On culture differences and implications between Chinese and English surnames

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On culture differences and implications between Chinese and English surnamesOn,on,and,And

    Term Paper

     报告名称(Comparisons and Cultural Implications

     Between Chinese and English Surnames

     : 张梦婷

     : 1015010106

    年级班级( 10级英语1

    联系电话( 15950550668


     2012 12 5


    Comparisons and Cultural Implications between Chinese and

    English Surnames


    Surname is a personal symbol as well as an information carrier; through it people can perceive a society and its culture in various aspects. Thus Chinese and English surnames should be treated not only as a sign system for identification but also as a social and cultural phenomenon which reflects the similarities and differences between the eastern and western nations. This paper attempt to probe into comparisons and culture implication reflected through Chinese and English surnames so as to enhance cross-cultural awareness and improve communication and mutual understanding

Key words

    Surnames similarities differences cultures implications communication

1 Introduction

    As one of the most stable personal identity of human beings, a personal surname is the symbol of the distinction of blood relationship, which is closely related to the religion, history and tradition of a nationality and a component of the language and culture of a country. In the course of human history, different nationalities have their own characteristics, but they may have something in common. By comparisons and contrasts, we will have a general understanding of national cultural psychology which will help us in cross-culture communication

2 Literature review

    Name is an old topic which has been discussed several times. There are many research concern about names, for example, name and culture, female discrimination in name, the changing of English name. However, comparing with the booming of name study, the study of surname was much less, mostly were just mentioned a little when talking about names. And the discussion was limited in a few perspectives, such as the origin of surname, or the relationship between surname and name, which was neither professional nor comprehensive. In fact, compared with name, the inheritance of surname is more stable, and can reflect the characteristics of a group better. The development of surname can indicate the changes of a country and nation, of a society and culture. Thus, the surname research should be deeper more specific, more comprehensive and more systematic. Out of that purpose, this paper will make a comparison of between Chinese and English surnames, and then try to figure out the culture reflected in those similarities and differences. Hope it can help readers have a preliminary and comprehensive understanding of surname cultures

3 The similarities between Chinese and English surnames

    As we know, Surname is an important part of national culture, and culture is the


    results of certain economic and political environment. In the early stages of human beings, there were several common problems need people to deal with, for example, dangerous environment, low production and the need to breed the next generation . They had to struggle to live. Thereby some common characteristics are shared in different cultures. We can find that in the following aspect.

    3.1From the Perspective of the origins of surnames thEnglish surnames appeared much later than Chinese surnames. It was until 11

    century when Norman conquered Britain did English people own surnames, while Chinese people began to use surnames during Matriarchal period. Although the Origin time is different, there are some similarities about the original way of people choosing surnames.

    3.1.1 Residence as surname

    Without superior transports, the early people were restricted in a very limited place where they settled down. Thus, their residences had become one of the most common ways to take surname in both China and England.

    Here are some examples:

    Chinese surnames:

    (Zhou, means the country of Zhou)

    (Qi, means the country of Qi)

    (Lu, the country of Lu )

    东方(Dong Fang, the eastern )

    南宫(Nan Gong, the south part of a palace )

    (Guan, means pass or gate )

    (Gu, means valley )

    English surnames:

    Hill Wood Bush Langford

    3.1.2 Career as surname

    In the old days, people‟s occupations were inherited within the family. For example, if a father is a blacksmith, then his son is very likely to earn a living by forging iron. In order to distinguish different blacksmith in one place, people named them with their career and name, for example, Stefan Blacksmith. Thus, people‟s career is another main resource of surname.

    Here are some examples:

    Chinese surnames:

    司马(Si Ma, means horse keeper )

    (Yin, means a local officer )

    (Shi, means stonemason)

    (Bu, means visionary)

    (Tao, means potter)

    (Tu, means butcher)

    English surnames:

    Smith Cook Fisher Taylor Butcher Baker

    3.1.3 Plants, animals and some other natural totem as surname

    Unlike modern human being, most of our ancestor didn‟t have advanced technology


    and science. To them, world was filled with mysteries which they couldn‟t explain, and nature was full of strengths which they couldn‟t conquer. In order to show their

    worship to this nature and pray for peace and happiness, they took natural totem as surname.

