Chinese Culture · Genealogical Research · Genealogy Basics

How to find your surname in Chinese

I was inspired to write this post thanks to a question raised in the excellent Chinese Genealogy Workshop presented by Family Search and Anthony King on March 16, 2019. If you have a chance to see it, it’s well worth the time. Mr. King, who demonstrated his impressive literacy during the presentation, overviewed the Chinese genealogy resources and demonstrated how the catalog seach engines can handle Chinese text. He then suggested we try searching the catalog with our Chinese names.

Whoa. Stop right there. 

What if you don’t know your Chinese name?

This subject hits close to the bone for me. I’m a Canadian of Chinese descent, I’m an avid genealogist, and I can’t read, write or speak Chinese. Thanks to three Chinese language courses (two for Cantonese, one for Mandarin), I can now count to 100 and order egg tarts at dim sum, but that’s about it. I grew up in English, and for the ultimate irony, I took French at university. Oui, c’est vrai. I am lucky to have a copy of my name thanks to the work of my older cousins but there are many Chinese descendants who don’t.

So this post is for those of us who would like to start at the very beginning: finding our Chinese names. And if you are reading this and nodding your head, let me explain some of the reasons why it might be so hard.

Problem #1 – The many variations of your romanized name

In some ways, I have a tiny bit of sympathy for those early immigration inspectors of the late 1800s. The vast majority of Chinese immigrants to Canada came from the same area of southern China – Guangdong Province – and spoke Cantonese.

China_Map_Guangdong
Guangdong Province, China. From Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guangdong.

Cantonese has a range of tones that even native Cantonese speakers think vary from 5-11. Compare this with English, which many folk can speak in a monotone. (For more on this, see The nine tones of hell by the China Channel, or Is Cantonese a language, or a personification of the devil? by Victor Mair.) Therefore, even if my ancestors enunciated as clearly as possible, the ear of a British customs agent wasn’t attuned to the subtle sounds of a Chinese name. For that reason, my paternal family names could be any of YipIpJip or a dozen variations. If you try pronouncing Yip like Jip, you’ll get a sense of its true sound.

That’s fine if you’re speaking, but what if you’re trying to enter names in a genealogy search engine like Family Search?

Problem #2 – What is your name in pinyin?

What is YipIp, and Jip in pinyinCan you guess? I’ll provide the answer at the bottom of the post.

Pinyin, or the standardized spellings of Chinese words in English, is like a language unto itself and it’s been evolving since the first English-speaking explorers hit the Chinese shores. I think of it like a bridge language to help students form the right sounds. Many Chinese language classes teach only pinyin, or the sounds of Chinese, leaving the much more difficult task of associating the sounds with the characters later. If you know your Chinese name in pinyin, you are halfway home.

Problem #3 – Which one of those characters on the document is your name?

Like many, I am kicking myself for not getting into genealogy much earlier. My grandfather had a beautiful calligraphic hand. I’m sure he would have been delighted to teach me but I missed my chance. However, I am resourceful, and I’ve been collecting documents for the past twenty years. Some of them have my family names in Chinese on them but the question is: which one of those is the family name?

Problem #4 – You’ve asked a family member to write out your name for you and you still can’t identify it.

A Chinese name is hard to identify even if it’s typed out. A single Chinese character can have up to a dozen dots, dashes and strokes, and not everyone is a trained calligrapher. If you’ve been able to get over the embarrassment of asking a kindly elder in your family to write your family name for you, you may still get something you can’t read.

Problem #5 – You’ve got a copy of the family name in simplified Chinese.

About 70 years ago, China introduced a simplified system of writing Chinese characters. It is quite possible for you to have two different styles of your name: one in traditional Chinese, the other in simplified Chinese.

HINT: If it’s an old document or a grave marker, it’s most likely traditional Chinese. If it’s written by your family member, it could be either.

For more on this, see More than you want to know about simplified characters by the University of San Diego.

Going forward

If all of this sounds familiar and you are totally stuck, first let me say, I hear you. Now let’s talk about getting unstuck.

Where to get copies of your family name

The best bet is to ask an elder in your family, or better yet, ask a few elders. You won’t go wrong having multiple handwritten copies of your name. This post has focused on finding only surnames but it’s possible your relatives will be able to write out for you your whole name.

After that, my best sources are immigration records and grave markers. For more on the latter, see House of Chinn’s excellent post on Chinese tombstones.

How to find the Family Search listing of 400 Chinese names

Thank you, Anthony King and Family Search!

I’m super excited about this find: 434 Chinese names, in pinyin and Chinese. Did you know that the top 100 names in Chinese, e.g., Wang, Li, and Zhang, are shared by 85% of the population? There is a good chance your family name will be there.

  1. If you haven’t yet signed into Family Search, go ahead and get an account. It’s free, and you only need to provide your email address.
  2. Go to the top and click on Search. Search button
  3. Click on the map at right and select China.

    Family Search map
    Selecting China from the map. Family Search available at https://www.familysearch.org.
  4. Scroll down to Image-only historical records and choose the China Collection of Genealogies, 1239-2014.

    China collection of genealogies
    China collection of genealogies. Family Search, available at https://www.familysearch.org.
  5. Choose Browse.

