Bajiaxing: The Book of Names
“Zhao Qian Sun Li, Zhou Wu Zheng Wang”. These aren’t four character proverbs, rather they are the content of a famous book, Baijiaxing. This book lays out in one place the family names of the Chinese, thus helping people to learn the many many Chinese names.
The family names of the Chinese emerged five or six thousand years ago. It is said that altogether there are some 10,000 historical family names. Most of these are of a single character, whilst others have two characters and others have more than two. But how did Chinese names come into being? Very early on, people didn’t have family names, just a first name. Then to commemorate their ancestors or hometown, people started to use a family name. For example, the family name, Wang, commemorates those ancestors who were kings; the family name Zhou commemorates the aristocracy of the Zhou dynasty. Most Chinese family names come from place name, for example, Zhao, Wu, Zheng, and Qin. Others arise from clan seniority or profession. Still others arise from ethnic background. Today, some parents put their family names together to create their child’s family name.
Baijiaxing has no contents other than names, containing 504 altogether. Every clause is four characters long and, following the literary pronunciation, it flows off the tongue like poetry. In olden days, Baijiaxing was given to children to read. Since the book was written during the Song dynasty, the first name in the Baijiaxing is Zhao, the name of the Song emperor. Also, since Sun and Li were popular names of the time, they appear at its beginning.
Today, the most common Chinese family names are Wang, Zhang, and Liu. Family names are very important in China, so we call ordinary people “the old folks”.
Neil Armstrong (firstname.lastname@example.org)