The True Reason 40 Percent of Vietnamese Share the Same Family Name

Last names are commonly used for legal and administrative reasons. From the left, DEA/G Center: mc559; Right: Dagli Orti/De Agostini/Getty Images Here in the good old USA, the Smith is the most common family name. Based on data from the 2010 census, there were approximately About 8% of the U.S.

Taxation and bureaucracy have a lot to do with the adoption of last names. Last names are commonly used for legal and administrative reasons. From the left, DEA/G Center: mc559; Right: Dagli Orti/De Agostini/Getty Images

Here in the good old USA, the Smith is the most common family name. Based on data from the 2010 census, there were approximately About 8% of the U.S. population has it. Nguyen is the most common family name in Vietnam. Predicted response rate Between 30 and 40 percent of the total population More than 90% of Vietnamese people share one of the 14 most common family names. American culture's top 14 surnames Not even 6%

In the U S to a great extent in this country of immigrants. Your ancestors' occupations, the length of time since your family emigrated, the religion you practice, and the social class you were born into can all be deduced from your ancestry.

The surname Nguyen doesn't reveal much about you beyond the fact that you are Vietnamese. A person with the surname Nguyen would have almost no luck using search engines to learn anything about themselves, including their family history beyond a generation or two.

This discrepancy highlights a peculiar aspect of last names, which are a relatively recent invention in most of the world and continue to be largely irrelevant in many others. Among those countries, Vietnam is

Vietnam's family names go back to 111 BC, when the Chinese Han Dynasty began a thousand-year occupation of the country. Before the Vietnamese drove the Chinese out of Vietnam in 939 A.D., there were a few failed attempts at independence. Because of a lack of written records prior to this time, it is unknown how the Vietnamese dealt with naming. The Vietnamese word "viet" is the Chinese term for the people living southeast of Yunnan Province, which is where the name "Vietnam" originates.

1829 map of former Indochina, Vietnam along the east coast of the peninsula. Inset is the 1821 seal of the Nguyen Dynasty. As shown on a map from 1829, Vietnam is located on the eastern coast of the Korean Peninsula. This document includes the Nguyen Dynasty's official seal from 1821. Image by Pierre M. Lapie; available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0

Most likely, the Vietnamese did not use last names (or family names, as we should call them, since in Vietnam and many other places, this name does not come last) prior to the Chinese colonial period. This in no way distinguishes them as peculiar. Many parts of the world did not adopt the practice of using family names until the early 18th century. The more typical form of a name is patrionymic, which means that your full name would mean something like "Steve son of Bob." Many cultures, including those of Scandinavia and the Middle East, still use patronymic names as a means of referring to the previous generation. (Be wary of "surnames" that end in "-sson" or contain the prefix "Ben" or "Ibn. This is because they are patronymics. )

Unless you were conquered by a culture that already used them, most people in the world didn't even know what a family name was. The Romans, Normans, Chinese, and later the Spanish, Portuguese, Germans, and Americans were among those conquerors. The Chinese were responsible for naming Vietnam's families.

Family names in China have a long and illustrious history, and they have long served as identifiers for such things as one's profession, social standing, or ethnic origin. The Chinese had a complex system of family names for a very practical reason long before the time of the Chinese occupation of Vietnam. Stephen O'Harrow, the head of the Vietnamese department at the University of Hawaii at Mnoa and the chairman of Indo-Pacific Languages, explains that "under the Chinese colonial rulership, the Chinese typically will designate a family name to keep tax records." To identify those under their authority, they relied on a small set of family names. ”

For tax purposes, it was essential that the Chinese (and later the Romans and Normans) keep track of the people they had conquered and the territories they had settled. But because most of these establishments lacked family names, keeping tabs on them was a huge hassle. When there are a dozen men named Dng in the same village, and they all go by names like "Uncle Dng" and "Brother Dng," how can you be sure that you're taxing the right one?

Relief of a Roman tax collector. The ability to collect taxes from ancient outposts was one reason for the rise of surnames. The Roman tax collector who got some help One theory for the development of last names is that they were necessary for the administration to keep track of and collect taxes from distant forts and settlements. DEA/G Photos by: Dagli Orti/De Agostini/Getty Images

So the Chinese government has suddenly begun assigning people surnames. These surnames were chosen at random, but the original list was dominated by Chinese surnames and Vietnamese adaptations of those names. Like the name Nguyen, which originated in the Chinese province of Ruan. In O'Harrow's estimation, "senior Chinese administrators used personal names to designate people under their own aegis." This was a common occurrence; countries as diverse as the Philippines (with its abundance of Spanish surnames) and the United States bear witness to the imperialist's tendency to simply bestow his name on the people he conquered. S (where black Americans frequently carry the surnames of their ancestors' slaveholders) to the Portuguese-speaking state of Goa in India.

A ruan could be an ancient Chinese state, or it could be an ancient lute-like instrument. Who knows Either way, it's likely that a middle-ranking Chinese bureaucrat, trying to ascertain who exactly lived in the Vietnamese territory he had recently conquered, simply assumed that everyone there was named Ruan, which later evolved into Nguyen.