    Here are some examples:

    Chinese surnames:

    (Long, means dragon )

    (Ma, means horse )

    (Liu, means cattle )

    (Yang, means poplar )

    (Liu, means willow )

    (Shan means mount )

    (Jiang, means river )

    English surnames:

    Rose Bird Fox Lamb Bull

    3.1.4 Colors as surname

    Our world is a colorful world; different colors beautify our nature as well as our mind. To show their affection to these colors, our ancestors took them as surnames. Here are some examples:

    Chinese surnames:

    (Bai, means white )

    (Lan, means blue )

    (Qing , means a mixture of green and blue )

    (Huang, means yellow )

    English surnames:

    White Brown Silver

3.2 From the Perspective of the inheritance of surnames

    As we know, both Chinese surnames and English surnames are family internal inheritance. Children inherit their fathers‟ surname. Although there are a few changes

    in the process of inheriting surnames in history, most of the surnames almost remain the same forms and meanings. However, with the losing of time, the meanings of some surnames involved are forgotten by people.

3.3 From the Perspective of national amalgamation

    China and England are both multinational countries, there a several big national amalgamation in their history. In China, during the northern Wei dynasty, many minorities changed their surnames as Han nation‟s surnames in the response of their

    emperor‟s encouragement; even the emperor changed his surname, too. While in Britain, Ireland, Scotland and England had many conflicts and fusions in history, their cultures and habits also combined into each others‟ blood and tradition and showed in

    their surnames. For example, if there is a Mac- or Mc prefix in the surnames, then this English man must be the offspring of Scottish, while if there is O- prefix in one‟s

    surname, then his or her ancestors must come from Ireland. The main character of


Gone with the Wind, Scarlett, who had a surname O‟Hara and an Irish father is a

    terrific example.

    Here are some examples:

    Chinese surnames:

    拓跋(TuoBa)change into (Yuan)

    (Zhou) (Pu)change into

    丘穆陵(QiuMuLin)change into (Mu)

    步六孤(BuLiuGu)change into(Lu)

    贺赖(HeLai)change into(He)

    独孤(DuGu)change into(Liu)

    English surnames:

    MacArthur Macmillan McDonald O‟Brien O‟Connell O‟Casey

4 The differences of Chinese and English surnames

    Although there are a lot of commons, Chinese and English surnames still have much more differences on the ground of different environments, religions and cultures. We can find them in the following aspects.

    4.1 From the Perspective of the origins of surnames

    There are several kinds of the source of surnames existing in English only. 4.1.1 A Bible character’s name as surname

    As we know, Christianity has dominated western country for almost 1500 years and nearly all western people were Christian. So, as the guideline of Christianity, bible has a huge influence on English culture and habits. Some names appear in bible are repeated used by pious believer and even take them as surnames. Here are some examples:

    Matthew (one of the twelve Apostles of Jesus)

    Eden (a place where Adam and Eve once lived)

    Godman (god‟s man)

    4.1.2 Deformation of an ancestor’s name as surname

    Unlike Chinese, English people don‟t have a lot of taboos on using the personal names of emperors or the elders in one‟s family. In fact, they love taking their

    ancestors‟ names as their names or surnames to show their respect and deep love to

    them. But of course, on most occasions, some kind of deformation will be added into those names.

    Here are some examples:

    Jackson McDonald Fitzgerald O‟Hara (-son, Mc-, Fitz-, O‟- all means the son or the

    offspring of their ancestor)

    4.1.3 Natural phenomenon as surname

    England is a country with changeable weather, talking weather has become one of their habits in daily life. On ground of that, it is easier to understand that why natural phenomena would become one of the resources of English surnames. Here are some examples: Snow Rain Cloud May Winter

    4.1.4 Personal Appearance and shape as surname

    English is a nation who attaches high importance to personal identities. In the early


    days, people took nicknames for each other on the base of their physical features for fun or distinguish; some of these nicknames went round widely and even inherited to their offspring for their similar appearance and shape, which eventually become their family names.

    For example: Longman Small Bunch Redhead Strong

    4.2 From the Perspective of position of surnames

    Chinese surname is in front of name, while in English, on the contrary, name is in front of surname. Besides, if there is Christian name, then put it in between name and surname.

    Here are some examples:

    Chinese surnames:胡锦涛(Hu Jintao) 陈奕迅(Eason Chan)

    English surnames: William Jefferson Clinton, Michael Jordan

    4.3 From the Perspective of the quantity of surnames

    According to the statistics, there are 11969 surnames in China, yet the most commonly used are only about 100, such as (Li) (Wang) (Zhang) (Liu)

    (Chen). Thus a lot of Chinese surnames are been repeated used. However, in England, there are 156000 surnames and the frequently used ones are 35000, such as Smith, Miller, Brown, Williams. Besides, many new surnames are being created in western society. So we can see that in the history Chinese surnames is much more stable than English surnames, while repetition of surnames in the English is far fewer than in Chinese.

