Modern Day Chinese Surnames Flow From The Yangtze River, Study
By Juliana Chan | Featured Research
April 16, 2012
What do Chinese surnames tell us about the culture, genetics, and history of our society?
AsianScientist (Apr. 16, 2012) – What do Chinese surnames tell us about the culture, genetics, and history of our society?
In a study published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, researchers reveal how surnames could be used to trace the migrations and historical events which shaped modern China.
“When it comes to surnames the Chinese people are unique. 1.28 billion people share 7,327 surnames. In fact the 100 most common names account for 85 percent of the population,” said Dr. Jiawei Chen from Beijing Normal University, who led the research with Professor Yida Yuan from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Dr. Chen and the team analyzed data from China’s National Citizen Identity Information, using the isonymy theory which provides a method of exploring population structure by studying the distribution of surnames. This included measuring genetic distance, or the genetic divergence between populations within a species.
“Surnames are inherited through the male line which means they can be considered markers for the Y chromosome genes,” said Chen. “This means a study of surname distribution can help us understand genetic structures and historical social behavior, such as the role of migrations.”
The team studied the impact of migration and drift on the evolution of China’s population structure.
In Western Europe, drift is the main effect as the majority of the population had settled there for a long time. In the United States however, immigration has had a far greater impact, particularly with the influx of people during the 19th and 20th centuries.
China stands unique from both models with a combination of both drift and large scale migration, and a 4,000-year history of recorded surnames stretching back to the Xia Dynasty of the 21st to 16th centuries BC.
Surname distribution has been consistent since the Song Dynasty 900 years ago, and partly due to Confucian culture, have been well-preserved through the generations.
The team found the highest levels of surname diversity at the Yangtze River basin, particularly around the middle and lower reaches of the river.
Historically, 97 of the 100 most common surnames originated during the Spring and Autumn Period (722 BC) and the Warring States Period (476 BC) when the territory of China was limited to the central plains. Subsequently, multiple historical migrations took place from the central plains to the Yangtze River basin.
The team also discovered that the genetic distance between China’s three northeastern provinces and the eastern province of Shandong was very small, despite covering a vast geographical area. This is due to the historic migration known as ‘braving the journey to northeast China,’ which witnessed 20 million people travel to the sparsely populated provinces.
“The most noticeable trends are the low number of surnames and their isolation by distance, both of which demonstrate the historic stability of Chinese surnames,” Chen said.
“The historical inheritance of Chinese surnames has been continuous, with a unique balance between drift and migration after thousands of years of surname evolution,” he added.
The article can be found at: Liu Y et al. (2012) A study of surnames in china through isonymy.
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