Korean “Last Names”

In Korean Culture on January 13, 2009 at 9:40 pm

This is a gentle informational note to all those who are curious about Korean last names. I believe the majority of Americans is now familiar with the lack of diversity of Korean last names. But once in a while, I do encounter those individuals who ask if I am related to X Kim. And my response is the same. So below is some interesting information for Koreans and non-Koreans alike.

1. They are not really last names. East Asians usually have three syllables in their name. The first is their familial name (what Westerns would call the last name, or surname). The Chinese and Korean in particular then place second their generation name, then third their given name. In every other generation, these two are inverted, if the family adheres to proper naming rules. To prevent confusion, these “last names” will be identified as “sung” (성) – the Korean word for the familial name.

2. There are about 250 “sungs” in Korea. This is probably the least amount in the world, but it does not indicate a lack of genetic diversity. For each “sung,” there are a variant of clans, that indicate your ancestral origin. Until recently, you couldn’t marry someone from your own clan. This was considered taboo, borderline incestuous.

Because of time and genetic diversity, these taboos have been lifted except in one case. A famous man Yoo Cha-dal named his first born son after his given name instead of his familial name. His firstborn was Cha Hyo-jun. To this day in one region, “Cha’s” and “Yoo’s” cannot marry.

3. The top five sungs in Korea are:

21.6% Kim
14.8% Lee/Yi
8.5% Park/Pak
4.7% Choi/Choe
4.4% Chung/Jung

4. These have hundreds of clans within them:

Kim has 348 clans, at least documented
Lee/Yi has 241 clans
Park/Pak has 161 clans
Choi/Choe has 160 clans

The rarer names may only have one clan. Until recently due to the Korean wars and the diaspora, the society was highly organized, genealogized, and familial lines were easily traceable.

5. Sungs have meanings derived from Chinese root phonemes. Pending on the sung, some might have variant meanings. The big four are:

Kim means “gold”
Lee/Yi means “judge”
Park/Pak means “trees”
Choi/Choe means “high superior”

6. The rest of the 46% include the more popular ones like:

Son (means “announcer”)
Hwang (means “yellow,” derived from “emperor”)
Ahn (means “tranquility”)
Im/Lim/Yim (there are two versions where one means “forest” and another “duty”)
Yoo/Yu (means “willow tree”)
Hong (means “big”)
Wang (means “king”)
Meng/Maeng (means “first in a series”)
Nam/Namm (means “south)

7. Some of the above are actually from Chinese lineages, not Korean. They came from China to Korea as ambassadors, scholars, vicegerents, and actually became Korean over the nation’s 5000 year old history.

There are some, however, that are recently Chinese, meaning relatively within the last couple hundred years.

Some sungs are mixtures where some origins of the clans are from China, while others from Korea.

8. There are rare original Korean names like:

Suk (means “stone”)
Na (means “net”)
Ko/Goh (means “tallest” – of the Goguryeo empire)
Han (means “country”)
Huh (means “advocate”)
Baek/Paik (means “white”)
Bae/Pae (means “flowing gown”)

Some highly rare ones, whose origins are most likely foreign, include:


9. There are also the ancient disyllabic last names like:


Some have truncated their names to be like the majority throughout the centuries, while others still retain the two syllables. In the latter cases, they have only one given name and ignore the generational one to conform to the trisyllabic pattern. Some theories indicate these stem back to the Mongolian roots of Korea.

10. One important fact to note is according to custom, the wife does not take name of the husband. If a female “Kim” marries a male “Lee,” then “Kim” stays “Kim,” but the children retain “Lee.”

I hope this helps. So in order to answer your question, most likely I will not know the “Kim” that you are thinking of. =)

  1. I’ve been getting into my family history lately and I remembered this post. Thanks for helping those of us who aren’t so good at Korean! :)

  2. Where do you get all this information? I heard about the “Yoo” and “Cha” issue. Your writing is informative and entertaining.

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