Why do the characters have so many names?!

If you were wondering why Thousand Autumns or other Chinese novels sometimes have so many different names for the same character, then it would be helpful to know about xìng (姓), shì (氏), míng (名), (字), and hào (号).

Here’s a layman breakdown.

Note: I do not claim to be an expert, and just am explaining this based on my understanding and some internet trawling.


1. Surname: xìng (姓)

to identify ancestry, people of the same surname weren’t supposed to marry one another to avoid consanguinity.

2. Clan: shì (氏)

to identify one’s family and clan, which also may represent the social status (e.g. Yunmeng Jiang Clan). People from the same ancestry (they would share the same surname) may migrate to different places and start families with their own clans; it’s like referring to a different branch of the extended family.

Also, prior to the Qin dynasty, China was largely a (feudal) society. As fiefdoms were divided and subdivided among descendants, so additional sub-surnames known as shì were created to distinguish between noble lineages according to seniority, though in theory, they shared the same ancestor. In this way, a nobleman would hold a shì (氏) and a xìng (姓). xìng (姓), however, was more important than shì (氏) .

The format is generally “Place/location, shì (氏)”. Yan Wushi is said to be of the Chen Commandery’s Xie Clan, and Wang Zhuo identified himself as from the Kuaiji Wang family. Hence one can share the same surname or xìng (姓), but a different shì (氏) – which indicates that they share the same ancestors, but there was a divergence where they separated and started their own families, thus bearing a different shì (氏).

3. Name: míng (名)

one’s birth name from parents.

4. Courtesy Name: (字)

one’s formal/courtesy name is given after one reaches adulthood (20 years old for a man) by a parent or a teacher. It is usually used to express virtues or the meaning of one’s first name. For example, with Li Qingyu, Qingyu (青鱼, qīng yú) is his name (名), and Mingchen (明辰, míng chén) is his courtesy name. One would use this to address someone instead of their real/birth name in order to show politeness. Generally, you would only use someone’s birth name if you are of higher social status (e.g. parents, elders, or very close.)

According to the Book of Rites, after a man reached adulthood, it was disrespectful for others of the same generation to address him by his given name, or míng (名). Thus, the given name was reserved for oneself and one’s elders, whereas the (字) would be used by adults of the same generation to refer to one another on formal occasions or in writing; hence the term “courtesy name”.

5. Alias / Title: hào (号)

a formal alias that one may take for themselves.

For example, taking the example of Su Dongpo (a Chinese poet of the Song dynasty). His name or míng (名) is Su Shi  (苏轼, sū shì), and his (字) are either Zizhan (子瞻, zi zhān) or Hezhong (和仲, hé zhòng). His self chosen alias or zì hào (自号) is Dongpo Jushi (东坡居士, dōngpō jūshì), and his Taoist/dao alias (道号) is Dongpo-daoren (东坡道人, dōngpō dàoren). Most people call him Su Dongpo.

(Sassy: This is why Yan Wushi’s changing of his family name is so disturbing to me because he changed his xìng (姓), which is similar to denying his ancestry, as well as his birth name, which is a gift from one’s parents. I assume that the Demonic Sovereign is an alias that was given by others, since he said himself that he dislikes the moniker.)

It doesn’t seem like a lot of the characters use their (字) or courtesy name in Thousand Autumns, unlike in MDZS. One such example Jiang Cheng: jiāng (江) is his surname,  chéng (澄) is his birth name, and he’s also known by his courtesy name of wǎn yín (晚吟) and his alias/title, Sāndú Shèngshǒu (三毒圣手). He is from the Yunmeng Jiang Clan (云梦江氏, yún mèng jiāng shì).

(Sassy: When an elder calls you by your surname + name, or surname + courtesy name -> you’re probably in deep trouble! )

This politeness is also why other people use daozhang, zhenren, and other titles or honorifics instead of the person’s name.
Yan Wushi directly giving a diminutive nickname like “Ah-Qiao” and using it in public is extremely overly familiar, and implies that he is either family or a very intimate close friend. But Shen Qiao actually responding/letting it slide, is practically implicit acceptance or acknowledgment. Even when Bai Rong and Yuan Xiuxiu were flirting with Shen Qiao, they would only refer to themselves humbly. Or at most use a sultry Shen-lang or langjun (郎君)which is still within… albeit barely within propriety.

8 thoughts on “Why do the characters have so many names?!

  1. hi Sassy! I was wondering actually if that name structure differed in different periods of China history or was it always the same?
    I know Wuxia novels aren’t historical;) but there are those differences between for instance QQ(with just single names) and MDZS (with clear distinction between birth and courtesy names) and then like in Golden Stage or 14th Year of Chenghua it seems that it’s family that is using the courtesy names (or maybe I’m simply confused and misunderstand which name is which)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hiya Katie,
      In general, it should be the same throughout history, but I guess it depends on whether the author wants to actually write in the additional courtesy names and titles? Like we know QQ is loosely historical, and Li Qingyu does have a courtesy name, so ergo, the rest of them should as well. Even more modern Chinese sometimes still have courtesy names e.g. Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-Shek.

