April 29, 2015
Running head: Generation Names in China
Generation Names in China: To Be or Not To Be?
Ocean University of Qingdao
People’s Republic China
Edwin D. Lawson
State University of New York College at Fredonia
Chinese names have historically been composed of three elements,
the family name, the generation name, and the given name. The
male generation name marks the position of the bearer in the
series of generations after the founder. Prior to Mao, most men
used their generation names. A few had what can be termed
latent generation names. A latent generation name is one a man
knows but does not use in everyday life. Several forces reduced
the use of generation names, (1) urbanization, (2) breaking of
traditional ties to the land, (3) the feudal aspect of
generation names, and (4) the influence of Mao. Under Mao’s
regime, generation names dropped drastically and latent
generation names increased. This investigation evaluates the
responses of 493 male and 151 female Chinese respondents about
their use of generation names over four periods: Pre-Mao(1940-
1949), Mao1(1950-1959), Mao2 (1960-1976), and Post-Mao(1977-
1983). The decline in the use of generation names by men began
with the rise of Mao and continued significantly during the
second part of his regime. The Post-Mao period shows a
significant recovery rate in the use of generation names. The
use of generation names by females involves several factors and
is not as clear-cut as male data. Further, data for females
were available only for the Mao2 and Post-Mao periods.
Nevertheless, the data for females are similar to that of the
Generation Names in China: To Be or Not To Be?
The generation name is a naming practice unique to China.
The generation name is a name of the position of a group of
family members (a generation) in the family hierarchy. The
generation name is part of the male personal name, indicating
the generation position of the bearer(s) in the family
hierarchy. In a typical Chinese name the position of the
generation name is usually in the middle of three components
(characters), family name + generation name + given name. Some
people like to have the generation name after the given name. A
man’s male first cousins (from the father’s side) would also
bear this same generation name.
For females there are three alternatives possible:
(1) having no generation name at all, (2) having the same
generation name as their brothers, and (3) having a generation
name different than that of their brothers but shared with their
sisters (these generation names were not passed on). Examples
of both male and female names will be given below.
When a male child is born, the father will take a character
as the generation name from the chain of generation names
already selected and regulated by the forefathers and then
choose another character and give it to the baby as the given
name. Take the name Mao Zedong (毛毛毛) for example. Mao (毛) is the
family name and Ze (毛) the generation name. His real personal
name is Dong (毛). The name of Mao Zedong’s grandfather is Mao
Enpu (毛毛毛 ) and the father’s name is Mao Yichang (毛毛毛). The
generation names of the three generations are respectively 毛(En),
毛(Yi) and 毛(Ze), belonging to the 12th, 13th and 14th generations of
the Mao clan in Shaoshan, Hunan Province (Mao Zedong’s
hometown). According to the genealogy of the clan of the Maos
at Shaoshan, Hunan Province, the chain of generation names of
Mao Zedong’s family is a poem with five characters to a line.
The generation name Ze (毛) in the name of Mao Zedong (毛毛毛) stands
as the fourteenth character of the poem, namely the fourteenth
generation since the chain of generation names was begun in
1737. Even though Mao Zedong had several names like 毛毛 (Runzhi),
毛毛(Yongzhi), 毛毛(Ziren), 毛毛毛(Mao Shishan), 毛毛毛(Li Desheng), names he
used for different reasons or for different periods of time, the
name with the generation name Zedong (毛毛) never changed and he
used it all his life (Quangen Wang, 2000, 119). The name for
the custom of using generation names is Pai-hang (毛毛). According
to Louie (2001, 51-52), the purpose of Pai-hang is:
... to identify men according to generation in their
family and clan so as to determine their relationship to
one another. As such, it reveals horizontal and vertical
dimensions of a family and clan...the generation name in
the names of siblings represents the horizontal Pai-hang
and when all the generation names for a clan listed
together, this depicts the vertical Pai-hang. Each
generation therefore must be distinguished by a different
Louie’s statement showing the situation for men but not
mentioning women in Pai-hang shows that women did not have any
position, because the purpose of Pai-hang is “to identify
men . . . ” In other words, it may well be stated that women
in the past were not regarded seriously or not considered
As an example of the first alternative where females do not
have the generation name, we have two sisters Xu Qiuju (毛毛毛) and
Xu Enhua (毛毛毛). They have the same family name but no generation
name even though their brother is named Xu Xuanliang (毛毛毛) with
Xuan (毛) as the generation name.
