When you meet an individual who is Korean, or someone who has paternal Korean ancestry, the chance (in terms of percentage) of that person having the family name (surname or last name) of either a (1) Kim, (2) Lee, (3) Park, (4) Choi, (5) Chung, (6) Kang, (7) Cho, (8) Yoon, (9) Jang and (10) Lim — which are the Top 10 family names — would be 64.1% (sixty-four point one) percent according to the year 2000 Korean government census.
Well, even without this statistical data you would probably know already that there are a lot of — many, many and more — KIMs, LEEs and PARKs, so the 64.1% figure shouldn’t be all that surprising to you. But, what’s the reason? In other words, why are there so many KIMs, LEEs and PARKs? Is there real a reason for this? Well, the answer is yes, and here it is:
The simple reason is that all Korean surnames have a town (or geographical region) associated with them, but this place is not explicitly shown in “English Language” written form. To explain further, this is a location which is the actual birthplace of the first ancestral elder (the first and greatest of all great grandfathers) of a Korean family.
What this means (and in other words) is that, technically, there are many KIMs, many LEEs and many PARKs, but this type of information never gets lifted-up (picked-up) and translated over into English. If we select, for example, people with family name of KIM, there are more than 348 different KIM families living in South Korea – they are ALL viewed as being unique and different when looked upon by Koreans. In other words, they are not identical KIMs.
But when simply written in English language form of “Kim”, they all look to be the same which is absolutely not correct (improper). Population wise, there are 4,124,934 “KIMs from Gimhae”; 1,736,798 “KIMs from Gyeongju”, 837,008 “KIMs from Gwangsan” (former name of what is now Damyang) and so forth, living in South Korea, which makes them all different KIMs. Thus, and to be more accurate, and if Koreans were to have adopted last name system which resembled continental Europe more — such as Germany, France or Holland — rather than the British-Anglo-Saxon style when not using Korean (and/or Chinese characters); then today’s Korean last names — to western foreigners — in the above example could/should have been written as “Kim von Gimhae” or “Kim van Gyeongju” or “Kim de Gwansan” with the only difference being that KIM would be the surname in South Korea’s case (and not the first name as it were in old Europe).
If we continue, and at the end of the list, of the 348 different types of KIMs in Korea, there were 71 people in South Korea with the last name of “Kim from Hannam” (where, Hannam was a small village located near what is today the city of Suwon).
In terms of LEE families, there were 2,609,890 people in South Korea who the “Lee from Jeonju”; 1,424,866 “Lee from Gyeongju”; 186,188 “Lee from Seongju” and a total of 167 different type of LEEs. In terms of PARKs, there are 159 different large branches of PARK family living in South Korea.
If one considers the TOP 10 family names alone, there are actually a high-level representation of thousands of last names, which not visible to the naked eye of a foreigner (non-Korean) at first glance. This is because, a person can only see what s/he knows.
To explain further, every surname (family name), which has origins in South Korea, works this way; and virtually every Korean has knowledge about who is their very first ancestral elder (grandfather) in the family (by full name), and where this person (the very first elder) had lived in terms of its geographical location. The location of the very first ancestral elder (grandfather) associate with a Korean last name is called the “Bon-Kwan” in Korean.
The Korean last name — within each of the “Bon-Kwan” — is also one-step further segmented to include a small-branch and sub-small-branch, and this is called the “Kun-Pa” (small-branch who are descendants of a Prince) and “Gong-Pa” (sub-small-branch) — a.k.a. Jee-Pa or Bun-Pa — is used together in Korea with “Family Name” and “Bon-Kwan” as one-set to fully make-up the “Last Name” of a person. The importance of the last “Gong-Pa” (sub-small-branch) is important because (in the old days) people would introduce themselves as the, for example, 23rd descendant of Elder (great grandfather) so-and-so, and the 57th descendant of the first ancestral elder (the first and greatest of all great grandfathers). The “Kun-Pa” (small-branch which has descendants of a former Prince) is also used in the same way, but more earlier than the “Gong-Pa” (sub-small-branch).
