Wednesday, January 02, 2008

More about Korean Names

Note: See another post about Korean last names here.

Dear Korean,

My mother's side of the family is from Korea. My mother always says to be very proud of my Korean last name Kim. My mother and grandmother told me our family "Kim" comes from the "An Dong Kim she." What is that supposed to mean? When I ask my grandmother she says her great grandfather was Kim An Dong. She says he was someone very famous and our family comes from the royal family. Is that true? And if so can you tell me a little about this man?

Jen D.

Dear Jen,

The Korean dearly hopes that you are no older than 12 years old, given the incredibly poor grammar through which your email was written. (The Korean fixed it up.) Bad grammar by Americans kills a little part of the Korean's soul -- the Korean spent all that effort learning English, and Americans can get away with incorrect English? (If you are indeed younger than 12, cover your eyes whenever you see a foul language on this site.)

But your question supplements a post that the Korean wrote a while back, so it's worth addressing. The effort that Korean people put into their last names truly redefines the concept of sticking with your family.

Let's start from the top. Why do we have names? Simple - for the purpose of identification. But the way in which we identify ourselves has changed drastically over time, and Korean last names are prime examples.

Now, imagine yourself being in a world two millennia older, when Korea first began. Farming was the only way to live, and you are tied to your land. Therefore, you generally live around your extended family. Nonetheless, from time to time you run into strangers. What is the way in which you identify yourself that succintly gives the maximum information of who you are? Answer: you tell who your family is. That way, you convey the information about where you live, and who you live with.

This is not exclusively a Korean phenomenon. The same process happened with Anglo last names such as Ford and Underwood. Mr. Ford used to live by a stream, and Mr. Underwood lived downhill from the wood. The difference between Mr. Ford and Mr. Kim, however, is that Mr. Kim knows exactly who the first Mr. Kim was.

In other words, each last name in Korea has one clear starting point. For example, father of all Kims is a man named Kim Suro. "Kim" originally means gold. Why gold? Because the very first Kim (really "Gim" in Korean pronunciation,) i.e. Gim Suro, was born from a golden egg.

So at first, it was possible to identify yourself as, say, Kim-ssi 5-dae-son. Ssi means Mister. (It's the same word that Jen mis-Romanized as "she". Although ssi is now used for both men and women, it only meant Mister in the old days.) Dae means "generation", and son means "offspring." So when you say "I am a Kim-ssi 5-dae-son," you are saying that "I am Mr. Kim, and I am 5th generation offspring from the very first Kim."

Simple enough? But there's more. As time passed by, clans grew and split up. Especially for a big clan like Kims, it was not enough to say "I'm in the Kim clan" -- you needed more in order to identify yourself. So people began adding the name of the region in which they clustered. Sometimes the region might be the place where the clan simply happened to live; other times, the region is a gift of land given from the king to the head of the clan. It's important to note that just like clans, each subclan has a single starting point. "Andong" is a region in southeastern Korea. So when you say you are an "Andong Kim", that means you are a Kim clan member, originally from Andong region.

Therefore, Jen, what your grandmother said does not make sense -- there is no one named "Kim Andong," as Andong is a name of a place, not a person. What she may have meant was that her great-grandfather was the very first Andong Kim, i.e. the starting point. But that doesn't make sense either, because that would make you Andong Kim-ssi 7-daeson, i.e. 7th generation Andong Kim. Right now, Andong Kim is at around 29th~31st generation. But read on, because there's more.

Even the regional designation was not enough as subclans got bigger. Currently, the largest Kim clan is Gimhae Kims, which has more than 4 million members. So people began to add sub-subclan designation, called "-pa" (literally means "branch".) "pa" is usually preceded by a name of a famous person. Imagine yourself in old Korea again. A famous person, usually a high official to the king or a distant relative of the king, gets a large tract of land and huge house. All of his family would live off that land and house. So that's another good identifier.

But there's even more!! pa could branch off even more, if it gets long enough. In such a case, the root-pa is designated as "hu". So the full Korean last name actually looks like this:

[region] [last name]-ssi [subclan]-hu [sub-sub-clan]-pa [number]-daeson.

Let's try and apply this. If the Korean were to live roughly 300 years ago, this is how he would identify himself:

Milyang Bak-ssi Gyujeonggong-hu Nakbonggong-pa 26-daeson.

Milyang is a region in southeastern Korea. Bak is usually Romanized in English as Park, and that's the Korean's regular last name. Gyujeonggong was a high official to the king, and so was Nakbonggong. The Korean himself is 26th generation offspring from Nakbonggong - i.e. Nakbonggong's grandson to the 26th power. (The Korean knows this is not exactly correct, but please don't nitpick about math. The Korean hates math.)

This allows people to count exactly how far the Korean is removed from the very first Park/Bak. For example, the first Milyang Bak, Prince Milseong, was 30 generations removed from Bak Hyeokgeose, the first Park. The first Milyang Bak Gyujeonggong-pa (Gyujeonggong himself) was 15 generations removed from Prince Milseong. The first Milyang Bak Gyujeonggong-hu Nakbonggong-pa (again, Nakbonggong himself) was 10 generations removed from Gyujeonggong when he branched off. The Korean is 26 generations removed from Nakbonggong. That makes the Korean 81 generations removed (30+15+10+26) from the very first Park.