As an illustration of the second alternative where a woman
has the same generation name as her brother, there is Wang
Guangmei (毛毛毛)毛wife of China’s former president. Her generation
name is Guang (毛), the same as her brother’s (her brother’s name
is Wang Guangying (毛毛毛); the two share the same generation name of
To show the third case where brothers and sisters have
different generation names, there are Li Chunting (毛毛毛)毛 whose
generation name is Chun (毛), and his brothers are named Li
Chunlin 毛毛毛毛毛and Li Chunpei (毛毛毛)毛 they share the same generation
name Chun (毛). Their sisters, however, are Li Yingyun (毛毛毛)毛 Li
Yingshu (毛毛毛) and Li Yinghui (毛毛毛). The generation name of the
sisters, Ying (毛), is different from that of their brothers Chun
To study generation names in China, one must first go back
to their history. The typical generation name began toward the
end of the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD). Liu Biao (毛毛), a
historical figure at the end of the Han Dynasty, had two sons,
one named Liu Qi (毛毛) and the other Liu Cong (毛毛). In the given
name of the two sons, there is the same Chinese character
component “毛”(meaning “king”). In the period of the Three
Kingdoms (220 - 265), the form of the generation name became
more obvious. The famous marshal Sima Zhongda (毛毛毛毛) (Sima is the
family name and Zhongda the personal given name) had seven
brothers and the eight brothers were named Boda (毛毛毛毛), Sima
Zhongda (毛毛毛毛), Sima Shuda (毛毛毛毛), Sima Jida (毛毛毛毛), Sima Xianda (毛毛毛毛),
Sima Huida (毛毛毛毛), Sima Yada (毛毛毛毛), and Sima Youda (毛毛毛毛). The
eight names all share the Chinese character (meaning “eminence;
understanding; extension”) as the generation name and obviously
the eight brothers were of the same generation.
With time, during the period of the Northern and Southern
Dynasties (420 - 589), the generation name began to enter the
naming system and became very popular, especially in the royal
families and upper class families. For example, Emperor Song
Wudi had seven sons, whose given names were: Yifu (毛毛), Yilong (毛
毛), Yizhen (毛毛), Yikang (毛毛), Yigong (毛毛), Yixuan (毛毛) and Yiji (毛毛).
The generation name is Yi (毛, meaning “justice; righteousness”)
and in this family or clan, those whose generation name is Yi,
including the sons of Song Wudi’s brothers’, obviously belong to
the same generation.
The chief characteristics of the generation name of this
period are not only its increasing popularity, but also that the
father or the elder generation of the family or clan determined
the generation name when the child was born. That marks the
entrance of generation names into the naming system.
The generation name reached its maturity in the period of
the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279). The maturity is marked by the
fact that the generation name was not determined by the meeting
and discussion of the father and elder members of the family
when the child was born. Instead, a sequence or a chain of
Chinese characters had already been chosen and fixed by the
elder generation as the source of generation names. When a
child was born, the father would go to the chain of generation
names and pick up one following his own for the baby’s
generation name. When his son’s child was born, the Chinese
character after the previous one in the sequence would be given
as the generation name to that child. For example, the sequence
of generation names for the children of Emperor Song Taizu (927
- 976) are De (毛), Wei (毛), Cong (毛), Shi (毛), Ling (毛), Zi (毛), Bo
(毛), Shi (毛), Xi (毛), Yu (毛), Meng (毛), You (毛), and Yi (毛). His
sons must have De (毛) as the generation name in their full name
and his grandchildren must have Wei (毛) as theirs in the full
name as this Wei is the character right after the emperor’s
son’s generation name. If a person of a family or a clan of the
same family name knows the name of another member of the family
or clan that has the same family name, he will know his relation
with that person in terms of generation. When a sequence or a
chain of generation names circulates to the end, the elder
generation will meet and discuss its continuation or its new
An important esthetic aspect that should be mentioned is
that between the end of the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907) and the
beginning of the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279), people began to use
a poem for generation names. In other words, if we put
together all the Chinese characters in the chain of generation
names, we will find a poem that those characters form. The
poem usually contains praise for ancestors or hope for the
continuation and prosperity in the future for the family or
clan. This is the aesthetic beauty the generation name makes;
otherwise generation names would be separate and unrelated
characters and lack the aesthetic aspect. This beauty is an
important mark of maturity for the generation name.
The generation names of Mao Zedong’s family are an
interesting example. The chain of generation names of Mao’s
family was formed in 1737 and if the generation names are put
together, a poem then appears, a poem of five characters to a
line (given below in the left column in Chinese characters with
Pinyin in the right, the romanization system for written Chinese
based on the pronunciation of the Mandarin Chinese for easier
毛毛毛毛毛, Li xian rong chao shi,
毛毛毛毛毛毛 Wen fang yun ji xiang.