Thus, one would say (by using the same example) that I am the 30th descendant (grandson) of Elder Grandfather so-and-so. So in proper Korean terms, the correct full last name of “MR. KIM” you’ve just met (and exchanged business cards with..) in a “first” time introductory greeting could actually be …”the 23rd Grandson of the “Kun-Pa” (or “Gong-Pa”) branch who had the adult name of so-and-so (small branch or sub-small-branch) with the “Last Name” and “Bon-Kwan” (large branch) of KIM from Gimhae” … which is at least a “set-of-five” pieces of information, or the proper way using the family name in Korea. However, this method overloads non-Koreans with too much information. THE SET-OF-FIVE MAIN PIECES OF INFORMATION IN A (PROPER) KOREAN LAST NAME:
- Family Name ▶ KIM
- The Region (name of “original town” – “bon-kwan”) of your first ancestral elder ▶ Gimhae
- The “Branch” of the elder who is your ancestor within the Kim of Gimhae family ▶ “Ahn-Kyung Gong-Pa”.
- The name of the grandfather who had first started the Branch ▶ Young-Jung
- The number counted downward as a descendant (grandson) of the person who had created the Branch ▶ The 23rd grandson of elder Young-Jung for the Ahn-Kyung Branch who’s first and foremost ancestral grandfather was from the KIM family who had originated from the town of Gimhae.
Because these “set-of-five” components (in a Korean last name) are too complicated to explain (or to put on a business card – for that matter) to non-Koreans during a first introductory meeting; this is main reason for why Mr. Kim is just simply “Mr. Kim” in English. In other words, the short version is used out of public courtesy to non-Koreans, rather than insisting upon the use the a longer (and proper) last name method to others (non-Koreans) because this would complicate the introduction and exchange of names.
♦ Value-Added Insight ♦
Up until 1997, it was strictly prohibited by law to marry someone within your own family. Here – in this context – the definition of family had meant same “last name” and same “bon-kwon” (or “original town” of your ancestral first grandfather). This meant that for example, a male from the “Kim of Gimhae” family could not marry a female from the same “Kim of Gimhae” family even if they were very very very distant relatives.
With more than 4 million people in South Korea that fall into this category alone, this law created some extreme cases (incidents) where a young couple – both with “Kim of Gimhae” last names would immigrate to the United States, for example, and get married and live happily ever after. When dating in college, this also had created the situation where asking the question of what is your “bon-kwan” often meant I might be interested in proposing to you. In other words, if the male and female love birds had the same “bon-kwan” their marriage (under the eyes of the Republic of Korea law) would not be legally permitted (acknowledged).
However, if you were a “Kim from Gimhae” and your love interest is a “Kim from Gyeongju”, then this meant (legally) you are different KIMs – not having the same Kim last name. Thus, this meant you would not encounter legal problems, should the two decide to get married. Socially, this has meant that one would typically look for, and date, a person who had a different last name than yours because one would not want to find later that you both had the same (really the same-same) last name.
This Korean family system, as a social function, has thus promoted out-breeding (vis-a-vis in-breeding) for centuries. Although, the practice of “cousin-marriage” is still accepted, even popular, in other cultures/countries, it was strictly prohibited, by law, in the Republic of Korea (for hundreds of years) up until 1997, and 2005 onward, the newly enacted law legally prevents the marriage of one couple who might share the same “great-grand parents” — both on the grandfather and grandmother side — and any closer (distant) cousin relationships.