(All those information is kept and updated in a book called jokbo, literally meaning "family book." The head of each pa is in charge of keeping and updating jokbo.)

Take a step back and think about how incredible this is. Sure, this is a sexist system, because women are not counted. Sure, modern-day Koreans mostly don't really care about tracing their clan names. But just think about it. If each generation is roughly 30 years, the Korean has the knowledge of every single grandfathers, uncles, and cousins for the last 2,400 years! Twenty-four hundred years! Can you even imagine how amazing it is to definitely know that a part of yourself can be traced to a single person who lived 24 centuries ago?

But you asked about Andong Kim. There are actually two families with the names Andong Kim. They are distinguished as Gu-Andong Kim and Sin-Andong Kim, meaning old and new Andong Kim. Both families put together produced 19 jeongseung (= Prime Minister), 6 daejehak (= National Scholar), and 3 queens during Joseon Dynasty, the most recent dysnasty of Korea before it was colonized by Japan.

The new Andong Kim family was especially powerful in the late phase of Joseon Dynasty. The queens of the three Korean kings from 1790 to 1834 were all from Andong Kim family. None of three kings was especially a strong leader, allowing their in-laws wield power by proxy. The strength of Andong Kim family survived into modern era, as it includes very prominent independence movement leaders such as General Kim Jwajin.

Got a question or comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. unnecessarily condescending in your first paragraph

  2. Nice post, however, I do miss some information I think.

    What about all the Koreans who took up family names when slavery was abolished?

    A high percentage of the population didn't have any family name at the time.

  3. I agree with Harry Kim. Is that to say that being American and having flaws is that big of a surprise to you? It's called the human condition, get used to it pal, you're no more special than the rest of us. Last time I checked, your name wasn't God, so quit trying to be.

    1. But The Korean can trace his ancestry back 94 generations to God himself!

  4. Harry Kim and Proud American - you are totally wrong here. When dealing with others who are not native speakers of you language, it IS essential to get the grammar and spelling right.

    Harry, would you have preferred the Korean author of the reply to have done what a lot of people would do, and just chuck the poorly-constructed question in the bin?

    Proud, just what is it you're proud of? You aggressively write "you're no more special than the rest of us. " and yet the Korean is able to correctly construct a question that the American questioner couldn't. So the Korean IS better in this case.

    Are you really that proud of the American inability to write? .

  5. Thanks for the informative article! I've always gotten confused as to how my father knew we were descended from (insert royal family member here). Although, when I think about it, saying their names must have been a mouthful. XD

  6. Dear Sir,
    I am a loyal reader but I could not help but notice that you criticized lil' Jen there for her poor grammar, saying "the Korean spent all that effort learning English, and Americans can get away with incorrect English?"

    And then your very next sentence is this crime against English: "But your question supplements a post that the Korean a while back, so it's worth addressing."

    I was willing to let it slide until this one caught my eye further down:
    "So people began adding the name of the region in which they clustered in."

    Dreadful, sir, simply dreadful. If Lil' Jen was truly 12 when this post was first written, then she should probably be 18 now, old enough to both curse, and accept an apology (which I believe she is due- using proper grammar of course) with ladylike dignity.

    Your friend in anal retentiveness,
    B. Stache

    1. Thank you for pointing them out! Comments pointing out grammatical errors are always welcome.

    2. Is pointing out common reasoning errors also welcome?

      Now, imagine yourself being in a world two millennia older, when Korea first began.

      2,000 years ago the world was two millennia younger. It will be two millennia older (than your post) in 4008 C.E.

      And while I'm at it, let me criticize Mr. Stache for his poor arithmetics, as this post was written approximately 4 years and 4 months ago, making a 12 year old probably 16 and at most 17 now.

  7. The grammar isn't even poor... it's just basic. Aside from that, if you understand the message Jen was communicating, then grammar will always come second.

  8. If you plan on berating someone for their grammatical inadequacies, be certain that you have none of your own. You've committed a number of grammatical errors in this work.

  9. Just imagine, during the Joseon dynasty, only those YangBan class were allowed to be educated and those whom were born into other than YangBan class were not allowed to learn and be educated. All those whom were not YangBan desperately wanted to be educated but were forbidden, and that was the law. Exception to this rule was the SuhChul, SuhChul are those born of YangBan father, and his concubine, generally a beautiful woman that were of slave class. They were allowed to learn but were not allowed to hold any government jobs.

    Korean definition of (Eduction = YangBan) as inferenced from my comment above.

    In the modern Korea, everyone who wants to be educated can learn and hold any job they wish.
    Thus, you now understand why Koreans put so much emphasis on education.

  10. Wow. I really enjoy this article.

    I'm from Indonesia and I think things like "Family Book" doesn't really exist in every family, but there is this family rooted from an ancient king who keeps a similar book. Two of my high school friends have this book (they just knew it when my teacher asked them to look up for it), and they were really surprised when they found out that they're distant relatives! More surprisingly, I'm a distant cousin of one of them, which makes me a very distant cousin of the other. How great is that!

    Now I know why there are always many people in the yearly family gathering. I can't really memorize who is who, but it's good to know that your family members are everywhere. : )

    Thank you for the article.


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