毛毛毛毛毛, Zu en yi ze yuan,
毛毛毛毛毛毛 Shi dai yong cheng chang.
In 1881, four more lines were added:
毛毛毛毛毛, Xiao you chuan jia ben,
毛毛毛毛毛毛 Zhong liang zhen guo guang.
毛毛毛毛毛毛 Qi yuan dun sheng xue,
毛毛毛毛毛毛 Feng ya lie ming zhang.
The meaning of this eight-line poem goes roughly like this:
Celebrity and eminence glorify government officials毛
And knowledge and education extend the good luck of the
There is no end to the bounties of ancestral kindness毛
On which prosperity keeps for following generations.
Filial piety and benevolence preserve the family,
And faithfulness and loyalty invigorate the nation.
Encouragement be given in the beginning for imperial honour,
And noble elegance and refinement exalt every generation.
There are 40 characters in the Mao generation name poem and
these 40 characters mean 40 generations.
In China, some people hold the perception that the generation
name will “ . . .lose its dominance in naming practice as time
goes on . . .” (Caiyan Liu 1999, 59) and it will die out. They
hold that perception because they see many people, especially
young people, whose name consists of only two Chinese
characters, one being the family name and the other the given
name. This two-character name practice leaves out the
generation name. Based on their observation these observers
believe that the use of the generation name is decreasing and
this decrease will lead to the extinction of the generation
name. The purpose of this investigation is to examine
generation names of young people and see where the generation
name is going, to die or to continue, on the basis of the data
of four periods, the pre-Mao period (from 1940 to 1949 when Mao
came into power), the first Mao period (from 1950 to 1959), the
second Mao period (1960-1976), and the Post-Mao period (1977-
1983) (after he died in 1976). Originally, we had one period
where Mao was in power. On rethinking, it appeared to us that
at least in the sphere of naming, Mao’s influence did not appear
significantly until 1960 when he was at the height of power.
The hypotheses to be tested in this investigation are:
1. The use of generation names declined significantly from the
pre-Mao to the Mao years.
2. Since the Mao years, generation names have increased.
3. Observers report that in the pre-Mao years, most men used
their generation names and only a few had latent generation
names (these few had generation names that they knew but they
chose for various reasons not to use them). In our survey, we
predict that there will be an increase of latent generation
names over time.
Data in this study were collected in September and October
of 2001 from students at the Ocean University of Qingdao, China
and from members of that city’s community. The respondents who
are from an urban environment answered questionnaires about
several aspects of their names and those of their fathers.
1. Full name
2. Generation name
3. Year of birth
The students also answered the following questions about
1. Father’s full name
2. Father’s generation name if he had one
3. Father’s year of birth
While the fathers of the student provided much information,
it seemed advisable to add community members of roughly the same
age group as the fathers to the sample. Internal examination
indicated that the community members and the fathers were
similar enough to be combined.
There were 493 males and 151 females who completed
questionnaires. Of the males, there 173 regular, part-time, and
graduate students, 95 fathers, and 58 community members. Of the
women, there were 123 regular, part-time and graduate students,
and 28 community members. Tables 1 and 2 and Figures 1 and 2
show the trends and significance levels, if any, of the trends.
Please insert Tables 1 and 2 and Figures 1 and 2 about here
Tables 1 and 2 and Figures 1 and 2 clearly show that
generation names occur significantly more with males than
females in the Mao and Post-Mao eras (data on females for the
Pre-Mao era were not available).
Further examination of the tables shows that for males
there was a highly significant drop in generation names from the
pre-Mao to the Mao eras. There is a significant recovery in the
use of generation names from the Mao2 period to the Post-Mao
The results with the women as shown in Table 2 reveal an
increase in the use of generation names (13.9% to 24.1%) from
the Mao to the Post-Mao eras. However, while interesting, it
does not reach a significant level. Pre-Mao data for women were
not available because the naming patterns for women are
different from those of men.
No Generation Names
There were 105 males out of the total of 493 (21.3%) whose
generation name does not show up in the full name. The similar
comparison for the women shows 56 out of 151 (37.1%) not showing
generation names. Comparison for the men and women shows that
the proportion of women lacking generation names is highly
significant (beyond the .001 level) when the whole sample of men
over four periods is compared with the two available periods of
women. However, when the two comparable periods of men are
compared with the two periods of women, there is no difference.
