Three Kingdoms Novel and History
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A traditional Chinese name consists of three parts: a surname (姓 xìng), a given name (名 míng), and a style (name), which is also known as a ‘familiar name’ (字 zì). Individuals are officially referred to by their surname and their given name (in that order), thus Liu Bei has the surname “Liu” and the given name “Bei”. In China, just as in the West, children take the surname of their father. And just a Mr Smith does not have to have any connection to the profession of smiths, Chinese surnames carry little meaning even though long ago they may have referred to something concrete. Names are chosen for a child by their parents or grandparents, which is also similar to Western traditions. The concept of style names, however, seems to be unique to the Chinese tradition, and deserves some explanation here.
A style name is an alternative name that one uses upon reaching adulthood. The idea behind this is that one’s given name should be respected and not used lightly. From the ancient document The Book of Rites, we know that it has been a tradition since the early Zhou dynasty that one receives a name at childhood and a style when he is 20 years old, at the coming of age ceremony known as the “capping ceremony”. In an edict announcing the naming of his four sons, Sun Xiu, the third emperor of the Wu kingdom, sums up this tradition nicely: “People have names, so that they can be told apart from one another. When they become of age, a style name is given to them, as their given name is taboo. (1)”
A man’s peers would call him by his style rather than his given name, as a sign of respect. The only people who have the right to call him by his given name are his elders and superiors, though they may also use his style name in order to show affection, respect, or simply refinement and courtesy on their own part. One may not be addressed by his style by his father or grandfather.
1: Pei quote from the Records of Wu, SGZ Wu: 3; also see Complete Writings from the Three Kingdoms, compiled by Yan Kejun.
The choosing of the style name is traditionally done by the guests of honour at the capping ceremony, or by the young man’s teacher. This tradition, however, is relaxed by the time of the Eastern Han dynasty and the Three Kingdoms period, as Sun Xiu continues to note in the edict: “[And in these days, the style names] could be picked by one’s mentor or friends, father or older brothers; and sometimes it is done even by oneself. While it is all right for a teacher or a friend to pick the name, it is wrong for a father or older brother to do it. Picking one’s own style is simply the ultimate lack of decency.”
A father would not be able to use his son’s style, nor could one refer to himself by his own style. It is thus a “lack of decency” to assume the privilege of picking a style name, when it is someone else who has to use it. However, Sun Xiu’s writing shows that at the Three Kingdoms era there were already people violating this rule of propriety—potentially for the purpose of showing off their learning by selecting names with obscure literary reference, or simply to ensure that the style has some auspicious or favourable meaning.
Style names are originally meant to be an exegesis, or an interpretation, of the given name; the traditional ideal is for the style and the given name to be so related in meaning that “upon hearing the style one can infer the given name” (Ban Gu, Eastern Han dynasty). Generally one of the characters in the style name is related in meaning to the given name. For example, Zhou Yu’s given name, 瑜 “yu”, and the 瑾 “jin” in his style, Gongjin, both refer to a beautiful jade. Zhuge Jin has the same “jin” in his given name, and his style name, Ziyu, has the same “yu” as Zhou Yu’s given name. Zhang Liao’s 遼”liao” means “distant”, and his style, Wenyuan, contains the word 遠 “yuan”, meaning “far”.
More (than you ever want to know) on the usage of names and styles
While a man’s peers may use his style when referring to him, and his superiors may use his given name, both style name and given name are off-limits to those who are of a lower status than him. There is a anecdote about how Ma Chao, after joining Liu Bei in Shu, often addressed Liu Bei by his style name. This infuriated Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, and the two pleaded with Liu Bei to let them kill Ma Chao (2). Although this anecdote, written sometime during the Wei/early Jin dynasty, cannot be a true story (the presence of Guan Yu in Shu in this tale is not consistent with historical facts), it nonetheless shows that during the Three Kingdoms period it was offensive to address one’s lord by their style. As friendly as Liu Bei and Ma Chao could be to one another, they are first and foermost lord and vassal, and Ma Chao’s addressing Liu Bei by his style is overly presumptious. A parallel social convention in the English-speaking world is the traditional prohibition against addressing someone by their first name unless the speaker and the addressee are on familiar terms and are social equals.
