NAMES IN KOREA
In Korea, family names are written first and given names (usually a two syllable name with the syllables separated by a hyphen) are written second. If Tommy Lee Jones had been born in Korea he would have been named Jones Tom-Lee. Sometimes in Western newspapers the family and given names are reversed for the benefit of non-Korean readers. Koreans don't have middle names. Other times the given names are not separated by a hyphen.
Women keep their maiden names after marriage but sometimes add a prefix that is the equivalent of "Mrs." Only when associating with Westerners do Korean women occasionally identify themselves by their husband's surname. Bloodlines and clan connections are very important in Korea. This is one reason, women don’t change their names after they get married. Kim Dae Jung’s wife’s name was Lee Hee Ho. It is very unusual for a Korean to change his or her name. Children usually take the surname (family) name of the father.
Koreans seldom address one another by their first names. In Korea it is rude to call someone by their first names unless you've known them since childhood. In work-related situations people address each other by their title; at home terms of kinship are used. Neighbors are referred by using their children's names: so-and-so father and such-and-such's mother.
Names usually have a meaning such as "stone flower" or "southern wind." Parents in Korea, China and Tibet sometimes give the children a name with the Chinese character for "dog" or "dirty" or some other unattractive thing to scare off evil spirits that might harm them. "Woo," for example, in the name of the former Korean president Roh Tae Woo means "fool." In the old days, aometimes girls were named Gtsuni, or Last Girl, in hope that it would become a self-fulling prophecy and a boy would be born next.
Some Korean names sound funny to Westerners. Men giggle at a woman with the name "Mi suk Yoo" or "Yu suk mi," or a baseball player named Back with his name written on the back of his uniform.
Family Names and Clans in Korea
There are only about 360 family names in Korea. Each one is associated with a clan, a place of origin called a “pon-gwan”, and a founding ancestor. When two Koreans with the same family name meet they often inquire about each other's subclan, or “p'a”, to access how closely they are related. The names of Korean men often contain a special cyclical character that reveals subclan membership.
Each clan has a clan association, which conducts ancestral rites for the clan's progenitor, maintains important ancestral tombs and shrines, and keeps clan records. Many people with the same family name have monthly meetings.
Many clans keep multi-volume genealogical records that go back over 2,000 years and have hundreds of thousands names — everyone form the clan progenitors to babies born within the last week. A large family tree is a sign of status in Korea.
Common Family Names
About a fifth of all Koreans are named Kim. Fifteen percent are Lee, and most of the rest seemed to be named Pak, Yi, Lee, Cho or Kang. Centuries ago, each of these names belonged to a single clan and each clan can be traced back to one ancient "grandfather." According to a 1985 count there were 12,888,000 people with the last name of Kim, Lee, Park, Choi and Chung, including 3,367,000 Kims from Kimhae, 1,523,000 Kims from Kyongju; 2,704,000 Parks from Miryang, and 2,379,000 Lees from Chonju.
According to The Economist: “A South Korean saying claims that a stone thrown from the top of Mount Namsan, in the centre of the capital Seoul, is bound to hit a person with the surname Kim or Lee. One in every five South Koreans is a Kim — in a population of just over 50 million. And from the current president, Park Geun-hye, to rapper PSY (born Park Jae-sang), almost one in ten is a Park. Taken together, these three surnames account for almost half of those in use in South Korea today. Neighbouring China has around 100 surnames in common usage; Japan may have as many as 280,000 distinct family names. Why is there so little diversity in Korean surnames? [Source: The Economist, September 9, 2014]
The Kimhae Kims trace their ancestry to the 4th century King Suro of the Kaya dynasty. Every year the Kims hold a memorial ceremony at the king tomb near Kimhae. During one presidential election three out four candidates running for office were named Kim (the "Three Kims"). The purported birthplace of the "Kims" from Kjongu is the Kyerim Forest. According to legend, King T'alhae heard a cock crowing in this forest and upon investigation discovered a golden box hanging from a tree. He opened the box to find a lovely baby boy inside. He adopted the baby and named him Kim, which means "gold." This boy reportedly was the progenitor or 10 million or so Kims that live around the world today.
