So this is the post that started it all. Back during my Sungkyunkwan Scandal craze, someone posed a question about Korean family names on the SKKS Soompi thread. Specifically, she wondered whether certain family names belonged exclusively to the nobility (yangban) in the past, stemming from her Korean friend’s comment that her family name “Park” comes from a long line of nobility. I gave a short reply of “No” and promised to elaborate on it much longer in the future. But that question was what first planted the seed in my head that it would be neat to have a blog to cover topics such as this.
Well, Electric Ground was born, and seven months and 116 posts later, I got off my lazy butt to finally answer her question. But now I realize that I can’t recall the screen name of the person who first asked this question, and I have no idea whether she even reads this blog. D’oh! Here’s to hoping that she will chance upon this post one day. As late as it may be, I kept my promise!
Different cultures each have their own history on how the practice of using family names started and their own set of rules and traditions. But in the core of it is that as societies grew and populations increased, the use of one singular given name (John, Mary, Sun-joon) was no longer sufficient to clearly identify individuals. And thus, the use of family names became necessary in order to correctly identify an individual based on the family he belongs to. For instance, in my elementary school social studies class, I learned that the first Mr. Richardson was a son of a man named Richard. The first Mr. Smith was a blacksmith. The first Mr. Wood lived in the woods.
Although it may be possible to trace back your ancestry to several generations, it would be practically impossible to trace back to the first Mr. Richardson, the first Mr. Smith, or the first Mr. Wood. In contrast, Koreans are able to trace back each of their family names to a specific founding member.
Let’s take the family name “Kim” for example. Kim is the most common family name in Korea, and according to the 2000 census, there are over 9 million Kims in Korea. But in fact, not all Kims are the same. All Korean family names, including Kim, are separated into different clans named by their place of origin (“bon-gwan”). Although 623 bon-gwans for Kim appear in the Joseon historical records, there are approximately 280 in existence today. Of these, the two major Kim clans are the Gimhae Kims (over 4 million people) and the Gyeongju Kims (over 1.7 million people).
The founding member (called “sijo”) of the Gimhae Kim clan is Kim Suro, the founder and king of the state of Geumgwan Gaya. (The titular character from the 2010 MBC sageuk drama, Kim Suro, was about that said man, played by actor JI SUNG). Kim (really pronounced “Gim”) originally means “gold” in Sino-Korean, and Kim Suro was named so because the legend has it that he was born from a golden egg. Some famous members of the Gimhae Kim clan include General Kim Yu-shin (played by UHM TAE WOONG in Queen Seon Deok) and artist Kim Hong-do (played by PARK SHIN YANG in The Painter of the Wind). See, everything ties back to dramas!
The founding member of the Gyeongju Kim clan is Kim Alji, whose descendants ruled the Shilla Dynasty (the royal Kim clan of Shilla). Similar to Kim Suro, the legend has it that Kim Alji was found in a golden chest. There have been many members of the Gyeongju Kim clan who went on to hold high government positions during the Joseon Dynasty, but since I do not know whether any of them were featured in dramas, I’ll pass.
Besides the Gimhae Kims and the Gyeongju Kims, the other Kim clans split up from either one of these two major Kim clans and formed their own clan, or were started independently from these two. But regardless, they all also have their own sijo (founding member) and bon-gwan (place of origin).
Although I specified the Kim family name, the same can be said for every Korean family names out there. For some of the larger clans, the clans branched off to form subclans or even sub-subclans. And you want to hear something pretty crazy? The 족보 (“jokbo”=genealogy record) lists all this information, including the number of generations removed you are from the founding member of your clan. So a full Korean last name may look something like this:
[clan] [family name]-ssi [subclan]-hu [sub-sub-clan]-pa [generation number]-daeson
Some Koreans may know all this information about themselves. Unless there are any extenuating circumstances (for example, they were orphaned or adopted at a young age), most Koreans at least know which clan their family name belongs to. To find out which clan a person belongs to, ask a Korean person for the “bon-gwan” of their family name.