2: Pei quote from the Tales of Duke Shanyang, SGZ Shu: 6.
One has no obligation to address one’s enemies by their style name as there is no need to show respect. This is not a hard and fast rule, though. Cao Cao referred to two of his chief rivals by their style names in his famous line “Should one have a son, let him be like Sun Zhongmou [Sun Quan]! The sons of Liu Jingsheng [Liu Biao] are piglets and pups. (3)” Sun Quan also refers to Cao Cao by his style often; as he sent Zhou Yu off to Chibi, he said to him, “If things do not work in your favour, come back and tell me, and I will go settle the matter with Mengde [Cao Cao]. (4)” A more shocking example is found in Ma Chao’s will, which contains the line, “My entire clan, over 200 men, women, and children, was completely annihilated by Mengde. (5)” In these cases, the use of the enemy’s style name does not imply any affection or friendliness on the part of the speaker, but is rather meant to show refinement and self-control. Stolidity was a virtue in ancient China; showing perfect civility even to your foes was considered gentlemanly.
3: Pei quote from the Historical Record of Wu (Wu Li), SGZ Wu: 2.
4: Pei quote from the Jiang Biao Zhuan, SGZ Wu: 9
5: Ma Chao’s biography, SGZ Shu: 6
There is also no obligation to address one’s subordinates by their style names; a lord had every control over his vassals, and using their given names is a way to assert authority over them. Again, there is no rule that prohibits a lord from calling his vassals’ given names. During the Han dynasty, there were a few emperors who used the style names of ministers who were close to them. Sun Quan was particularly fond of this practice. In almost all references to his top ministers, Sun Quan uses the style rather than the given name. This became popular again with some rulers after the Jin dynasty, but soon after that it was not done anymore, as emperors wished to promote their own status and distance themselves from their subjects.
Let’s now consider how given names are used. One’s superiors may address him by his given name, and official documents would refer to the given name as well. Given names may not be used between friends—styles are used instead. A person may also use his own name to refer to himself as a sign of humility and respect towards their addressee, regardless of the station of the addressee. An example is found in Zhuge Liang’s instruction to his subordinates, exhorting them to admonish him like Xu Shu and Dong He had done: “... if you could be like one tenth as Yuanzhi [Xu Shu], or as eager as Youzai [Dong He], and be loyal to the state, then Liang would err less. (6)” Note that Zhuge Liang uses style names to refer to Xu Shu and Dong He, his friends, but used his own name in the place of “I” in the speech (7) . Though referring to oneself by one’s give name is not mandatory when the addressee is of equal or lower social status, the failure to report your name when addressing the emperor is a capital offence. As such, the exemption from this requirement is an extraordinary honour and privilege; during the Three Kingdoms era, only four people were recorded to enjoy this honour: Dong Zhuo, Cao Cao, Cao Shuang, and Sima Yi. Incidentally, one would never refer to oneself by the style. A textual study done during the 17th Century found only a handful of examples in the literature where the speaker uses his own name to refer to himself. There are no such cases in historical records of the Three Kingdoms. Many contemporary historical novels and period drama neglect this custom and have their characters use their own style; this is historically/culturally incorrect.
6: SGZ Shu: 9
7: This particular nuance is lost in English translations, which inevitably change this use of a name into a personal pronoun for the purposes of readability.
Since the use of a given name implies authority or control over the individual named, one may not say the name of one’s superiors, but would rather address and refer to them by the appropriate rank or title (Prime Minister Cao, General Sun of the Cavalry and Chariots, Lord of Hanzhong, etc), their position in the family (Grandfather, Eldest Brother, etc), or terms that are equivalent to the English “Your/His Highness”. If the use of a superior’s given name is unavoidable, such as when identifying that person in a biography or an official document, the name must be indicated by the word 諱 hui4, meaning “taboo, to avoid”. This custom of name-tabooing is almost an obsession in Chinese culture. In almost every era there are debates among scholars regarding the extent to which name-tabooing should be taken. At the heart of many of these debates is the issue of tabooing the name of an emperor.