Latent Generation Names
Earlier we had defined a latent generation name as one that
is known by the respondent but not regularly used. Examination
of the male data shows that in the pre-Mao years when most men
had generation names, there was a relatively low percentage
(6.8%) that had latent generation names. This increased to
24.8% in the Post-Mao years, a very highly significant increase.
With the women, the latent generation names were 34.9% in the
Mao2 years, 44.4% in the Post-Mao years. This is not
significantly different. Comparison of men and women in the
Post-Mao period does show that the women had more latent
generation names than the men. This is significant at the .001
Discussion and Conclusions
Now, it is time to return to the original hypotheses that
were set up. The first concern was whether generation names
declined from the pre-Mao to the Mao years. Only the male data
were available but Table 1 and Figure 1 show how dramatically
generation names declined during the Mao years.
Our second question asked whether generation names had
increased from the Mao to the Post-Mao periods. For men, there
was a significant increase; for women, there was an increase but
not at a significant level. These results give some support for
The third hypothesis concerned the increase of latent
generation names. This we showed to exist at a highly
significant level for males when there is a comparison of the
Pre-Mao and Post-Mao periods and the Mao2 and Post-Mao periods.
For women, there was also an increase in latent generation
names but not at a significant level.
Decline of Generation Names
Though people began to use the generation name in China more
than 1,000 years ago, there has been a trend that fewer and
fewer individuals are using it. Questions arise as to what has
brought this about. We can suggest four major factors: (1)
urbanization, (2) the breaking of traditional ties to the land
and community, (3) the feudal aspect of generation names, and
(4) the influence of Mao.
With the development of cities, more and more people came to
cities and settled. These migrants to the cities may be far
from the original places where their forefathers originated and
so they are far from the hierarchic relations that exist in
The breaking of ties is also associated with urbanization.
Ties to the traditional rural economy and ways of life have been
severed. In the traditional rural economy, farming depends on
the land and this dependence leads to the members of the family
or clan living in one village or area. In order to maintain the
rules and hierarchy of the family or clan, there must be marks
to distinguish genealogical generations. The system of
generation names serves that purpose. Since more and more
people leave the rural areas and come into cities and settle
down, the generation name, as the representation of the
genealogical generation, lacks the soil for its growth and thus
shows itself less and less in importance. This urbanization
explains why, as Lu and Millard (1989) wrote: “the sense of
clans is blunted, and many families no longer use generation
The third reason that many people take an aversion to
generation names is because it embodies the old ideas of feudal
patriarchal society. These people, especially the intellectuals
and people in cities, do not use the generation name when they
name their children. In the period of the 60s - 90s, many
people even adopted the two-character naming manner and composed
the name of the child with the family name and one selected
character only. For example, Li Dong (毛毛, Li, the family name;
Dong, male given name meaning “ridgepole”), Xu Li(毛毛, Xu, the
family name; Li, male given name meaning “morning”), Liu Yan (毛毛,
Liu, family name; Yan, female given name meaning “gorgeous”).
The generation name declined.
The final reason, and perhaps the most important is the
effect of Mao and the Cultural Revolution from 1967 to 1976.
That political event made many people, especially young people,
change their name or drop the generation name and take for their
name such characters as 毛毛(Weidong, meaning “protect Mao
Zedong”), 毛毛(Hongwei, meaning “Red Guard”), 毛毛(Xiangdang meaning
“Be loyal to the Party”), etc. When babies were born, fathers
did not dare to use generation names for the name of the baby.
Instead, they would turn to characters like mentioned just now
The Future of Generation Names
When talking about the changes over time in conventions in
naming, Lu and Millward (1989) said that the sense of clan
declines and many families no longer use generation names (275).
The increase of generation names in our study, however, makes it
a little too early to conclude that the generation name will die
out and become extinct.
The generation name helps avoid or reduce name duplication.
The two-character name pattern (family name and personal name)
produced a great deal of duplication while the three-character
name pattern is a good way to avoid name duplication and thus
the three-character name pattern leaves much room for the
generation name to exist.
The fall of generation names was in part brought about by
political events (the Cultural Revolution). The rise then owes
itself to the end of that event in the years of 1976 and 1977
and that end brings about, in one way or another, the revival of
traditional Chinese culture.
It is not easy to have the generation name and the personal
given name side by side in the full name. The generation name
and the personal given name must stand in harmonious relation or
in good integration and support each other. One must extend the
meaning of the other or explain the meaning of the other or
complete what the other intends to mean. The father not only
has to select the character in consideration of all that; he
must also take sound into consideration. So the generation name
presents parents with a great deal of opportunity for creativity
in naming their children.