Typically, family lineages no longer hold much significance to Koreans in modern Korea. Up until recently, however, a man and a woman who have the same family name AND bon-gwan were prohibited from marrying each other, codified under Article 809 of the Korean Civil Code. So for example, although someone from the Gimhae Kim clan could marry someone from the Gyeongju Kim clan, a Gimhae Kim person could not marry another Gimhae Kim person.
Singer/actor KIM HYUN JOONG (Playful Kiss) once said in an interview that one of the reasons why he broke up with his former girlfriend was because they belonged to the same bon-gwan of the family name, Kim. But poor boy is so misinformed! In fact, after the Constitutional Court of Korea ruled in a 7 to 2 decision in 1997 that the article was unconstitutional, Korea’s national assembly amended the article so that only marriages between men and women who are closely related (more than 8 chons apart for blood-related, and more than 6 chons apart otherwise) are prohibited.
(*Chon refers to the distance of kinship. Parent and child are one “chon” apart. Siblings are two “chons” apart. Uncles/aunts are three “chons” apart. First cousins are four “chons” apart. And so forth. So second cousins are six “chons” apart and can’t marry each other in Korea. And umm, third cousins (is that the right term?) are eight “chons” apart and can’t marry each other either. Anyone more than eight chons apart, you can marry.)
Now that we got most of the dry stuff out of the way, let’s take a look at some examples from various dramas.
In Sungkyunkwan Scandal, Lee Sun-joon (PARK YOOCHUN) belonged to the Jinsung Lee clan. Jinsung Lee is one of the smaller Lee clans with around 66,000 people today. (For comparison purposes, the largest Lee clan is the Jeonju Lee clan, with 2.6 million people.) The founding member of the Jinsung Lee clan is Lee Suk from Goryeo Dynasty. The most notable member of the Jinsung Lee clan was Lee Hwang during the Joseon era. Since passing the state exam in 1534, Lee Hwang held several government positions, including a position as Right Minister (우찬성), before retiring 30 years later.
Thus, this establishes once again that Lee Sun-joon has to be a fictional character (if we ever had any doubts about it), for Lee Sun-joon’s father (KIM GAB SOO), as the Left State Councillor (좌의정) would have “beaten” Lee Hwang as the most notable Jinsung Lee if he had been based on a real-life character.
In the drama Family Honor, Ha Dan Ah (YOON JUNG HEE) and her family belonged to the Jangsaeng Ha clan. There are 13 Ha clans, but none by the same of Jangsaeng. It appears that it was a fictional clan invented for the drama.
In Sweet 18, Kwon Hyuk Joon (LEE DONG GUN) belonged to the Andong Kwon clan, which is the largest Kwon clan. The founding member of the Andong Kwon clan is Kwon Haeng. His original family name was a “Kim,” but for his achievement in assisting Taejo Wang Geon (Another chance to do a drama reference! Titular character was played by CHOI SOO JONG in the KBS sageuk, Taejo Wang Geon), Taejo Wang Geon gifted him with the new family name “Kwon” and a government position.
Kwon Hyuk Joon was specified as a 36th generation Andong Kwon (36-daeson) and his wife, Yoon Jung Sook (HAN JI HYE), the 36th generation eldest daughter-in-law. “Hyuk” is in fact the 36th generation dollimja for the Andong Kwon clan. (For more info about dollimja, you can go here.) It’s always nice to see when a screenwriter shows signs of having done her research!
We never learned the names of Hyuk Joon and Jung Sook’s twins. But if they decide to continue to adopt the practice of naming their children according to their proper dollimja, the 37th generation dollimja for the Andong Kwon clan is “Soon.” Thus, their twins would have “Soon” in their given name.
I’ve mentioned that most people know the bon-gwan of their family name. If they do not, however, Koreans typically just adopt one. For example, in Family Honor, Lee Kang Suk (PARK SHI HOO)’s dad showed a freakish obsession for buying a jokbo (genealogy). And before anyone asks, let me clarify that no, that’s not normal! It’s only in dramas, folks!
