Is as a Korean name

Kim and Lee, Park and Cho - why there are so few Korean family names

There are around a hundred million Koreans in total, but the number of family names remains surprisingly manageable. In 1985 there were just 275. What the supposed monoculture is all about.

Word has got around that many Koreans have the family name Kim. In fact, Korea is one of those countries that can get by with surprisingly few family names. Their number has remained fairly constant for centuries.

In the 15th century there were 250 family names, and in 1985 the number was only slightly increased to 275. The cultural-historical significance of family names lies in the fact that they mark the interface between nature and culture and perform a complex function in society. Because names are important in the construction of identities. While the first name has the individual in mind, the family name refers to the biological origin and reminds the individual to be a member of the generations. Two factors are central to the development of family names in Korea, namely the paternal bloodline and the place where the first known ancestor comes from.

Securing the bloodline

Family names appear very early in Korea, as early as the 7th century, initially only for royal families and the high nobility. The name served here to secure the bloodline, to legitimize the rule and to preserve the social distinction. The possession of family names thus meant power and influence and represented a special privilege.

The emergence of names was also an indicator that the country was organized as a community and provided with important institutions. Family names are closely interwoven with power structures because they have a social, legal and political meaning in addition to their biological meaning.

As in most other countries, family names in Korea spread downwards from the upper class in several phases. Certain historical upheavals hastened this process. At the end of the 10th century there was a change of dynasty, and the new king gave names to many influential families in order to bind them to himself. This is where the tradition, which is still valid today, of always seeing the family name and the hometown of the ancestor who was the first to use the name as a unit was born. The binding of the name to a certain place is called "Bon", which means origin.

The number of people with family names increased steadily, but in the 17th century only 55 percent of the population owned one. Soon a new tradition established itself, which is still of great importance today. Families with a name began to keep a kind of ancestral register called "Chokbo". This is not an individual pedigree, but rather an extensive written registration of the entire generation sequence, including the main and secondary lines. The members of the lower social class and the fringe groups without rights remained without family names for a long time. It was not until 1909 that the civil law made such a law binding for everyone.

"Hundred surnames"

One word reveals that Korea never had very many family names. The Korean word for “people” is “Baekseong” and literally means “one hundred surnames”. This unusual word formation is hardly surprising when you know that the five most common names alone comprise 53.6 percent of the population and the ten most common names together make up 63.9 percent. The surname Kim has the largest share with 21.5 percent, followed by Lee and Park with 14.7 and 8.4 percent respectively.

Since Korea was influenced by Confucianism and the veneration of the ancestors, to whom one owes life, was central, the family name almost acquired a sacred nimbus. He was kept for life. Women in Korea did not take the man's name when they got married. Only the children were given the father's surname. In 2008 that changed so that the mother's name can also be passed on to the children.

In view of the large blocks of names, a system of subdivision became necessary. Different independent branches within the same name emerged. For example, the old and popular name Kim was given to different families living in very different places so that they have the same name without being related to each other.

Kim is not the same as Kim

There are many self-sufficient branches of Kim that have shown themselves to be more or less successful in history. For example, the Kim branch of Andong is known, which was closely connected to the last royal family and is therefore particularly proud of its origin. Kim is not the same as Kim, and that is why Koreans always ask for the “Bon”, which is considered to be the guarantor of the paternal bloodline and provides information about the status of the name. The receipt gained more and more importance as a distinguishing feature. The receipt of all important documents is still mandatory today. How large the number of subdivisions is, shows that in 2000 one could determine 4179 receipts from 286 family names.

The legal consequences of such a naming system are manifold. Blood relatives are those who have the same family name and the same receipt. Since marriage between blood relatives of the paternal line was forbidden, people in Korea could not marry for a long time if they shared the family name and bon. Finding a partner was no easy task. Only in 2005 was this ban lifted with the reform of civil law, although marriage between close relatives remained prohibited.