The photo above is the town of Poongsan in Andong city (Hahoe Village in North Gyeongsang Province). It is the location (town) of where the “Ryu (family) of Poongsan” find their ancestry. This family has preserved their family roots (and town) for more than 500 years. Spelt out in a different way, this particular “Ryu” family’s “bon-kwan” is “Poongsan” and they have preserved their family tree for more than 500 years dating back well into the Joseon (aka Chosun or Chosen) Dynasty. Thus, they (including their ancestors and descendants) are the “Ryu from Poongsan” family. The “Family Tree” or “Ancestral Tree” book in Korean is called the “Jok-Bo” or “Bo-Chup” of which is shown the inside for one Korean Family. Typically, the “Jok-Bo” would consist of, nowadays, more than 15-20 volumes for a single family. Thus, it is comparable to an encyclopedia in western printing terms. For this “featured image” of this story, the “Jok-Bo” of the Andong Kwon family (or “Kwon from Andong”) is shown.
The “Kwon of Andong” family is important because it is reported that this family was the first in Korea to have kept such ancestral lineage (family tree book) beginning in the year 1476 – more than 500 years ago. To many they – the “Kwon from Andong” family – are (were) considered to be one of the “upper-class” or “nobility” last names during the Joseon Dynasty. The town of Andong from where these “KWONs from Andong” and “RYUs from Poongsan” originated, in this regard, was designated as an UNESCO World Heritage site because of its tradition and history. Below is a photo of Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Andong (Hahoe Village), South Korea, in April of 1999.
Even up to today (May 2014), every Korean family — for example the “KIMs from Andong” —revise and keep their family tree book current. In this sense, every family maintains their family office to preserve and honor their ancestry (family elders).
Shown below is the main office of the “LEEs from Kwangju” — which has about 158,000 family members according to the Government’s year 2000 census — located in old downtown Seoul. Should there be a death, marriage, or birth in the family, it is customary to inform your ancestral (members) association (office).
Although it is not a hard rule, the names of yourself and/or your brothers and children are often based upon the naming rules (conventions) as set forth by this extended family member association. It is for this reason (because of these naming conventions), that Koreans will have a set of two-word “first” names where one of the words (in their first name) will “rhyme and match” with the names of their bothers and/or cousins.
♦ Food for Thought ♦
Because it is complex and time consuming to explain the “Korean” family name system in English as written upon, people from the Western World, are inclined to think that a Kim is a Kim is a Kim. However, this is totally wrong because their 256 different types of KIMs (depending on region/location), and many hundreds of more branches of families (named Kim) underneath each region/location.
It gets very interesting — when crossing over a complex Korean naming system to a western “first name” + “last name” format — because you now get a name combination such as “John” + “Kim” or “Mary” + “Kim”. In other words, it may seem as though every other Korean is named either a John Kim (male) or a Mary Kim (female) – and isn’t that so. Because many Koreans are Catholic/Protestant, finding people who use a biblical name such of John (Yohan) and/or Mary (Maria), in addition to their legal birth name, is not uncommon in South Korea.
With a recent wave of immigrants becoming Korean citizens, Mr. Robert Holley (originally born in California – now Korean) declared himself on his official Korean “family” registry as the first generation grandfather (and foremost elder) of the last name “Ha from Yeongdo” — and thus he and his 3 sons are the only 4 individuals who have this very unique last name in South Korea.
In other words, he is not just another person with the last name “Ha” as you might first think. Yeongdo, by the way, is a district in the city of Busan where he resides. This is consistent and in-sync with the Korean method (system) of family (last) names. Once again, there are many people with the last name “Ha” in South Korea, but there are only 4 people in Korea (and in the world for that matter) with the “Ha (family) from Yeongdo” last name.
Mr. Robert Holley’s Korean name spelt in English is “HA, Il”, which means he is “No.1” of the “Ha from Yeongdo” family. Below is a photo of Mr. Il Ha (a.k.a. Robert Holley) of when he was young and recent.
Another widely known person in Korea is Mr. Bernhard Quandt who was born in the town of Bad Kreuznach in Germany (Deutschland). He became a Korean citizen and officially declared that his official Korean family last name is “Lee from Germany” – and has ever since been using that last name. His Korean name (spelt in English) is Lee Charm (or LEE, Charm).
