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Baixing (Chinese: ; pinyin: bǎixìng; lit. 'hundred surnames' or lao baixing (Chinese: 老百姓; lit. 'old hundred surnames') is a term in Chinese meaning "the people", or "commoners".[1][2] The word lao (Chinese: ; lit. 'old') is often added before "baixing".[3]

Around 2,000 Han Chinese surnames are currently in use, but the great majority of Han Chinese people use only a relatively small number of these surnames; 19 surnames are used by around half of the Han Chinese people, while around 87% of the population share 100 surnames.[4][5]

Chinese Family Names[edit]

Chinese family names are patrilineal, passed from father to children.[6][7] Chinese women, after marriage, typically retain their birth surname.[8] Two distinct types of Chinese surnames existed in ancient China, namely xing (Chinese: ; pinyin: xìng) or ancestral clan names, and shi (Chinese: ; pinyin: shì) or branch lineage names. Later, the two terms began to be used interchangeably, and now, xing refers to the surname while shi may be used to refer to the clan name or maiden name. Historically, only Chinese men possessed xìng (Chinese: ; lit. 'family name'), in addition to shì (Chinese: ; lit. 'clan'); the women had only the latter and took on their husband's xìng after marriage.[8]


A confederation of tribes living along the Yellow River were the ancestors of what later became the Han ethnic group in China.[9][10] During the Warring States (475–221 BCE) several large tribes, including the Huangdi tribes (Chinese: 黄帝族), Yandi tribes (Chinese: 炎帝族), and the Yi tribes formed an alliance which consisted of roughly 100 tribes, hence the origin of the Baixing Chinese: 百姓, or the "hundred surnames".

Literary Compilation[edit]

The Hundred Family Surnames (Chinese: 百家姓), commonly known as Bai Jia Xing,[11] is a classic Chinese text composed of common Chinese surnames.[12] The book was composed in the early Song dynasty.[13] It originally contained 411 surnames, and was later expanded to 504.[when?][13] In the dynasties following the Song, the Three Character Classic, the Hundred Family Surnames, and Thousand Character Classic came to be known as San Bai Qian (Three, Hundred, Thousand), from the first character in their titles, and were the almost universal introductory literary texts for students, almost exclusively boys, from elite backgrounds and even for a number of ordinary villagers.[14][15]

Use of Surnames to Determine Chinese Ethnicity[edit]

Chinese surnames have been proposed to be used as an alternative method in identifying an individual ethnicity. Many secondary data sources that are used by health research do not include information on race or ethnicity, and surnames are often used as a proxy when researching on health care for ethnic populations [16] A research published by the BioMed Central (BMC), which is a pioneer of open access publisher of high quality peer-reviewed journals,[17] asserts that surname lists in identifying these cohorts of ethnic minority patients; and then aims to develop and validate lists to identify people of South Asian and Chinese origin.[18] The study was conducted in Ontario, Canada, reviewed comprehensive lists of South Asian and Chinese surnames, and compared these lists to the Registered Persons Directory, the individuals were then assigned to their specific ethnicities. The results were subsequently validated against self-identified ethnicity through linkage with responses to the Canadian Community Health Survey.[19] The study concluded with a definitive result that surname lists are able to identify cohorts of people with South Asian and Chinese origins with a high degree of accuracy.

A similar study, published by the Canadian Journal of Public Health, studying the validity of using surname to define Chinese ethnicity, found that using surnames to determine ethnicity is a promising approach to existing health records and that surname lists are reasonably sensitive in identifying these ethnicities [20]

Another study published by the American Journal of Epidemiology, a peer-reviewed journal for empirical research findings [21] conducted the same research in Ontario, Canada. Choi et al. (1993),[22] uses the Ontario all-cause mortality database from 1982-1989 to test if the surnames are able to identify individuals with Chinese Ethnicity with significant accuracy. The databases were randomly split into two halves, and then complied against varying cut-off of positive likelihood ratios; surnames that did not meet the cut-off were then matched against the Book of Hundred Family Names (1973) A.[23] The results proved to be reasonably positive as well. According to the article, Choi et al.’s (1993) boasts high levels of sensitivity, positive predictive value and positive likelihood ratio for both males and females. The research team also suggests that there may not be a universal set of Chinese ancestry names that can be applied in epidemiology studies. Instead, Choi et al. (1993) proposes that every location may require its own set of ancestry names, produced in its own time period to ensure accuracy and reliability.

Implications of Current Chinese Surname System and the Research of a New Surname System[edit]

Chinese surnames have a rich history of three thousand years, and the system of Chinese surnames have been developed and established to distinguish different families and prevent the marriage of individuals from the same family names.[24] However, a study done by Zhang (2009),[25] found that in the Chinese current surname system, there is a deep-rooted traditional concept, that families have a preference in having a male child, since surnames are passed on to the sons of the families. Zhang (2009) aims to develop a new surname system so that children will adopt neither of their parents’ surnames, instead, their parents’ surnames can be inferred from their own surnames.

