Phoenix rises from ashes of the Feng
Every Chinese family name has its own cultural origin that can be traced back thousands of years. In this column, Shanghai Daily introduces the biggest Chinese family names and their histories.
The surname Feng, which literally means Phoenix in English, amounts for only a tiny percentage of the Chinese population, ranked out of the top 500. It is a family name that is more often seen in minorities.
There are four major branches of origins for the surname. One is derived from officials during the reign of Di Ku, great grandson of the Yellow Emperor (2697-2589 BC). By then, the Fengs were appointed officials in charge of ancient calendrical science, to instruct people how to sow and when to harvest. The oldest Feng Huang Tai, or the Phoenix Platform where the Fengs made prayers for favorable weather for crops, can be found in today’s Jining City, Shandong Province.
Another branch is known as the offspring of Yan Luo Feng (AD 712-779), one of the kings of ancient Nanzhao Kingdom, in today’s Yungui Plateau. Many people surnamed Feng in Bai, Jing, Miao and Dai minorities are said to be derived from the king. Feng is also a big family name in Hui minority, residing in Guizhou Province. They are said to be originated from Yan Luo Feng as well, converted to Islam to join the minority.
One more branch comes from the offspring of Han’s Emperor Liu Zhiyuan (AD 895-948). When the later Han Dynasty perished in AD 950, his descendants fled to the southern region to the Yangtze River. In the early years during the Northern Song Dynasty (AD 960-1127), they arrived at Yangshan Mountain, in today’s Jingxian County of Anhui Province. When they rested their feet, they heard phoenixes among the trees. Taking it as a sign of good fortune, they changed their surname to Feng (Phoenix).
When the Northern Song imperial court found those survivors, who would have been executed, they decided to set them free, only to find they had given up their former royal surname. But, the court ordered the Fengs to be barred from politics forever as a consequence.
In Yi minority, Feng is a powerful family, especially the Luowu tribe in Wuding County, Yunnan Province. Settled along the banks of Jinsha River for over 2,000 years, the Fengs peaked in Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). In 1381, when the Ming army tried to besiege Yunnan, the tribal chief received them with courtesy, pledging allegiance to the imperial court. Endorsed by the court, the tribal chief remained the ruler, and the power continued to grow, overlooking the whole Yunnan region. In 1490, the imperial court gave the family the surname of Feng. The Fengs then grew to be an eminent family in Wuding, and played a crucial role in preserving the ethnic culture and lifestyle in Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture of Yunnan.