    4.4 From the perspective of surname changing

    The emphasis on changing of surname is quite different in China and England. In China, surname is sacred and you cannot change it except adoption, even married women still her own surname. But in England, married women usually take her husband's surname, and many people even change their surname when they feel it is not a sound one, or create new surname by themselves.

    Sometimes when a foreign name is needed, most Chinese people will take one but with their original surname, such as李连杰(Jet Li) 成龙(Jacky Chen). While some

    English people will change their surname as well as name, such as安凯彬

    Christopher Adamss赛珍珠(Pearl Buck)

    4.5 From the Perspective of Married women's surnames

    In the western culture, Married woman change her own surname into her husband„s

    surname, if she gets divorced afterwards, she may change back to the original surname. It isn‟t a law, but a tradition. During the Feminist movement, many feminist urged women to keep their own surnames after married, many women did so. However, most married wives still choose to take their husbands‟ surnames in the present western society. According to the survey conducted by Claudia Golding, a professor of economics in Harvard University, in Massachusetts 23% of married women who received college education still retained their original surname in 1990, while by 2000, this finger dropped down to 17%. Some actress and woman writer choose to remain their surnames because the need of their jobs.

    However, there is another fact worth mentioning, that is a new surname revolution called New Name Movement is taking place in American recently. Married couple


    joined this movement will combine their original surname into a new surname, and take that combination as their common surname. For example, Villaraigosa is a combination of a Villar and Raigosa, and Rudoren is a combination of Ruderman and Wilgoren.

    Things carry on in different ways in China. In the old days, Chinese married women usually had two surnames, her original surname went after her husband‟s surname, and her name as a girl was normally ignored by society, for example, a girl name is 李凤(Li Feng), and she marries to 张龙(Zhang Long), then she will be called as

    (a married 李氏(a woman from family Li marry to family Zhang ), referred to as 李氏

    women who come from family Li).

    This condition changed when People's Republic of China established. In the Marriage law, it is official stipulate not requiring married women take husbands‟ surname. Thus in the mainland, nearly no wives will put their husbands‟ surnames in front of theirs. However , there are still some people in Hong Kong and Taiwan followed this tradition, one of the famous example is 连方瑀(Lian Fangyu),the former chairman

    of the Kuomintang Lien Chan‟s wife. another example is 陈方安生(Anson Chen),

    the former chief secretary of the Hong Kong special administrative region. Both of them put their husbands‟ surname in front their surnames, but remain their own names

    as well.

5 Implications for Those Similarities and Differences

    Surname, as a symbol, transfers specific cultural information. Surname is the most basic interpersonal appellation in the human society, which can reflect a nation's history and social change, language and cultural tradition, ethics and morality, religious beliefs and values, customs and habits, and so on. Thus, further research on surname can helps to have a better understanding of a country, a nation, and a culture. 5.1 Reliance on nature environment

    Just as what we have mentioned above, in the early stages of human beings, there were several common problems need people to deal with, dangerous environment, low production, nature disasters and so on. Our ancestors had to struggle to live. Without advanced technology, our forefathers were bound to the land they settled down. People who live in the plain become a farmer, people who live besides the river becomes a fisher. Another main factor that affects people‟s living condition is the

    weather, good weather or bad weather can determine the function of agriculture society. Thus, people took their residences and nature phenomena as their surnames since they are so important to their life.

    On base of this kind of reliance of nature, it becomes easier to understand why most people around the world in the ancient times would worship nature. Everything in nature such as flowers, trees, swallow, and tiger, all seems mysterious and full of god‟s will since the low awareness of science. So people choose those nature taboos as surnames to show their respects to nature and pray for bumper harvest and stable life.

    5.2 The respect for family and ancestor


Poets say family is the harbor of a travel‟s heart; Sociologists say, Family is the

    smallest unit of social community. Therefore it is easy to understand why people love family and try to protect the wholeness and inheritance of family. To achieve that purpose, both Chinese people and English people inherit their surname generation by generation within the family, which also is an inheritance of family identity. In another way, people are always curio their ancestors‟ life. What they have gone

    through, what we can do to achieve their success. Ancestors‟ achievements and

    history is the most fascinated story when we are children. However, this kind of complex is showed in different way in China and England. For English, they take their ancestors‟ names as their surnames because they think it is a symbol of close

    relationship and love. Yet Chinese seldom take do that for the reason of taboo. From this phenomenon, we can know two different attitudes towards ancestors: Chinese people respect even worships their ancestors, any kind of offence is not allowed. When you talking about your ancestors, you should say in a obscure way instead of saying their names directly. But for English, it becomes much easier, ancestors are treated as the same position and they often take their ancestor‟s name as their name or

    surname as memorial.

