Game of Thorns — a brief history of my last name

I got really curious about my origin and did some research. This is the result of it.

My last name Yan 严 is probably one of the few lucky Chinese last names that still have a clear path that traces me back to 2500 years ago, because the name is not very large by population size and it is not very small either. If a last name is too rare, it may be poorly documented, crucial information might be lost throughout the years. And if a name is too common, the sources of origins may not be unique, one can’t tell for sure which branch is his/her origin. For example, there are many periods in Chinese history, migrants and minorities took Chinese last name as a way to blend in to avoid being harmed during political movements. And there are people who were given royal family names as a reward for their contributions. They have lost their origin as a result. The name of Yan, on the other hand, is about 0.3% of the Chinese population and ranks the 107th by population size.

Like every other history, the Chinese history started with a mythology. Unfortunately, the Chinese mythology is fragmented into pieces, unlike the Greek one or the Norse mythology. Stories of the Chinese mythology are loosely connected, if not unconnected. One explanation is that in ancient times, China was formed by different tribes or sub-cultures. They each has their own mythology. During the process of culture mixing, those mythologies merged in a not so harmonic way.

According to the mythology, the world began in an eggshell (or a Calabash). Within the shell, there was only chaos at first and nothing else. A giant then grew out of this chaos and soon outgrew the internal volume of the shell. So he broke the shell into two pieces, with the bottom piece sinking down as the ground and the top piece floating above and became the sky.

To prevent the two pieces from falling back to each other, he kept growing and used his body to support the two pieces, till the sky and the ground were too far apart to fall back. At this point, the giant was exhausted and died. His body became mountains and his blood became rivers and oceans. His eyes became the sun and the moon.

Many years after that (many fragmented stories skipped), China became under the ruling of three major tribes. One is led by Emperor Yellow. Another is led by Emperor Flame. They are actually brothers and enemies at the same time. The third tribe was formed by wildlings and was led by Chiyou. War broke out between the three, with Yellow won eventually and unified all three tribes. About two third Chinese last names rooted from Emperor Yellow, as well as most of the ruling houses of the first few Chinese dynasties.

After Yellow, the tribe was led by a series of 5 emperors. One of the emperors, a grandson of Emperor Yellow is said to be my ancestor, and after him, one of his grand grand grand sons was granted the title the lord of flame (but he was not an emperor), and then his youngest grandson named Jilian, who was also not an emperor but married to the daughter of one of the emperors of the Shang dynasty.

This is when mythology turned into history. According to ancient documents, the first 3 dynasties were Xia, Shang(1600–1046 BC) and Zhou (1046–256 BC). Xia started by a son of the last of the 5 emperors. But there lacks concrete proof of the existence of Xia. There are few archaeological sites which are candidates of potential Xia civilization, but none of them have provided text evidences. On the other hand, the second dynasty Shang preserved lots of text documents carved into bones and turtle shells. So the Xia dynasty is considered the separator of mythology and serious history.

Both of the first 2 dynasties were overthrown by their sub kingdoms, much like the Game of Thrones. Around the time when the 3rd dynasty Zhou was about to overthrow the 2rd dynasty Shang, one of the descendants of Jilian became the teacher of the lord of Zhou and helped Zhou overthrow the Shang dynasty. He was given a viscountship (the lowest title of nobility) as a reward, and was allowed to rule the southern land of China.

map of the State of Chu

This started the State of Chu, which had once grown into the largest country of China, the strongest of the seven kingdoms and had lasted for 800 years. On the surface, being granted a noble title and a territory seemed to be a reward, but in reality, Chu people were chased away from the center of the empire. At the time, the political center of the Zhou dynasty was also at the geological center of China, and the area was also referred as the “middle land”. People lived in the middle land, the capital of the kingdoms thought themselves the most civilized people and they despised others who lived on the corners, including Chu.

The character Chu 楚, literally means thorns, hence the title of this article. The writing of the character depicts a person walking in the woods and breaking bushes, as the top part of the character 林 means forest, and the lower part 走 means walking. The character also has the meaning of suffering and pain. Based on these, people guessed that my ancestors named their kingdom so because they had suffered an arduous journey while they were chased away from the middle land.

But several years ago, archeologist uncovered an ancient manuscript which contains the earliest written history of the state of Chu. According to the manuscript, while my ancestors migrated from the middle land to the south, a woman (who seemed to be the common mother of the family) gave birth to a baby by Caesarean and died. A priest wrapped her body with thorns as a way to seal up her wound. And to memorize her, my ancestors started to call themselves Chu (thorn). Because the people of Chu are descendents of the lord of flame, they worshiped flame and the sun with a phoenix as their sigil and they liked to wear red clothes.