It is reported that up until the early 1900s (about 1909 or 1910) only 30% to 40% percent of the Korean population had maintained their family name — as they had belonged to the noble (upper-middle class). The names of people who were basically servants and/or laborers, did not have and maintain a family name.
However, during the Japanese occupation, people were asked to submit (write) their last name to compile a household registry; and thus they had wrote (used) the names of their master (lords). Such borrowing of last names eventually became a serious social problem because, such individuals did not have a “Jok-Bo” or family tree book as did the upper-middle class people (to prove their ancestry); and it was important to have an “upper-middle class” ancestry to avoid negative social discrimination.
Thus, between the early 1900s up until the early 1960s, people bought the rights – in other words, paid – to be included into certain families. Even today, people may say that they are of the “KIMs from Gimhae” but they may not really have their names in the Family Tree Book (a.k.a “Jok-Bo”).
An example of negative social discrimination would be in the case of when a child would be born out of wed-lock. With a father to claim this child, he or she would truly be considered a bastard in every sense of the world. Today, however, the paternal naming system and the value of the Family Tree Book (Jok-Bo) is ever so slowly continuing to diminish.
All in all, and in closing, a “PROPER” example of a FULL KOREAN NAME (with all of its components) “FULLY and COMPLETELY” translated into English could look something like this …..
Chul-Soo (“John” – which is Chul-Soo’s English spelt Baptized Name for Yohan/Johan) who is a “LEE from Gwangju (Bon-Kwan)” and the 23rd generation grandson of the the first elder who had started the Moon-Kyung Branch (or the “Duke (or Earl / Count in Anglo-Saxon terms) of Moon-Kyung” Gong-Pa having noble ancestry) where this first elder’s name (who had started this Branch) was LEE, Ik-Whan.
….. however, the average “Westerner” or “Non-Korean-Speaker” would just say (argue) that this person’s name is “John Lee” to make life much more simpler; and may think that there are many LEEs and KIMs — the same — in Korea, when there are actual many different types/kinds of LEEs and KIMs as described in detail herein.
It is worth taking note that people in East Asia were using “paper” since circa 105 A.D. to 200 A.D. to record meaningful events and religious teachings; and that the Koreans had been using movable metal types (for printing) before Johannes Gutenburg’s (1395 to 1468) printing press.
♦ Language Footnote ♦
- Jok-Bo (Family Genealogy Book) / 족보 / 族譜, also called the Bo-Chup / 보첩 / 譜牒
- Bon-Kwan / 본관 / 本貫
- First Ancestral Elder (grandfather) who started the last name / 시조 / 始祖
- Middle Ancestral Elder (grandfather) who started the Bon-Kwan / 중시조 / 中始祖
- Ancestral Elder (grandfather) who started the Gun-Pa or Gong-Par / 파시조 / 派始祖
- Same Last Name & Bon-Kwan marriage is forbidden / 동성동본금혼 / 同姓同本禁婚
- A Branch within the Bon-Kwan = (Gong-Pa) / 공파 / 公派 or (Gun-Pa) / 군파 / 君派)
- Same Ancestral (Members) Association / 종(친)회 / 宗(親)會
- Baptized Name = 세례명 / 洗禮名
- First Name Naming Rules and Convention of the Family = 항렬표 / 行列表
- Ha (family) from Yeongdo = 영도 하씨 / 影島 河氏
♦ Related Outside Stories and External Links via the World Wide Web ♦
- Directory of Surname (Family) Names in Korea with Bon-Kwan, Pa, Elders and Naming Convention Listed
- Electronic (Online) Jok-Bo of the “Kim from Kwangsan” Family
♦ More information from YouTube ♦
Note: The Seoul Tribune takes "copyright and fair use" seriously. However, and as the internet continues on with its evolution, there remain quite a few number of “grey” areas still left open to legal interpretation and/or the Republic of Korea court decision cases. If you notice any violation(s) for attention, please send us a message by using this “Contact Us (click here)” form with your opinion so that we may promptly address your concern(s).