Emperors’ names pose a special problem. As emperors are by definition superior in social status to everyone in the realm, his name is ineffable (except when he uses it himself). Different emperors or rulers through time demanded different degrees to which this rule is enforced. Some would simply disallow his subjects from using his name to refer to him. Some require that nobody may name their child with the same name, or even that people with the same name must change it. In an essay discussing this issue of taboo, Zhang Zhao points out that the reasoning behind this is that “[an emperor] is the one whom all ministers respect and look up to, and whom the populace rely on as they rely on the heavens; how, then, could anyone be identical to him [in name]? (8)”
8: Pei note, SGZ Wu: 7. See also Complete Writings of the Three Kingdoms.
The ultimate extreme is to disallow the same character, or all homophonous characters, to be used in writing or in speech altogether. To appreciate the impact of this rule, imagine this rule enforced in the United States today (quite implausible, but imagine it nonetheless): not only would one be unable to refer to the president directly by name, all mention of “bush”(9) would have to be edited out of all publications. Everything from “bushwhacking” to the Japanese borrowing “bushido” would have to be replaced by some other word. Not only would it be an inconvenience, it would also inflict irrevocable damages in the transmission of literature and history. This practise started during the Han dynasty and persisted until the fall of Imperial China; although none of the emperors of the Three Kingdoms insisted on it, it must be kept in mind when considering historical documents. In later literature on the Three Kingdoms, personal or place names, or even words used in historical literature, were distorted for the purpose of avoiding the name of the current emperor (of the time of writing) or that of a former emperor. Wu’s Wei Zhao 韋昭, for exmple, went down in history as Wei Yao 韋曜, as Chen Shou was obliged to avoid Sima Zhao’s name (10). In Tang dynasty poetry anthologies, Cao Zhi’s line fu ran xia chen yuan (“suddenly, I was sent into an abyss”) was changed to read fu ran xia chen chuan (“suddenly, I was sent into a deep spring”) in order to avoid the taboo of the name of Li Yuan, founding emperor of the dynasty (11). The replacement of “yuan” by “chuan” in this period is a popular one, but it renders this particular line completely absurd. Individuals may also change their name to avoid the given name of a teacher, a high-standing official, or the relations of the emperor. Meng Da, originally styled Zijing, later became Meng Zidu because the uncle of his lord, Liu Bei, was named Liu Jing (12).
9: This isn’t a given name, but since most Chinese given names are meaningful words independent of their name usage, this is the closest example.
10: Pei note, SGZ Wu: 20
11: The poem from which this line is taken is 吁嗟行 “Passage of Sighs”; the incorrect word is still found in many poetry anthology today
12: SGZ Shu: 10, under Liu Feng’s biography.
At some point, this borders on ridiculousness. In late Eastern Han, there was a raging debate among the intelligentsia circles regarding whether all previous emperor’s names should be tabooed. If people should respect the emperor’s name, and the emperor should respect his father’s name, should the people taboo the name of the emperor’s father (who was probably an emperor during his life) too? What about the name of the emperor’s father’s father? The name of the founding emperor or other ancestors of the current emperor? The names of emperors from a previous dynasty? Ying Shao, secretary of Runan, was the chief among those in favour of tabooing all emperor names; they counted a total of 56 rulers from the beginning of time whose names should be tabooed. On the other side of the debate is Zhang Zhao, who argues from historical precedence and comparison with other rules of propriety regarding deaths of one’s superiors that this new proposal on taboos is both unfounded and impractical (13).
13: Pei note, SGZ Wu: 7. See also Complete Writings of the Three Kingdoms.
Sometimes an emperor may make it easier on other people. Cao Huang, when he came to the throne after Cao Mao was killed, renamed himself Cao Huan based on this consideration (14). Sun Xiu, thinking that one of his sons would eventually succeed him as emperor, invented new Chinese characters for his sons, so that there would be no chance of anyone violating the use of the name of the succeeding emperor (15).
14: SGZ Wei: 4 (under Cao Mao’s biography).
15: In an ironic twist, none of Sun Xiu’s sons ever became emperor. Sun Xiu died at the age of 30, and as his sons were all too young, Sun He’s son, Sun Hao, was chosen to be the succeeding emperor instead.