For long, Chu wasn’t taken seriously by the Zhou dynasty. Even invited to its feast, Chu royals could only be Zhou’s servants. This all had changed when Chu had its strongest king Zhuang (613–591 BC), who is the direct ancestor of mine from 2500 years ago. Unfortunately none has left regarding his early life, all stories about him start after he had ascended the throne. During the first three years of his ruling, Zhuang was said to fool around every day, bedding harlots and getting drunk. One of his servants once entreated him to mind his ruling. Zhuang told the servant that there was a bird which hadn’t cried and flied for three years, but he would amaze the world with just one cry and with a single wing flapping he would reach the sky. He eventually led the country to become the largest and the strongest at the time. In fact, during the first few years, it was said that his position was challenged by other royalties, so Zhuang was really playing dumb at first.

Tripod Cauldrons

During his strongest years, Zhuang had marched his army right outside the capital of Zhou Dynasty and challenged the emperor by asking him the weight of The Nine Tripod Cauldrons. In ancient China, The Nine Tripod Cauldrons was the symbol for ultimate power and the ownership of the world. As powerful as Zhuang was, he sought kindness over ruthlessness and gave up the idea of using military power to conquer other countries. He never abused his power and he was a good king. There are lots of interesting things happened around him.

My last name came directly from king Zhuang of Chu. Speaking of names, I need to cover some ancient Chinese name cultures. 2000 years ago, we had more complex naming system than we have today. At the time, each person had two family names. The first is the called Xing 姓. The character 姓 is formed by two parts, 女 means woman and 生 means birth. And most early first family names have this woman 女 part. Some think this is a sign of early matriarchal society. I guess if two share the same first family name Xing, it means they have the same common mother? And the second family name was a branch name. Someone who was proud of his hometown, for example, could use the location name as his/her second family name (like Brienne of Tarth). But about 2000 years ago (around the time of Qin Dynasty), people started to merge their family names. Lots of information had been lost. And of course, there was also the given name. But it’s considered offensive to call others by their given names in ancient China, so people often used nicknames instead.

Zhuang 庄 wasn’t his family name, nor was his given name. His first family name was 芈 according to history. This character isn’t used anymore. It looks like a sheep and is pronounced a bit like sheep bleating. I’m pretty sure it means sheep. The second family name is Xiong 熊, which means bear. But both characters shouldn’t be the real names the house of Chu ever used. Evidences suggest they are disparaging names given by Chu’s enemy (most likely by Qin after Qin conquered Chu). The real names used by the house of Chu were 嬭 and 酓 according to archeological evidences. 嬭 means mother (or breast), whereas 酓 means leader. As I mentioned, ancient surnames usually share the same part 女, means woman.

Zhuang, on the other hand, was the king’s posthumous name. Emperors and kings were given this name after their death, as a conclusion of their life. I heard, the posthumous names come from a dictionary of around 50 characters. Most of the characters are positive, there are negative ones, and also neutral ones, such as “sad”, to describe certain young king who died early. My ancestor was given the posthumous name Zhuang 庄 to praise his military achievements. To memorize him, his offsprings took the character Zhuang 庄 as their surname.

The Zhou Dynasty became very weak in controlling other kingdoms during its second half. Kingdoms then started tangled warfare. Unfortunately, Chu wasn’t the one that stood till the end. Qin did and started the Qin Dynasty. Chu was conquered by Qin, but its people refused to accept it and there was a prophecy circling around saying that the person who will overthrow Qin must be from Chu.

Qin was a short lived dynasty that lasted for only few years and collapsed due to its tyranny. The person who eventually replaced Qin was indeed from Chu. He started the new dynasty called Han. At the time, one of my ancestors (37 BC -43 AD) who bore the family name Zhuang 庄 was a good friend of the emperor of Han and was also a famous hermit. But the fourth son of the emperor, who eventually inherited the crown had the same character Zhuang 庄 in his given name. Remember I mentioned that calling others with given names was considered offensive in ancient China. Sharing the same name with an emperor was also forbidden. So my ancestor had to change his family name to Yan 严, which is similar to Zhuang in meaning.

And many generations after him in Song Dynasty (1265–1274 AD), an ancestor of mine had two sons. They lived close to a river. Their offsprings formed two villages in today’s Zhejiang province, named upper Yan village and lower Yan village. This is where I tell people my last name came from. But I have never been there before, my family had left generations ago.

In the past, many Chinese families kept a family tree book. However, 60 years ago during the socialism movement, they were forced to burn the book (the idea was discarding your little family to embrace the community as your new family). History went lost as a result. Surprisingly, several years ago, a distant relative of mine still kept a copy of the family tree book. I skimmed a digital copy of the book, it is very difficult to read. I faintly remember it traces the family back to the above ancestors (the two sons) from 800 years ago, but I can’t be sure. What’s certain is that it says I originated from one of the above villages.

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