Remember, we need to talk about how to say Nguyen's name. You can find dozens of pronouncements of the name, each one given with absolute certainty if you do a search. While none of these are inherently incorrect, the fact that there is no universally accepted pronunciation of the name Nguyen poses a serious problem. There are several distinct Vietnamese dialects, with the northern and southern regions being the most distinct from one another. Sounds are often shortened in southern Vietnamese, so Nguyen could be pronounced "Win" or "Wen." The people of the north would probably keep it, pronouncing it something like "N'Win" or "Nuh'Win," trying to keep it to a single syllable as much as possible.

The Vietnamese exile community has only added more layers of complexity. You may know a Katie Nguyen or a Charles Nguyen, both of which are Westernized versions of Vietnamese family names chosen to facilitate assimilation; however, the spelling of Nguyen, which would be immediately confusing to Westerners, persists as a source of cultural friction. Words that start with "Ng" are unusual to Western ears. As a result, there is a trend toward lax pronunciation, which has resulted in a plethora of new options for how to properly pronounce even common words. After all, who are we to argue if someone by the name of Katie Nguyen says it's okay if you pronounce it "NEW-yen"? However, the most crucial point is that Nguyen's pronunciation varies quite a bit.

Taxes and government officials are back. The widespread adoption of the surname Nguyen in Vietnam cannot be explained in any of these ways. Indeed, there were many lower-level bureaucrats responsible for assigning surnames. I don't understand why this has gained so much traction.

Most common surnames in Vietnam, charted. Family names in Vietnam, ranked by frequency of occurrence Photo by Kevon Kevono used under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license

The Vietnamese never seemed to place much importance on their last names, despite the fact that they are much older than those of most other countries (thanks to the country's long period of Chinese occupation). They never caught on as an essential part of how Vietnamese people talked about or perceived themselves.

According to O'Harrow, "there are no pronouns in Vietnamese" (i.e., "he," "she," "you," and "they"). O'Harrow calls the usual method of referring to another person a "fictive kinship term." It consists mainly of using a person's given name followed by a family-based modifier to indicate the relationship between the speaker and the listener. Anh Dng, or "Brother Dung," is a term of endearment for our mutual friend Dng, who is roughly your age. You can replace "Anh" with words like "aunt," "grandmother," or "child" to show age, gender, or respect differences. ”

While the Vietnamese last name is present, it is not given much weight. It's not that big of a deal, so you might as well change it if a different surname will benefit you. There's no telling if this is a holdover from the naming practices in place before the Chinese colonized the country, but in the centuries since, Vietnamese have frequently adopted the family name of the ruling dynasty. Since the idea of loyalty required relatively frequent name changes with the succession of rulers, this practice became commonplace. After all, it's not a good idea to use the same surname as the previous emperor.

The widespread use of the surname Nguyen in Vietnam can be traced back to the practice of showing loyalty to a leader by adopting the family name, as noted by O'Harrow. Think you know which family ruled Vietnam most recently? In fact, we're talking about the Nguyn Dynasty, which stayed in power from 1802 until 1945. Even though there probably weren't that many people in Vietnam with the surname Nguyen before the dynasty, the number of people with that surname almost certainly increased dramatically during the dynasty's rule.

Portrait of Bao Dai (born Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh Thụy), the last emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. Picture of the last emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, Bao Dai (real name Nguyn Phuc Vnh Thieu). Public Domain/Pre-1953 Photographer Unknown

This practice of adopting the dynastic surname is not limited to Vietnam. In Korea, the name Park, which was originally that of King Hyeokgeose Park, the founder of a thousand-year dynasty of one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, went through the same process. To a certain extent, all Korean Parks can trace their ancestry back to that king, but following the peasant revolution of 1894, many commoners took the surname Park to represent the elimination of the caste system.

There are over a million Vietnamese Americans. Having a population of 5. 5 million people with the last name Nguyen is a complex issue. Kevin Nguyen, a friend of mine and the digital deputy editor of GQ, says, "It's a signifier for being Vietnamese, but when 40% of the Vietnamese population is Nguyen, it doesn't really mean that much." I wouldn't mind if my children were given the name Nguyen because it signifies nothing to me beyond the fact that they are non-white. ’”

Neither 23andMe nor Ancestry.com will help Kevin find his roots. not even com or any of those other sites The small number of Asian DNA samples 23andMe has means it basically can't get any information beyond "Asian," which is not very helpful. There are no records of anyone beyond Nguyen's grandparents in Vietnam, so she says, "Even if I wanted to sign up for an ancestry-lineage type site, I don't think it would get very far." "That's something I'd be curious about, but I don't see how I could find out more. ”

However, not all Americans will realize the repercussions of this predilection to trace their names. It appears that my family's last name did not exist in the United States until after my great-grandfather had emigrated there. S When investigators reach the ship's manifest, their inquiries are cut short in the early 20th century.

According to Nguyen, "it's funny, when people are really specific or proud of their last name or heritage, it's almost a form of privilege." As the saying goes, "Like sure, everybody cares about their last name, until you're persecuted and that line is broken." From the desire to avoid being labeled an enemy of the royal dynasty all the way back to the actions of a likely disinterested Chinese bureaucrat, the last name Nguyen has come to stand as a symbol of persecution.

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