The Chinese surname is very different from a Westerner's first name. The Chinese surname is placed before the person's name while the latter is placed after. Take the names Woo Teck Hwa and Jason Smith for example. 'Woo' is the surname of the person named Teck Hwa while 'Smith' is Jason's surname.
Like most Asian surnames, Chinese surnames are passed down from generations and hold the family history in perpetuity. Chinese surnames tell others about the person's history and are always retained even though the name may change. The surname is often looked-upon as a symbol of a man's pride and honor. It depicts the past glorious deeds the ancestors have achieved through 'blood and sweat.'
According to legends, Chinese surnames originated from the Emperor Fu Xi (2852BC). He standardized all Chinese surnames and defined matrimonial relationship. Thus a proper system of population census was established. It was also believed that there is a close relationship between surnames and totem worship; the early Chinese adopted the names or symbols of certain animals as their surname (e.g. Long (2) which means dragon.) A song in the Shi Jing, recounting the birth of Hou Ji, the earliest ancestor of the Zhou people, shows clearly the link between surnames and totem worship. Jiang Yuan the consort of the fiery Emperor prayed to God for a son. She followed his footprints for a distance and became pregnant. The giant footprints actually belonged to a bear the Zhou people then worshipped. They gave themselves the surname 'Ji', which was made up of the characters 'Nu' and 'Chen'. These characters represented Jiang Yuan and the bear, respectively.
A book of hundred surnames (Bai Jia Xing) was complied during the 10th century. It recorded about 500 odd Chinese surnames and was one of the earlier surnames books written. The surnames are arranged in rhymed lines without repetitions. In the original copy that was lost, pictures of famous historical figures were illustrated on the upper part of every page while the text was printed on the lower part. The unknown author successfully combined the study of family names, philology, sociology and pedagogy into one book, making it one of the most popular books in history.