Another study published by Elsevier, in the Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organization journal, investigates the effects of China’s two child policy on its gender ratio [26] The study asserts that the previous one-child policy induces a simple behaviour – manipulating the birth process. The authors (2015) asserts that although the move towards a two-child policy should suggest that the gender imbalance in China be improve substantially, the expectation require closer examination. The study provided similar countries, such as India, Vietnam and South Korea that do not enforce one-child policy but have also experienced the same gender imbalance problems as China [27] The study highlights the intensity and pervasiveness of son-preference in China, and attempts to build a model of parental decision making in which parents decide whether to manipulate the birth of their children to increase the likelihood of obtaining a son.[28] It draws the conclusion that although the move towards two-child policy may show initial improvements in gender imbalance, as long as the underlying preference for a son remains intact, the problem of inequality will not improve.

An article published in Nature, an established British weekly scientific journal,[29] found that the birth rate per woman dropped from 5.4 in 1971 to 1.8 in 2001 B.[30] This was brought about by China’s one-child policy enforced in 1979,[31] which meant that families have to become selective in determining the gender of their children. According to Ball (2008), the primary cause of the gender-ratio imbalance could be attributed to the same traditional values that Chinese families hold. The motivation of gender selection is partly welfare, where the Chinese views that a son is duty-bound to look after the needs of his parents, while a daughter’s obligations are transferred to her in-laws when she marries (Ball, 2009). These traditional gender roles; whereby the son needs to carry on the family names while daughters viewed as part of the in-law’s family after marriage, have caused gender ratio in China to become severely imbalanced[32] Zhang’s (2009) study aims to address this problem and aid Chinese families in revising their traditional views on gender roles, starting with a new surname system.

Deriving Social Networks Based on Chinese Surnames[edit]

Chinese surnames are also applied to studies regarding social systems among individuals to construct complex networks. A complex network, a system of edges that connect nodes, can be used to describe individuals in social systems [33] A study done by researchers from the Boston University and the Beijing Normal University,[34] aims to “extend the network presentation of surname data to a spatial network and to investigate the Chinese regional hierarchical structure and geographical features behind the geographical distribution of surnames”. The researchers obtained surnames and administrative regions at a provincial level of all the Chinese officially registered in the China’s National Citizen Identity Information Centre (NCIC).[35] They then constructed nodes on the current networks to demonstrate the social relationships between the various provinces in China. The results of the study show that it supported the Tobler’s First Law of Geography, which states that the most connected provinces in the spatial Minimum Spanning Tree (MST) are geographically adjacent, and that all clusters identified are geographically continuous in the map.[36] The use of Chinese surnames in the study has not only helped to locate the local and global centres of China, but also provided evidence of the historical mass migration to the Northeast (Alpha History, 2016).

Chen et al. (2019) have also done a study into the relationship between Chinese surnames distribution and its effects for population dynamics; their research asserts that surname distribution contains important information because it is an integrative result from evolutionary forces such as drift, mutation and migration. According to the research, Chinese surnames have been well preserved over centuries, and has experienced long-term integration between locals and migrants. However, the scale of these effects on the local population vary region to region. The research team also obtained a surname dataset from China’s NCIC as its primary data; and used a new index of surname diversity, the coverage ratio of stretched exponential distribution (CRSED) to characterize the significance between the exponential term to power-law term in the distribution (Chen et al., 2019). The study (2019) found that prefectures with higher CRSEDs are more alike to other prefectures, while the ones with lower CRSEDs are more dissimilar to the others. This provided an insight into the population dynamics in the different regions. According to Chen et al. [37], it can be inferred that in prefectures with higher CRSEDs, migratory movements seem to be the dominant force in population dynamics, whereas drift and mutation are the dominant evolutionary forces in prefectures with lower CRSEDs. Although the research provides that the relationship between CRSED and population dynamics should only be taken as a hypothesis at this stage, and that more convincing evidences need to be acquired before forming a conclusion, the use of Chinese surnames as a method to explain population dynamics proves to be another way anthropologists, genetics and physicists can use in their investigations.

Analysis of Chinese Surnames in America[edit]

Chinese surnames have also been included in studies to further define the various aspects of a Chinese identity. In a study done be Leung,[38] the term “Chinese” can be referred to an ethnicity, a group of people, or languages. The blanket term has led to an oversimplication of a nation, languages, peoples and cultures [39] The study researches into the naming phenomenon, specifically Chinese surnames, in America by studying Cantonese and Hoisan-wa histories so as to disambiguate the term. The United States of America has a diverse spread of ethnic Chinese immigrants of different language and culture backgrounds. Leung [40] states that most Chinese Americans can trace the ancestors’ arrival back to the ninetieth and mid-twentieth centuries, from a shared Szeyap ancestral heritage. The Szeyap region is an area in Guangdong, a Chinese province in Mainland China. By analysing the surnames of Chinese Americans, Leung has found that third-generation-plus Chinese Americans have attempted to assimilate and Americanise their surnames. Indeed, an article published in the Elsevier’s Journal of Pragmatics states that Western-style English names are very commonly used by Chinese Hongkongers to communicate with Westerners and among themselves [41] The research compares the relative significance of names between Western and Chinese systems and examines the increasing extensive use of Western-style English names by Hong Kong bilinguals. Li [42] asserts that it can be argued that the motivations behind adopting Western names by the Chinese Hongkonger could be the preference of realizing an ‘involvement strategy’ in Western interpersonal address forms [43]

The writer also notes that the Hoisan-wa views misspelling their names by using Mandarin pinyin Romanization would “skew Chinese American history” (Louie, 1998). The difference in naming practices between the Hoisan-wa and the Cantonese show that even though Chinese surnames may sound similar, there are certain intricate details that are involved in the naming practices amongst different cultures and ethnicities.


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