      It’s really complicated so I hope I don’t go off on too much of an essay for you, but I love chatting about this stuff.

      I can’t quite comment on writing style and usage in particular novels, but amongst the same generation, it is more traditional to use one’s courtesy name to refer to others of the same generation on formal or occasions or in writing (note that this is in the past and not now) and is also entirely situational depending on the context and the relationships between the parties (I say relationships because its not just age, or social status, it may also be the context that they are interacting in, and the location/event that they are at)

      E.g. LWJ refers to WWX as Wei Ying (birthname), and WWX refers to him as Lan Zhan (birthname). Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian are their respective courtesy names. If I remember correctly, LWJ only uses Wei Wuxian when he’s pissed off at him. But LWJ calls his brother by Big brother – because his older brother has higher seniority than he does. WWX calls JC by his name generally and his courtesy title only when he’s angry/trying to get his attention?

      Fu Shen usually refers to YXH as Yan-daren if I recall correctly?
      ( 大人 daren being something like milord, master – generally used for court officials), and Yan Xiaohan calls Fu Shen by his title, Marquis or Jingyuan (courtesy name) when he’s trying to speak more earnestly. I kind of remember Fu Shen only YXH as Meng’gui only when he’s pissed off. Of course, it’s been a while since I’ve read this – due for a re-read since I got my Chinese hardcopies this week.

      But yes, courtesy names for the same generation, actual birth names used by seniors, or perhaps if you’re *very* close. Nicknames definitely only if you’re close because that’s kind of impolite if you’re not. Note that even the emperor uses Meng’gui even though his status is higher, perhaps because its a court setting?
      Can’t comment on the Chenghua 14th year because it’s been a long time, but that is the Ming dynasty so it should still be valid.
      Remember the context that the names are being called also matters – are they in public? If so, is it an official setting, or is it a social setting? If social, is it a gathering of contemporaries or is it a higher social status event? If in private, is it casually/romantic/teasing? Also, it depends on the dynamics of the relationship, who is senior (and why? is it generational, social, official etc).

      (It’s a funny thing in Chinese culture that when someone uses your full name including surname, you’re probably in deep trouble – especially when it’s being used by a parent or teacher).

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      • Sassy, I love you, but isn’t it the other way around? Lan Zhan and Wei Ying are the birth names and Lan WangJi and Wei Wuxian are the courtesy names, I even went to check in my official paperbacks just now.

        I knew Yan Wushi was in trouble for *cough* almost (((spoiler))) in the last scene of the novel when Shen Qiao called him “Yan Wushi” and not his official title :’)).

        I’m still wondering why SQ refused to call him anything else than Sect Master Yan all this time.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hi 🙂 thanks a lot for the long answer 🙂 I actually really enjoy reading that 😉
        Looking at the character guide for Chenghua, it seems that when Tang Fan and Sui Zhou started being good friends they started calling themselves just by courtesy names (so unlike in MDZS approach) https://chichilations.home.blog/fyc-guide/

        And in Golden Stage, they start out with Marquis and Yan-xiong (then Yan daren), but then Yan Xiaohan makes Fu Shen choke in surprise when he calls him “Jingyuan” – and explains that as they’re going to be married they can just as well start using Menggui and Jingyuan which Chichi the translator also marks down as their courtesies.

        I thought that the emperors use Menggui (and Guangchuan for Sui Zhou) as they have a fatherly/commanding position but also as a way of signalling favour?

        I guess I don’t need to understand it all perfectly as I’m not going to write a wuxia or ancient China novel 😀
        But I do find those differences really interesting,maybe I’m weird:D

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hiya!
    that’s so cool! I mean Marquis is Fu Shen’s aristocratic title, so is Yan-daren (more of my lord/master Yan) meant to be teasing or respectful? Maybe both? Yan-xiong is definitely some sort of friendly overture on FS’s part ( like calling him Brother Yan, but it’s not as intimate (or coquettish/childish) as calling him gege- which is why YXH sort of melted when FS called him that 😀 😀 :D)

    Maybe Fu Shen chokes because YXH has always addressed him by his title, and positioned himself as inferior in terms of official ranking and family background, then suddenly moving from official title to courtesy name is a shift in their relationship? ❤

    Emperor addressing his subject is probably considered a formal relationship, so maybe that's why they use the courtesy name? The rest of the court would use the person's title or his courtesy name as well.

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    • One question about the names and titles – if someone isn’t present but discussed, I guess in official settings people would use only the titles or titles together with surname and courtesy name? I wonder because if I remember right, the marriage sanction for Fu Shen and Yan Xiaohan mentioned their titles and then their surnames and birth names, which was a bit odd for something totally official … I checked the audio drama so as not to rely only on the novel translation.

      Btw … Sassy, you seem to have read a lot of the novels I enjoyed, so maybe you have any further recommendations?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a helpful and interesting post and discussion. It answers many questions I recently had reading Chinese novels and watching dramas. Many thanks for all your good work!

    Like

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