Customs of naming


LPS jiapu detail

Detail of Li family genealogy copied by Li Peisen, showing Li Xianrong’s generation, and his sons and grandsons.

Lineages in rural north China commonly (though not invariably) observe the custom of alternating single and double given-names by generation.

Most of my instances come from household Daoist lineages, which happen to be my main material. Whereas most of their fellow villagers were illiterate, and common families might not be aware of their forebears’ names beyond their grandfather, household Daoists were often part of a prestigious local gentry, and their rather stable hereditary transmission has preserved names over many generations.

The genealogy of the Li family in Upper Liangyuan village makes a clear instance. The tree below shows only the Daoists in the lineage (Daoist priests of the Li family, p.5). Thus Li Qing gave double names to his sons (like Li Manshan), while their own sons received single names (like Li Bin):

Li jiapu

Daoists in the Li lineage, from Li Fu, himself the 16th generation in the lineage.

Indeed, Li Bin has continued the tradition by naming his son Li Bingchang. You will have noticed that this is a firmly patriarchal tradition; though wives’ surnames are listed on such genealogies, daughters don’t appear at all, and until the 1950s their formal names were little used anyway. While the rule seems to used more flexibly for daughters, they too sometimes follow the pattern, as with Li Bin’s feisty sister Li Min.

Moreover (Daoist priests, p.40), for the double names used every other generation, in one generation the constant element in the given names is the first character, while in their grandsons’ given names it is the second character. Thus the first character pei [1] is the constant in Li Peiye 培業, Li Peixing 培興, Li Peilong 培隆, but in the names of Li Peixing’s grandsons it is the second character shan that is constant: Manshan 滿山, Yushan 玉山, Yunshan 雲山. Brothers with single names receive related characters, like Tao 淘, Qing 清, and Hai 海, all with the water radical; or in that same generation, Tong 桐, Xiang 相, Huan 桓, and Hua 樺, all with the wood radical, like their grandfathers Shi 柘 and Tang 棠.

Among many fine artefacts that Li Peisen handed down to his son Li Hua (see also here) is his 1981 copy of a memorial for a domestic Thanking the Earth ritual dating back to around 1930. Li Peisen dated his copy “70th year of the Republic” (which we perhaps needn’t consider as an affront to the Communist regime), but he didn’t copy the date of the original memorial. The latter was written by his father Li Tang (c1879–c1931) along with a fine genealogy of his branch of the lineage; moreover, when Li Peisen copied it in 1981 he updated it with a list of more recent kin.

And at New Year 1989 Li Qing edited it for his own branch of the family, also as part of a Thanking the Earth memorial. These documents are evidence of the rather prosperous status of the Li lineage. For a start, only relatively well-off households would commission a Thanking the Earth ritual. But further, such genealogies are less common in north China than in the south; Li Manshan estimates that only 10 or 20% of lineages in the area would ever compile their own genealogy. A family commissioning a Thanking the Earth ritual would invariably list the previous three generations of ancestors, but it was less common to use the occasion to copy such an extensive genealogy, so we are lucky here.

And here’s the Wang lineage of Baideng township (Daoist priests, pp.78–9), descended from the stepson of Li Zengrong—and also Daoists:

Wang jiapu

This custom is common further afield in north Shanxi, as you can see from many posts under Local ritual. Still in Yanggao, here’s another Daoist lineage in Luowenzao township:

Li Fa 李發
Li Wanxiang 李萬祥
Li Tai 李泰
Li Jincai 李進财
Li Ke 李科
Li Deshan 李德山
Li Yuan 李元
Li Tianyun 李天雲

Li Yuan writing

Li Yuan writing funerary documents, 1992.

And the Zhang family Daoists in Jinjiazhuang:

Zhang Lianzhu 張連珠
Zhang Kui 張奎
Zhang Wenbing 張文炳
Zhang Bi 張弼
Zhang Deheng 張德恆
Zhang Mei 張美
Zhang Jincheng 張進成
Zhang Nan 張楠

Zhang Nan and LMS

Li Manshan with Zhang Nan, Jinjiazhuang 2018.

And just south in Yingxian county, here are seven generations of Longmen Daoists in the Zhao lineage:

Zhao Tianyu 赵天玉
Zhao Ming 赵明
Zhao Yongzhen 赵永珍, Zhao Yongbao 赵永宝
Zhao Zhong 赵仲, Zhao Xiu 赵秀, Zhao Cai 赵财, Zhao Rui 赵瑞
Zhao Guowen 赵国文 (son of Zhao Xiu)
Zhao Fu 赵富, Zhao Pu 赵普
Zhao Shiwei 赵世伟

On a practical fieldwork note, as soon as you manage to get to grips with these names, you realize that no-one really uses them. Instead they use nicknames like Golden Noble (Jingui) or Zhanbao, their “little names” (xiaoming)—itself an informal term for “breast name” (ruming). Li Manshan doesn’t even necessarily know the formal names of some of the Daoists from other lineages that he calls on as ritual deps. Actually, this discrepancy with “standard” names is entirely normal in social groups, as I noted in this post featuring the conductor Charles Mackerras (“Slasher”).