Women also had names and styles. However, very few are recorded. There are two main reasons for this. First, government and war being the realm of men alone, there is little mention of women in the texts to begin with. Second, traditionally, a woman’s names is considered a very private thing. During the Zhou dynasty, a woman’s style is given to her when she becomes marriageable, at the age of 15, and it is revealed to no one else but her future husband’s family. This idea did not catch on, and it wasn’t until the revival of Neo-Confucianism a few centuries after the Three Kingdoms period that a woman’s name is required to be completely hidden from the public realm. However, since it was not considered proper to address or refer to a woman directly by name, and few women had biographies of any sort written on them, not a lot of women’s names got recorded in the history books. Most often they are referred simply by their surname (maiden name) and their social status—furen ‘lady’ for a married woman of respectable standing, gongzhu ‘princess’ for the daughter of a ruler, etc.
Even considering this, the scarcity of women’s names recorded in the main historical record of the Three Kingdoms era is a bit of an anomaly. The History of the Latter Han (Hou Han shu) doesn’t make a point in avoiding women’s names, even though some names were irretrievably lost; all the princesses, and the majority of the empresses are named, and the names and styles of other women are included when available. In Chen Shou’s Sanguozhi, none of the empresses’ names are recorded, and only Empress Guo’s (wife of Cao Pi) style, Nüwang, is mentioned, and there only to illustrate an observation of her father’s—he had considered her an exceptional girl, and once exclaimed, “Among my daughters (nü), she is king (wang)!”(16) . In the main text of the Sanguozhi, only four women were explicity named: Cao Rui’s daughter Cao Shu, who died in infancy(17), Pang Yu’s mother E (from a Pei note we know that her maiden name was Zhao, and that her full name was Eqin), and Sun Quan’s two daughters by Lady Bu, Sun Luban, styled Dahu (“big tiger”) and Sun Luyu, styled Xiaohu (“little tiger”) (18). Because of this, we need to look beyond Chen Shou’s text in order to find the names or styles of Three Kingdoms women. Pei’s notes add a few names, and various other sources, such as the Hou Han shu and Huangfu Mi’s Biographies of Women, which Pei quoted in part, also contains some information. But none of them were names of important women. Putting all these sources together, it seems that the lack of record of women’s names and styles in the Three Kingdoms era is mostly likely a historical accident.
16: SGZ Wei: 5.
17: Empress Zhen’s biography, SGZ Wei: 5, and Yang Fu’s biography, SGZ Wei: 25.
18: Lady Bu’s biography, SGZ Wu: 5.
It is impossible to make generalizations regarding how women’s names and styles were chosen, due to the paucity of data; between the History of the Latter Han and the Sanguozhi with Pei’s notes, only three women of the Three Kingdoms era were identified by both name and style (Cai Yan, styled Wenji, and Sun Quan’s two daughters as mentioned above). What we do know about the naming practices of this period, though is that girls were named either at birth or at a young age. Cao Zhi wrote dirges for his two daughters who died in before reaching one year old, and they were named in the title of the poems (Xingnü and Jinhu respectively). There is no primary source indicating the age at which women received styles, but given the passage on Empress Guo’s father picking her style, it seems that a girl’s style is not given to her until she became at least a young woman. We may assume that the ages of naming and style-giving of a woman in that era are similar to those of a man.
Meanings of certain names and styles Style names in the Three Kingdoms era usually consist of two Chinese characters. Usually, one of them (the first character) is a decorative, and the other one meaningful. The decorative character is frequently an indication of the rank of the named person in the family:
Bo/Meng = EldestZhong = 2ndShu = 3rdJi = 4th or youngestYou = youngest Sima Yi, styled Zhong-da, is the second oldest boy of the family. His older brother, the first child of the family, Sima Lang, is styled Bo-da. Ma Liang, styled Ji-chang, has a younger brother, Ma Su, styled You-chang. Sun Jian’s four sons by Lady Wu all have their styles formed this way: The eldest, Sun Ce, is styled Bo-fu; Sun Quan, the second son, is styled Zhong-mou; Sun Yi, the third, is styled Shu-bi; and finally, Sun Kuang is styled Ji-zuo.
