As the number of descendants of the same ancestor increases, the family often splits into several branches and lives in different places. The descendants of each branch, in addition to keeping their surname, give themselves a name as a symbol, which is called "Shi".
The ancient xing were surnames held by the noble clans. They generally contain a "female" (Chinese: 女; pinyin: nǚ) radical, for example Ji (姬), Jiang (姜), Yao (姚) and Yíng (嬴). This is taken as evidence that they originated from matriarchal societies based on maternal lineages. The character for xing itself is composed of a female radical and the character for "give birth" (生, shēng). Xing is believed to have been originally transmitted through women of noble birth, while noble men have shi.
Some scholars such as Edwin G. Pulleyblank, however, are unconvinced by the matriarchy theory of Chinese surnames due to a lack of independent evidence. An alternative hypothesis has been proposed, suggesting that the use of female radical in xing may have arisen from the clan exogamy system used during the Zhou dynasty (the words xing and shi also did not exist in the Shang dynasty oracle bones). In ancient times, people of the same xing were not permitted to marry each other and a woman married into an aristocratic clan needed to be of a different name. Based on observation of the evolution of characters in oracular scripture from the Shang dynasty through the Zhou: the 女 radical seems to appear during the Zhou period next to Shang sinograms indicating a clan or a tribe. This combination seems to designate specifically a female and could mean "lady of such or such clan". The structure of the xing sinogram could reflect the fact that in the royal court of Zhou, at least in the beginning, only females (wives married into the Zhou family from other clans) were called by their birth clan name, while the men were usually designated by their title or fief.
While people of the same xing were not permitted to marry each other, those with the same shi can. By the Han dynasty when everyone had xing and the surname was transmitted paternally, the practice continued, but it had changed to marriage between families of men on the paternal side being prohibited, but not on the maternal side.
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- Lee, Keekok (2008). Warp and Weft, Chinese Language and Culture. Strategic Book Publishing & Rights Agency, LLC. pp. 140–141. ISBN 978-1606932476.
- Du Ruofu (杜若甫) (June 1986). "Surnames in China / 中国的姓氏". Journal of Chinese Linguistics. 14 (2): 315–328. JSTOR 23767123.
- Edwin G. Pulleyblank (2000). "Ji 姬 and Jiang 姜: The Role of Exogamic Clans in the Organization of the Zhou Polity" (PDF). Early China. 25: 1–27. doi:10.1017/S0362502800004259. S2CID 162159081.