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How Nguyen Became the Most Common Vietnamese Surname in the World

Vietnam’s current prime minister is Nguyen Xuan Phuc. The previous PM was Nguyen Tan Dung. Since we know these men aren’t all brothers, it begs the question: How did almost half of a single ethnicity, both in the country and abroad, end up with the same Vietnamese surname?

Historically, much of the world didn’t use family names, with the exception of the Chinese, the Romans, the Normans, and later a few other cultures. The practice grew as these giants began imperializing other nations and implementing the tradition, by policy or by force.

Atlas Obscura began to unpack the phenomenon: “It is likely that the Vietnamese, prior to Chinese domination, did not use last names, (or family names, which we should call them, given that in Vietnam and many other places, this name does not come last).”

China adopted the tradition primarily for the purpose of taxes. Stephen O’Harrow, the chairman of Indo-Pacific Languages and head of the Vietnamese department of the University of Hawaii at Manoa said: “Under the Chinese colonial rulership, the Chinese typically will designate a family name to keep tax records. They used a limited number of family names for the people under their jurisdiction.”

These surnames were given out randomly, but in Vietnam back then the original pool of family names came from Chinese words, or Vietnamese versions of them.

“My guess is, senior Chinese administrators used their own personal names to designate people under their own aegis,” O’Harrow told the news source.

In the Vietnamese language, use of third-person pronoun is not as prevalent, it is commonplace to refer to each other as “aunt” or “brother” — what O'Harrow refers to as "fictive kinship terms" — followed by the first name.

Image by Kevon Kevono via Atlas Obscura.

On the reason why Nguyen came to be so popular, O'Harrow makes the connection with the last ruling dynasty in Vietnam: “[The] tradition of showing loyalty to a leader by taking the family name is probably the origin of why there are so many Nguyens in Vietnam.” The Nguyen family ran the country from 1802 to 1945; during this period, the popularity of Nguyen as a surname also shot up.

While foreigners and diaspora alike struggle to pronounce Nguyen, spelling has varied throughout the ages, as it is actually a word appropriated from Chinese. Many hypothesize that it is derived for the word "ruan", which refers to an ancient string instrument.

The name comes with many challenges, especially if one is interested in tracing the family line back more than a few generations. As many genetic testing and analysis projects, such as 23andMe, have so few Asian DNA samples, it is unlikely that most Vietnamese would get more information results than "Asian." However, there are newer, more niche projects available, such as The Nguyen DNA Project which is open to “all families, any spelling” to provide insight and analysis.

While the name has unfortunate ties to a time of colonization, the Nguyens of the world actually belong to an extensive family. According to Next Shark, the likelihood of being a Vietnamese Nguyen more than doubles the likelihood of being a Kim in Korea. As of 2013, Nguyen is the 13th most popular last name in the whole of Australia. And in the United States, Canada, and France, the name ranks in the top 100 most common last names.

[Top photo via NextShark]

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