Why so many Koreans are called Kim
Why do many Koreans have the same family name? According to The Economist: “Korea’s long feudal tradition offers part of the answer. As in many other parts of the world, surnames were a rarity until the late Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). They remained the privilege of royals and a few aristocrats (yangban) only. Slaves and outcasts such as butchers, shamans and prostitutes, but also artisans, traders and monks, did not have the luxury of a family name. As the local gentry grew in importance, however, Wang Geon, the founding king of the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392), tried to mollify it by granting surnames as a way to distinguish faithful subjects and government officials. [Source: The Economist, September 9, 2014]
“The gwageo, a civil-service examination that became an avenue for social advancement and royal preferment, required all those who sat it to register a surname. Thus elite households adopted one. It became increasingly common for successful merchants too to take on a last name. They could purchase an elite genealogy by physically buying a genealogical book (jokbo) — perhaps that of a bankrupt yangban — and using his surname. By the late 18th century, forgery of such records was rampant. Many families fiddled with theirs: when, for example, a bloodline came to an end, a non-relative could be written into a genealogical book in return for payment. The stranger, in turn, acquired a noble surname.
“As family names such as Lee and Kim were among those used by royalty in ancient Korea, they were preferred by provincial elites and, later, commoners when plumping for a last name. This small pool of names originated from China, adopted by the Korean court and its nobility in the 7th century in emulation of noble-sounding Chinese surnames. (Many Korean surnames are formed from a single Chinese character.) So, to distinguish one’s lineage from those of others with the same surname, the place of origin of a given clan (bongwan) was often tagged onto the name. Kims have around 300 distinct regional origins, such as the Gyeongju Kim and Gimhae Kim clans (though the origin often goes unidentified except on official documents). The limited pot of names meant that no one was quite sure who was a blood relation; so, in the late Joseon period, the king enforced a ban on marriages between people with identical bongwan (a restriction that was only lifted in 1997). In 1894 the abolition of Korea’s class-based system allowed commoners to adopt a surname too: those on lower social rungs often adopted the name of their master or landlord, or simply took one in common usage. In 1909 a new census-registration law was passed, requiring all Koreans to register a surname.
“Today clan origins, once deemed an important marker of a person’s heritage and status, no longer bear the same relevance to Koreans. Yet the number of new Park, Kim and Lee clans is in fact growing: more foreign nationals, including Chinese, Vietnamese and Filipinos, are becoming naturalised Korean citizens, and their most popular picks for a local surname are Kim, Lee, Park and Choi, according to government figures; registering, for example, the Mongol Kim clan, or the Taeguk (of Thailand) Park clan. The popularity of these three names looks set to continue.”
Chosun Period Names and Geneologies
Until the late Chosun dynasty, only royals and a few aristocrats (yangban) had surnames. Slaves and outcasts such as butchers, shamans and prostitutes, but also artisans, traders and monks, did not have them. As the local gentry grew in importance, rulers tried to mollify it by granting surnames as a way to distinguish faithful subjects and government officials. [Source: The Economist, September 9, 2014]
According to The Economist: The gwageo, a civil-service examination that became an avenue for social advancement and royal preferment, required all those who sat it to register a surname. Thus elite households adopted one. It became increasingly common for successful merchants too to take on a last name. They could purchase an elite genealogy by physically buying a genealogical book (jokbo) — perhaps that of a bankrupt yangban — and using his surname. By the late 18th century, forgery of such records was rampant. Many families fiddled with theirs: when, for example, a bloodline came to an end, a non-relative could be written into a genealogical book in return for payment. The stranger, in turn, acquired a noble surname.”
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Chosun dynasty Neo-Confucianism placed a new emphasis on patrilineal descent, which led to the compilation of written family genealogies (chokpo), at first by powerful aristocratic clans and then, eventually, more widely. One of the first clans so to document their own historical lineage was the Andong Kwon (Andong is a place name that differentiates this Kwon clan from others). The first genealogy of this family appeared in 1476, and carried a preface by a scholar-official named So Kojong (1410-1488), excerpted here, that explained some of the rationale of compiling such documents. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ]
“In Korea, however, there was of old neither clan law nor genealogy; even big families and great descent groups did not have family records. Thus, after several generations the names of the ancestors in the four ascending generations were lost, and their descendants consequently became estranged from each other, looking at one another like strangers in the street. Do they wait until after the mourning obligations are over and kinship has ended to become distant and remote? Would it not be difficult then to wish to stimulate filial and brotherly behavior among them and to achieve mutual courteousness? For this reason Kwon Che and Kwon Nam tirelessly compiled the genealogy, and I made an effort to bring their intention to completion.” [Source: translated by Martina Deuchler, “Sourcebook of Korean Civilization”, edited by Peter H. Lee, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 570-571.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.
Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2021