The Li family also used another naming system. Males of the same generation were given a double name whose second character was the same; for Li Qing and his siblings it was shun 順, for Li Manshan’s generation it was heng 衡. Thus Li Qing was known as Quanshun, while those who know Li Manshan well call him Manheng. His son Li Bin seems to be known as Li Bin, though even this is complicated; Li Manshan gave him the name Bin 斌 (the characters for “civil” and “martial” combined), but he often uses the name Bing 兵 “Soldier”—he’s not fussy. But most often they refer to each other by kinship terms, like “third maternal uncle”—their precision only useful if you happen to have a detailed genealogy in your head.

* * *

Meanwhile in Hebei province, we can see that the custom of alternating single and double names by generation was widely used in the various lineages of Gaoluo, stalwarts of the village ritual association (Plucking the winds, genealogies pp.357–61) such as the Cai lineage:


The Fu generation there was crucial to the transmission of the ritual association under Maoism, with a whole cohort of distinguished performers. Apart from Cai Fuxiang, old revolutionary and vocal liturgist (like Cai Yongchun, also part of that generation), Cai Fuquan was the leading guanzi player, and Cai Fulai, Fuzhong, Fulü, Fushun, Fumao, Fulin, Fumin, and Futong were all keen members. It was their sons who were our own mentors through through the 1990s, like Cai An, Cai Ran, and Cai Yurun (the latter, son of Cai Fuzhong, being a curious exception to the naming system). Under both the Maoist and reform eras many of them served as village cadres even while supporting the ritual association.

Cai Fulu

A rare image from Gaoluo on the eve of the 1937 invasion:
left, vocal liturgist Cai Fulü; right, Catholic Shan Wenyi, brother-in-law of Woman Zhang.

Back in 1930, when Painter Sun visited Gaoluo to depict ritual images for the association, the Cai lineage had used the occasion to ask him to make a fine genealogy for them on cloth—and it seems to be the only one that has survived decades of turmoil. Somehow it was handed down to Cai Haizeng, third generation of vocal liturgists in his family after his father Cai Fulü (another exception to the naming rule). When Haizeng hung it up for me to photograph in 1998, he insisted on preparing an altar table with incense, candles, fruit, tea, liquor, and cigarettes.

Cai 1930

Cai lineage genealogy, 1930.

Unlike the Cais, most branches of the Shan lineage simply used double given-names for every generation, but the case of Shan Zhihe (1919–2002), one of our most venerable mentors in Gaoluo, is interesting. His father Shan Futian (1882–1953) gave his two sons their “official names” Zhizhong and Zhihe after their coming of age with the “lesser capping” ceremony. He named them thus because his public baths in Hohhot were called Zhonghe 忠和 (Loyalty and Peace) baths; their names showed that the baths would one day belong to them. The zhi 之 element in their given names was an “empty character”, and so they were considered single names.

But by the 1940s the “old rules” were already being diluted here. The two sons of Shan Zhihe, Shan Ming and Shan Ling, who would eventually become ambiguous figures in the village’s ritual association, were born in Hohhot in 1942 and 1948. Though the custom of alternating single and double names by generation persisted in the Cai and He lineages more than with the Shans, by this time it was becoming more flexible. So when it came to the naming of his own sons, although Shan Zhihe’s own name was effectively, and properly, single, they too were given single names; it was actually their grandfather Shan Futian who made the decision. This was apparently one old tradition which was losing ground, irrespective of political control.

Here too, people had variant names. At least until the 1980s, after reaching the age of 50 sui, men adopted an “old” name (laohao 老號) beginning with the character “old” (lao). In principle, the new name should complement the original name, in a charming parallel with Cockney rhyming slang. Just as “apples” stands for “stairs” by way of “apples and pears”, so Shan Chang (eternal) took the “old” name Laole (old joy) by way of the binome changle (eternal joy). Cai Qing’s given name Qing (verdant) was associated with the phrase “verdant hills and abundant waters” (shanqing shuixiu) to create his “old” name Laoxiu.

Incidentally, villagers agree that as long as the characters for their given name reflect its pronunciation, it’s not important which characters are used—admittedly within a very narrow choice of two or three. This is evident in the association’s own donors’ lists, where different written versions of the same given name appear. And I must say it’s one of the few reliefs available to us in making fieldnotes.

* * *

While the alternation of single and double given-names is far from a universal rule in rural north China, I suppose it must have been common in the cities too—is it still so? And what of other regions, like south China, where lineage consciousness is more deeply embedded? Comments welcome!


[1] By the way, the pei character is 培, though they often use 丕 (officially pi) as a simplified character. They also often write a simplified character for zeng 增 in several Daoists’ names, with zhong 中 to the right of the earth radical; I haven’t found this in dictionaries.



One thought on “Customs of naming

  1. Pingback: A village elder | Stephen Jones: a blog

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