    5.3 Collectivism and individualism

    “The naming sequence in Chinese culture reflects the collectivism orientation, which stress groups rather than individuals; while the naming sequence in English embodies individualism orientation, which emphases people first” (杜学增,汉英姓氏习俗差异

    1, 1999)

    Another proof indicates this value difference is the attitude toward changing surnames. In China, it is hard to image a person try to change his surname except political reason, but in England, it is your free choice. That‟s the reason why there are far more

    surnames in English.

    Here is the reason. As we know, China has more than two thousand years of feudal history, thus people pay special attention to clan association, and emphasize the total organization and sacrifice their personal interest to the interests of the state. While until 1066 did Britain established feudal system by Norman government. At that time, English people has only personal name, but not family name. In the 14th century, Britain serf system has disintegrated and in the 16th century capitalism has rise. With such a short hundreds of years, so family failed as a social cell and clan relationship in Britain.

    Besides, the original meaning of surname in England is nickname or alias, which refers to the name of house that comments after people‟s name. It is meant only for

    person, and not inherited to the offspring.

    5.4 The attitude towards religion

    Every civilization has its beliefs. In the western world, Christianity is the spiritual pillar of society, so it is with England. People believe in god and pray for goodness and salvation. Thus the bible becomes the disciplines of people‟s activities and the bible characters become their moral models. They take those moral models‟ names as

    their surnames to express their good wish to virtue and piety.

     1杜学增,胡文仲.汉英姓氏习俗差异.中英(英语国家)文化习俗比较, 1999


    However, even with many different religions co-existing, such as Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, there was never a religion that can really dominate Chinese people. Thus, taking surnames from the religion was become a tradition of Chinese people.

    5.5 National amalgamation

    As we know, both China and England are multinational countries, there 56 nations in China and 4 major nations of Britain (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland). Thus, the amalgamation of nation was inevitable in both China and Britain and this amalgamation was all partly showed in the surnames. However, there are still some differences. In Britain, it showed as the minorities tried to remember their original nations and avoided assimilation. While in China, after the minorities conquered the Han nationality and established a new dynasty, most of them were voluntary or involuntary conquered by the Han culture, the form example is Northern Wei Dynasty, the latter example is Qing Dynasty. In a word, the ancient Chinese national amalgamation was a process of minority Hanization or feudalization .Just as Marx said,

    Savage conqueror is always conquered by the higher civilization which they conquer.

    2This is a history of the eternal law.

5.6 Female discrimination and liberation

    As we know, almost all early civilizations have the tradition of female discrimination, so it is China and Britain. About 2000 years ago, the great oriental philosopher Confucius said, Woman and mean that I am the most difficult to get along with.” 1

    century later, another great philosopher in the west Aristotle also declared that Men were born to belong to superior; while women were subordinate. The former rule, the latter is ruled. From this we can know that in a Male social, women are treated as a weaker and should be attached to male, thus they are forced to lose part of their identities. In the east, married women lost their name; in the west, they lost their surnames.

    However, with the awakening of female consciousness and the development of the Feminist movement, this kind of traditional view has been changed. More and more women stepped into the society and sought for equality and freedom. This movement resulted in a surname revolution. In the east, women didn‟t need to put her husbands

    surname in front of hers and could remain her own name, so it was the western world. Although most of the western married women and some of Chinese females still take their husbands surnames, it is an action out of self-willing, not because of outside pressure. So, in order to show their respect and love to each other, some married couple creates a new surname combined both their surnames. Maybe thats the best

    way to break female discrimination.


    Although China and England are so far away from each other, and there are so many differences in terms of living condition, yet human cognitive, on the other hand, have great similarity. Therefore the differences between Chinese and English surnames



reflect two different national culture and embody human culture has nationality and

    particularity. While their similarities reflect the common characteristics and explain

    human culture has universality. In a sense, the comparative study of English and

    Chinese surname can help us to carry forward the national culture, strengthen the

    understanding of western culture, and promote bilateral cultural exchange.



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