Other popular decorative characters include gong “lord”, as in Xu Huang, styled Gong-ming, and Liu Shan, styled Gong-si; jun “lord, master”, as in Zhu Zhi, styled Jun-li, and Liu Yan, styled Jun-lang; zi “gentleman”, as in Cao Ren, styled Zi-xiao, and Lu Su, styled Zi-jing; and wen “literary, cultured”, as in Kong Rong, styled Wen-ju. and Cao Xiu, styled Wen-lie.
The contentful part of a style name can be picked in three main ways. As mentioned at the beginning of the main text, the style name should be related in meaning to the given name. Very often, the two appellatives are synonyms or refer to similar items. For example, Zhuge Liang’s name, liang, means “light”, is synonymous with the ming in his style, Kong-ming; the ce in Sun Ce’s name and the fu in his style, Bo-fu, both refer to insignia or tallies used by officials to identify their rank or power. Styles may also relate to the given name by a common saying or a line in a classical text. Zhao Yun’s name means “cloud”, and his style, Zi-long, contains long, which means “dragon”. This is in reference to a line in the Book of Changes (I-ching): “clouds follow the coming of a dragon”. Wen Qin’s name means “to respect solemnly”, and the contentful part of his style, Wen-ruo, literally means “as, similar to”. This derives from a line in the Book of History (Shu Jing): “... to respect as august Heaven”. With the Han government’s emphasis on Confucian values, a new trend was seen during the Eastern Han, in which the style name refers to some trait or virtue praised by the Confucian school of thought. Liu Bei’s style, Xuan-de, literally means “deep virtue”, which has nothing to do with his given name, which means “to be ready”. Guo Jia’s style, Feng-xiao, means “to uphold filial piety”.
Of course, there are ones that don’t fit in the mould. Lü Meng’s style, Zi-ming, meaning “clear, bright” (from here on I omit the decorative component in style names in the translation), which is the opposite of his name, meng “to be covered, blind”. Sometimes a style would be based on some literature or event too obscure to be traced, and sometimes a given name or a style would be changed later on in life for some reason, and the original link between the names would be broken. The above is only meant to be a general guide.
Here are some name/style translations for the more popular officers of the Three Kingdoms era:
On name-changing in the Three Kingdoms (NOTE: This is simply cut & pasted from some of my old posts [on online forums], so I’ll be rewriting this part to make it fit the rest of the essay. I’m only putting it here as a placeholder.)
There are various reasons why people changed their names—to avoid the taboo of the name of a superior (emperor, boss, someone else’s ancestor), to fulfill a dream (such as Cheng Yu), or something like that. In extreme cases, a vengeful ruler would order the name of an offending minister be changed to something bad, but it’s really rare.
Some people have proposed that Lu Xun’s name was changed because Sun Quan was angry at him. The character for that Xun means “humble, inferior”, which doesn’t match his style, “Boyan” (“bo” means “eldest”, and “yan” means “speech”—his original name, “Yi”, means “discuss”). This seems to support the point that Sun Quan tried to demean him by forcing this name change on him.
However, I highly doubt this was the case. Lu Kang and Sun Quan finally sorted stuff out between them, and Sun Quan expressed great regret about what he did to Lu Xun. He ordered all his reproaching correspondences burnt, as an effort to erase the bad past. Lu Kang had Sun Quan rehabilitate his father’s honour. It would be unthinkable that Sun Quan did all that but refused to change Lu Xun’s name back.
There is actually a little bit of evidence that Lu Xun changed his name before Yiling. In Lu Xun’s bio, Lü Meng is directly quoted to recommend “Lu Xun” to Sun Quan, and Liu Bei has a line saying “Now I am defeated by Lu Xun...” Chen Shou does a pretty good job keeping names in direct quotes the way they would have been said at the time—for example, though Sima Yi’s given name (Yi) is taboo during the Jin, Chen Shou kept it in Zhuge Liang’s speeches. If Chen Shou was being consistent, then Lu Xun’s name (Xun) must have been in use by the time of Yiling.
Of course, stronger evidence for this dating of the name change should come from official petitions or writings, rather than direct speech—it’s not clear how much of the conversations recorded did happen in history (who was around to write them down?).
References cited by author.
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