Old and traditional as the type of the generation name is in
China, it is unique and cultural as a name type in the name
practice of the world. Even though the generation name
originated in the soil of the feudal, patriarchal social system,
it changes in meaning with the advance of society and constantly
adapts itself to catering to social needs and thus, just as
Daliang Wang (2001) put it, it “is exhibiting new vigour”(74).
It also reminds people of the idea of family and home and what
the forefathers have undergone in the past. It is part of
Chinese culture and heritage. Sometimes it may be popular and
sometimes it may become less popular. The generation name
declined in the 60s and the 70s but it rose in the beginning of
the 80s. The generation name in China, to be or not to be? It
is a little too early to tell for certain but it does appear
there may be a slight trend for increase in generation names.
Liu, Caiyan. (1999). Qimingxue [On naming]. Beijing: Chengshi.
Liu, Zongdi. (2000). Xinshi minghao mianmianguan [Aspects of family names
and personal names]. Jinan: Qilu.
Louie, Emma Woo. (1998). Chinese American Names, Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Lu, Zhongti with Celia Millward. (1989) “Chinese Given Names Since the
Cultural Revolution”, Names 37: 265-280.
Wang, Daliang. (2001). Xingming tanyuan yu quming yishu [Origins of Surnames
and the Art of Naming]. Beijing: Qixiang.
Wang, Quangen. (2000). Zhongguo renming wenhua [The Culture of Chinese
Names]. Beijing: Tuanjie.
We wish to express our appreciation to colleagues Li Ling, Mao Yanyang, Xin
Haiyan, and Xu Zhongchuan of the Department of English, Ocean University of
Qingdao, for their assistance with the data collection; to Richard F. Sheil,
Professor Emeritus of Music, State University of New York College at Fredonia,
for assistance in the statistical analysis; and to Professor Xu Xuanliang of
the Children's Palace of Qingdao, and Professor Yang Zijian of the Department
of English, Ocean University of Qingdao for assistance in the interpretation of
the generation poem of the Mao family.
1Table 1. Generation names for males during the Pre-Mao, Mao, and Post-Mao eras.
Pre-Mao Mao-1 Mao-2 Post-Mao Totals
Have Generation names (A) 66 90.4% 139 82.3% 42 41.2% 79 53.0% 326
No Generation names (B) 2 2.7% 20 11.8% 50 49.0% 33 22.1% 105
Latent Generation names (C) 5 6.8% 10 5.9% 10 9.8% 37 24.8% 62
Totals 73 99.9%* 169 100% 102 100% 149 99.9%* 493
Note 1. *The totals for the columns have been rounded and may not total 100%.
Note 2. The Male Generation table has 12 cells. There are three rows, A, B, C,
and four columns, 1, 2, 3, and 4.
The Chi square measure was used for comparisons. The comparisons below show
the levels of statistical significance:
A1-A2 (Pre-Mao vs. Mao1) NS
A2-A3 (Mao1 vs. Mao2) *
A1-A3 (Pre-Mao vs. Mao2) ***
A3-A4 (Mao2 vs. Post-Mao) *
B1-B2 (Pre-Mao vs. Mao1) *
B2-B3 (Mao1 vs. Mao2) ***
B3-B4 (Mao2 vs. Post-Mao) ***
C1-C2 (Pre-Mao vs. Mao1) NS
C2-C3 (Mao1 vs. Mao2) NS
C3-C4 (Mao2 vs. Post-Mao) **
NS = Non-significant difference.
*** = Difference significant below the .001 level. (very highly
** = Difference significant below the .01 level. (highly
* = Difference significant below the .05 level.
Table 2. Generation names in women during the Mao2 and Post-Mao
Mao2 Post-Mao Totals
Have Generation names (A) 6 13.9% 26 24.1% 32
No Generation names (B) 22 51.2% 34 31.5% 56
Latent Generation names(C) 15 34.9% 48 44.4% 63
Totals 43 100% 108 100.0% 151
Note 1. The female generation table has 6 cells. There are
three rows, A, B, C, and two columns, 1, 2.
The Chi square method was used for comparisons. The comparisons
below show the levels of statistical significance:
A1-A2 (Mao2 vs. Post-Mao) NS
B1-B2 (Mao2 vs. Post-Mao) *
C1-C2 (Mao2 vs. Post-Mao) NS
NS = Non-significant difference.
* = Difference significant below the .05 level.
Figure 1. Percentages of Generation names, No Generation
names and Latent Generation names for males.
Figure 2. Percentages of Generation names, No Generation
names and Latent Generation names for females.
Generation Names 29
Generation Names 30