    Browse
    Browse through 13M+ images. Family Search, available at https://www.familysearch.org.
  6. You’ll find the listing of Chinese names. Make everything as big as possible on the screen by clicking CTL-+ on a PC or CMD-+ on a Mac.

    Chinese names
    (Chinese) Family Names. Family Search, available at https://www.familysearch.org.

An example – finding the Young family name

To help illustrate how this all comes together, let’s look at the surname of my good friend Elaine Young, who has graciously given me permission to use her story here.

What is Young in Chinese and in pinyin? This is a question we’ve been pondering for decades.

Step #1 – Find the Chinese name

We have very few documents but thankfully one of them is an immigration certificate in Chinese and English. Here is an excerpt of the signature for YOUNG Jack Sang, where Mr. Jack Sang Young has written his name in Chinese above his English name. This is a good example to use because the  three names are written in the same order with the surname first: YOUNG Jack Sang in English below the three characters of his name in Chinese.

Young Jack Sang
Excerpt, Young Jack Sang. Used with permission by Elaine Young.

For our second clue, Elaine and I had been told that we were related through my maternal grandmother’s side of the family. My grandmother was a Young – could it be that they were the same? Here is the grave marker for my great grandfather, Don Yuen Young. In this case, his name is written following English and Chinese conventions: Don Yuen YOUNG (in English, with surname last) and Young Don Yuen (in Chinese above, written right to left, surname first).

DonYuenYoung
Grave marker for Don Yuen Young. Photo Credit: Linda Yip. © 2019 Past Presence. All rights reserved.

The marker might be hard to see, so here is the surname again. It’s like a sheep with a box on its back, beside a skinny Xmas tree.

Yang
Young, Chinese Traditional character. From Wiktionary at https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E6%A5%8A.

If you look carefully again at the signature, you’ll see that Mr. Jack Sang Young drew out the three legs of the sheep, so we have a match.

Young Jack Sang
Excerpt, Young Jack Sang. Used with permission by Elaine Young.

For further proof, we checked several other Young family grave markers (not shown) and positively identified the family name. This is the Young family name in Chinese.

Step #2 – Find the pinyin name

Now we need know what Young is in pinyin. if we go to Family Search and look for Young, we don’t have a match. Young is most likely not a pinyin spelling. But what is?

Screen Shot 2019-03-17 at 3.12.53 PM
Excerpt, Family Names in Chinese in the China Collection of Genealogies, Family Search. Avaiable at https://www.familysearch.org.

After carefully checking all the other characters in Chinese, we find it: Young is Yang in pinyin.

Screen Shot 2019-03-17 at 3.16.10 PM
Family name Yang. Available at Family Search https://www.familysearch.org.

From the Oxford Concise English-Chinese / Chinese-English Dictionary, 2nd edition, Yang 楊 means poplar or willow, like the trees.

And since we want to be complete, here are the characters in simplified Chinese (where the box is now a “Z” and the sheep has only 2 legs) and historical Chinese (where the right hand character really does look like a 4-legged animal’s profile.)

Yang simplified.001
Young, simplified Chinese. From Wiktionary at https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E6%A5%8A.
Yang old style
Historical form of Young. From Wiktionary at https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E6%A5%8A

The results

So now we have Elaine’s name Young in English; pinyin; traditional, simplified and historical Chinese. We can now start looking for her village of origin.

Hint: if you are successful in finding your name in Chinese, grab a copy of the character, as opposed to a picture, for your files. It’s very useful for pasting into things like Google search engines and family tree software.

Old_chinese_Book
Old Chinese book. Jintan at Chinese Wikipedia. [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

Answer to question above: What is Yip in pinyin (and Chinese)?

The name Yip in pinyin is “.” Here it is in Chinese too.

YE

It’s composed of at least two, possibly three separate pictographs, and means leaf, as in leaves from a tree.

Postscript

I’m a big believer in dogged persistence and determination. If you’re doing Chinese genealogy and you’re stuck, have faith. It will be hard but it’s not impossible.

Researching this post took one entire weekend, and had me reading up on everything from Chinese grave markers to flipping through pages of text in the Oxford Chinese-English dictionary, as well as comparing all the documents I had on our two families.

Also, I’d like to give a shout out to Elaine, without whose story I’d be missing the most important part – showing how these recommendations work in real life.

One final note before I go: did you know that the written Chinese traditional characters may be read by literate Chinese regardless of language, i.e., Cantonese, Mandarin, Toishanese, Taiwanese? I also understand that Japanese people may also read them, but someone please help me out here. [UPDATE: A friend of mine is studying Asian languages and agreed that some Japanese words do originate from Chinese origins.]

What do you think? What did I miss?

2 thoughts on “How to find your surname in Chinese

  1. Brilliant post, Linda, that’s going to help a lot of people! And I thought trying to read and decipher Hebrew was difficult…

    1. Hi Val, thank you for the lovely comment. I can’t speak to the difficulty of reading Hebrew. Good grief, I can only imagine how hard that is. All I know is that the more I dig into genealogy, the more I appreciate the best way to spend my time is to focus on doing what I can do and asking for help on all the rest (and that very much includes asking for translation work in Chinese!)

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