But nevertheless, the drama explained that his dad’s obsession with buying a jokbo was because he comes from a poor family, was orphaned at a young, and his dad’s father never told him which Lee clan he came from. Therefore, their family used Gyeongju as their bon-gwan because that’s where Kang Suk’s dad grew up. But no, Kang Suk, that still does not explain why your dad is so eager for a genealogy! Perhaps if it had been the Joseon era, but this is the 21st century!
This leads to my final point. Does this mean that every single one of those 4 million or so Gimhae Kims are descendants of Kim Suro? No, of course not!
Not just the Gimhae Kim clan, but whichever clan it may be, there are records of people changing their family name to avoid persecution in history. For example, it is reported that after the fall of the Goryeo Dynasty, many people with the family name “Wang” (which was the family name of the rulers of the Goryeo Dyansty) changed their family name to “Jeon” to avoid persecution.
But even more notable are the slaves from the Joseon era. Slaves did not have a family name. But after the abolishment of slavery, everyone had to choose one. Many former slaves adopted pre-existing family names and pre-existing clans. Others adopted a pre-existing family name, but chose to start their own clan.
In Jejoongwon, Lightweight Dog (PARK YONG WOO) was born into the butcher class. He hides his real identity and takes on the identity of a man named Hwang Jung. But due to his achievement, the King ordains that he be set free and become a commoner. As a commoner, he must have a new name, and the King officially names him Hwang Jung, the name he had been “borrowing”. Although not included in the subtitles, the King also explains that Hwang Jung can choose his hometown as the “bon-gwan” for his new family name, Hwang. Although Hwang is a pre-existing Korean family name, if there is no Hwang clan from whichever hometown Lightweight Dog is originally from, he may in fact be the first of his Hwang clan.
Even in more recent years, there have been news reports that with many foreigners becoming naturalized Korean citizens, there has been an increased diversity of family names and clans in Korea. Some naturalized citizens choose to adopt a pre-existing Korean family name, but establish their own clan. For example, TV personality Robert Holley adopted the Korean family name “Ha” and set up the Yeongdo Ha clan based in the Busan region. He is in fact the sijo (founding member) of the Yeongdo Ha clan. Lee Cham is originally German, but after becoming naturalized, he became the founder of the German Lee clan!
Now to respond to the initial question on whether certain family names belonged exclusively to the nobility (yangban) in the past… As you can see, saying that your family name is “Park” means nothing, unless you specify which clan, subclan, and sub-subclan of the Park family name you belong to. It’s possible that certain clans, subclans, or sub-subclans did emerge as particularly successful or powerful in history. And those who attain power often use that power to then retain and pass down that power in their family from generations after generations.
I noticed while watching the subtitled versions of Family Honor and Sweet 18 that the two very traditional families in both dramas were described as the “prominent (fictional) Jangsaeng Ha family” and the “prominent Andong Kwon family,” respectively. I realized that those unfamiliar with the Korean culture may misunderstand the meaning of this.
These families are not “prominent” because they belong to the Jangsaeng Ha clan or the Andong Kwon clan. Although Jangsaeng Ha appears to be fictional, Andong Kwon is not and there are hundred thousands of Andong Kwons in Korea. The two families in these two dramas are significant because they are the 종갓집 (jong-gat household) of that clan. In other words, they are the direct descendant of the first-born (eldest) son of that particular clan. The first-born son would pass down the torch to his first-born son, who would pass down the torch to his first-born son, etc. That household is called the “jong-gat household” and would be responsible for keeping and passing down the tradition of that clan (or the subclan, or the sub-subclan). That’s what made these two families “prominent,” and also so damn traditional.
Finally, it is true that there are certain family names that historically used to only belong to the lower-class (e.g., Bang, Chun, Ji, Chu, Ma, Gol, Pih). But of course, that’s no longer the case, and no one would care these days even if your family name is any one of these.
Phew, I think I covered everything I wanted to cover about Korean family names. But if anything was unclear or if you still have any more questions, you know where to ask!
*If you can read Korean and want to learn about specific family names and/or clans, you can go here.