You are on page 1of 2

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 50m. 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?
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. 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

no longer bear the same relevance to Koreans. Vietnamese and Filipinos.a new census-registration law was passed. Park and Choi. requiring all Koreans to register a surname. the Mongol Kim clan. according to government figures. for example. Today clan origins. are becoming naturalised Korean citizens. once deemed an important marker of a person’s heritage and status. Yet the number of new Park. Dig deeper: Korean men are marrying foreign women more from choice than necessity (May 2014) How a really uncool country became the tastemaker of Asia (August 2014) Why South Korea is so distinctively Christian (August 2014) . or the Taeguk (of Thailand) Park clan. and their most popular picks for a local surname are Kim. The popularity of these three names looks set to continue. registering. including Chinese. Kim and Lee clans is in fact growing: more foreign nationals. Lee.