
Sītú (司徒, "
minister of the masses", akin to
treasurer), Sīkōng (司空, "minister of works", akin to minister of infrastructure), Sīshì (司士, "minister of
yeomen", akin to chief
ombudsman) and Sīkòu (司寇, "minister of bandits", akin to
noble titles, such as
Wáng (王, "
Hóu (侯, "marquis"),
Xiàhóu (夏侯, "
Gōngsūn (公孫, "Duke's descendant");
- From more lowly occupations, as with
Táo (陶, "
Tú (屠, "
butcher"), Bú (卜, "
diviner"), Jiàng (匠, "
shaman") and Chú (廚, "
- Ethnic and religious groups:
Non-Han Chinese peoples in China sometimes took the name of their ethnic groups as
sinicized surnames, such as
Hú (胡, "barbarian"),
Jīn (金, "
Jurchen"), Mǎn (滿, "
Dí (狄, "
Di people"), Huí (回, "
Hui people") and
Mùróng (慕容, a
Xianbei tribe). Many
Hui Muslims adopted the
surname Ma (馬), an old Chinese surname, when they were required to use Chinese surnames during the Ming dynasty as it sounds close to the first syllable of Mohammad as well as fitting for some of those who were caravaneers as the word means "horse".
Many also changed their surnames throughout history for a number of reasons. A ruler may bestow his own surname on those he considered to have given outstanding service to him, for example the surname
Liu (劉) was granted by emperors in the
Li (李) during the Tang dynasty, and
Zhao (趙) from the
Song dynasty. Others however may avoid using the name of a ruler, for example
師) was changed to Shuai (
avoid conflict with the name of
Sima Shi. Others may modify their name in order to escape from their enemies at times of turmoil, for example Duanmu (
端木) to Mu (木 and
沐), and Gong (共) to
Gong (龔). The name may also be changed by simplification of the writing (e.g. Mu (幕) to
莫)), or reducing from double or multiple character names to single character names (e.g. Duangan (
段干) to Duan (
段)). It may also have occurred through error, or changed due to a dissatisfaction with the name (e.g.
哀 meaning sorrow to 衷 meaning heartfelt feeling).