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A surname’s genesis. February 18, 2008

Posted by Will in History, Personal.

Predictably, Wilz has bespoke me to rewrite my lost post on surnames. It was initially a body of text aggrandizing the importance of knowing and understanding one’s family name, absorbing the tales of inspiration and adventure whenever present and methods to develop a few when there aren’t any to be found.

I’m pretty hesitant to tread that path again so let’s explore MY surname instead, which perhaps could act as a guide on how you should do the same on your own (with a little less irreverence of course).

Now, one rather annoying problem with my surname is that it is probably shared by some 200 million equally inconvenienced souls around the world. So any projects aimed at exploring the genealogical fronds of my family would be be very much akin to attempts at searching for the second cousin of a queen bee in that angry hive threatening to engorge your prized mango tree. It’s a fruitless task and even if you do find her, you’ll get a stinging realization that she’s nothing really different than all the other cousins.

Throughout the course of my concious life I have discovered that being bright is a quality I occasionally display when I am not inebriated or intoxicated. So instead of attempting to climb up my family tree(this I have earmarked as a post-retirement project) I decided with some finality that it should be much easier to search for the first person to bear this simple name. So simple in fact, that all it takes is a couple of mouseclicks and typing three characters on my keyboard. Be aware however, that I am a self proffered techological wiz(inability to gauge own competence is a calibre common to men like me, but I’m very much certain I’m a little more inaccurate than the rest) and so efforts required on your part may certainly vary.

According to wikipedia:

A popular myth (some say historical fact) states that during the reign of Shang Zhou (“纣王” in Chinese) the last king of Shang dynasty had 3 of his uncles advising him and his administration. The king’s uncles were Bi Gan (also spelled Pi Kan), Qi Zi and Wei Zi. Together the 3 men were known as “The Three Kindhearted Men of Shang” in the kingdom.

Bi Gan was the son of Prince Ding, son of Emperor Shang, was King Zhou’s uncle.

Unfortunately, Zhou Wang was a cruel king and his 3 uncles could not persuade him to change his ways. The state’s citizens suffered tremendously. Failing in their duty to advise the king, Wei Zi resigned. Qi Zi faked insanity and was relieved of his post. Only Bi Gan stayed on to continue advising the king to change his ways. Bi Gan stayed at the palace for three days and nights to try to persuade the bloodthirsty and immoral king to mend his ways.

The stubborn king would not relent and had his uncle, Bi Gan, arrested for treason. Upon hearing this his pregnant wife (surname Chen) escaped into the forest to protect her unborn child from death. She knew, in time, the king would execute Bi Gan’s entire family. In the forest the baby was born. Alone with no one to help, she grabbed hold of two trees and gave birth to a baby boy whom she named Jian. When she reached the nearest town, she gave her child the surname Lin (Chinese character depicted by two trees).

Before long, Shang Zhou was overthrown and killed by Zhou Wu Wang. Zhou Wu Wang knew about the courageous court adviser Bi Gan and sought his wife and child. When he found them, he honoured them in respect to Bi Gan. The mother and child were restored back into the royal family. The new king conferred the surname Lin (meaning woods or forest) on Bi Gan’s son, because he was born in some woods.

According to historical records, people who carry the surname Lin are the descendents of Bi Gan, a loyal subject of King Zhou from the Shang Dynasty.

Pretty exciting, ain’t it? Can’t say I envy the first Lim, but wow have he inherited some serious genes. This post lacks any form of bullet points so I am going to pontificate vigorously and illustrate things you may have missed from the article:

  1. The first Lim would probably have inherited his mother’s courage and his father’s wisdom and infalible morality.
  2. He was probably hell bent on vengeance and ripping somebody’s spine off, though it was impossible since the person in question was already dead.
  3. The first Lim was given birth by a lady who had trees in place of midwives. I think this is pretty poignant.
  4. Being a malevolent emperor/king/deity/anime character never pays off, even if you manage to get rid of three dotting uncles.

That being done, I shall now transpose the above points against my own personality to discover how far removed am I from this ancestor of mine:

  1. Hmm…ok I am probably pretty courageous according to my mates since I have shopped for lingerie(for girls, not myself please)..and err my moral compass probably needs some recalibrating.
  2. Aside from getting pissed off 12 times a day driving to and fro work I don’t really harbor any festering homocidal tendencies. This does make me very un-badass like doesn’t it.
  3. I wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist per se but I do care about the planet we live it.
  4. The only thing I have complete rule over is my cellphone(yes not even my PC and notebook) and I am hardly evil in that respect.

Evidently, my grand forefather would have carved my spleen out and roast it on a spit(made from two branches, I must point out) if he could see how I’ve turned out. Even so, reading this tale of wisdom, audacity and salvation is pretty gratifiying in itself and provides me a lovely platform to humbly admire my heritage. Unlike a myth it seems to be unequivocal in its moral guidance, and like a fiery shooting star across the blinking heavens it effuses a fleeting sense of wonder and belonging.

So it’s all worth it in the end, even if it’s a simple word. Why not take 10 minutes and discover yours?



1. zhiyuan - February 19, 2008

Interesting. Let me search mine. Thanks to Wikipedia I don’t have to go through the pain of translation. Your origin looks far more mythical and beautiful than mine, as mine apparently is derived from the name of a state; although I quietly laugh behind your back about your name being related to two poor trees holding your greatx100 grandmother giving birth to your greatx99 grandfather.

Well here it goes. One thing I can confirm is that your greatx99 grandfather “appeared” earlier than my greatx80 grandfather as he only “appeared” in Zhou Dynasty (the dynasty after Shang). And – after reading the rather ordinary origin of my surname, can I now blame my surname for my ordinariness?

From Wikipedia:

“The Cais are said to be the descendants of the 5th son of King Wu of the Zhou Dynasty (9th century BC – 256 BC), Ji Du. Ji Du was awarded the title of marquis (hóu) of the State of Cai (centered on what is now Shangcai, Zhumadian, Henan, China), and he was known as Cai Shudu (“Uncle Cai”). Together with Guan Shu and Huo Shu, they were known as the Three Guards. When King Wu died, his son King Cheng was too young and his uncle, the Duke of Zhou, became regent. Seeing that the power of the Duke of Zhou was increasing, the Three Guards got jealous and rebelled against Zhou together with Wu Geng. The Duke of Zhou suppressed the rebellion, and Cai Shu was exiled. King Cheng reestablished Cai Shu’s son Wu as the Duke of Cai. Some 600 years later in the Warring States Period, the State of Chu conquered Cai in 447 BC and was itself conquered by the Qin state which, in turn, formed the Qin Empire, China’s first empire. With the spread of family names to all social classes in the new empire, many people of the former state of Cai began to bear it as a surname.”

2. Wilz - February 19, 2008

OMG Chai I played so many of your great x 80 – great x 70 fathers in the various “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” games. William didn’t include my story in the post. :( He researched my surname too.

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