The pie chart shows the proportions of the popular surnames in Vietnam according to a research in 2005. Most of them are the family names of dynasties in Vietnamese history.
Have you ever heard or known a person who has Nguyen as a family name? On the international scale, it is a tip to identify people of Vietnamese descent. But why do nearly 40% of Vietnamese have their surname as Nguyen (according to an unofficial research published in 2005 in Vietnam)? This is in about 37 million people worldwide, making Nguyen one of the most popular family names around the world.
Similar to other countries, Vietnamese names consist of three parts: first name, middle name, and surname. The middle name is not necessary, and thus, some do not have one. For example, the name Nguyen Trai has Nguyen as a surname and Trai as the first name, and there is no middle name in this case. Moreover, contrary to American names, Vietnamese surnames are placed at the beginning of the full names.
In many countries, the surnames play a tremendous role; it can be used to trace back to where you were born, your ancestors, when they emigrated to the countries, your religion, and your social status. However, in Vietnam, the family names do not mean that much. In fact, most Vietnamese could not look up far more than three or five generations of their family tree, and also are not able to use only the surname to learn more about their family.
Famous Vietnamese with the Nguyen surname - Nguyen Tat Thanh (aka Ho Chi Minh) and Nguyen Trai (a politician and poet in the 15th century)
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The use of surname did not appear until the colonial period. The conquering nations such as France, China, Spain, Portugal, Germany and the United States of America brought the surnames into practice to differentiate among many people that had the same first names. And thus making it easier to manage taxes.
As for why many Vietnamese have the Nguyen surname, there are many theories about when the Nguyen surname was used in Vietnam and became popular. But most of them were related to the fact that the Nguyen surname was randomly forced on people by the local governors.
In the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420 - 589) and later dynasties (907-960), some Chinese moved to the south, where ancient Vietnam was, to avoid the great disturbance, especially people that lived in Anhui, Zhejiang, and Hubei provinces. These people were believed to have the Nguyen surname and gradually assimilated into the indigenous population.
It is also believed that when a new dynasty in ancient Vietnam took reign, the members of the royal families of the previous dynasty had to change their last name to Nguyen to rid and forget that dynasty from the country. Moreover, according to the law of the Nguyen dynasty, the people who had the Nguyen surname could enjoy many special benefits, receive awards, and avoid being arrested for crimes. Consequently, many people changed their surname to Nguyen to avoid being caught and enjoy more freedom.
Prior to the 19th century, Vietnamese in the low and middle class usually did not have surnames, only those in the royal families had them. When Vietnam became a French colony, the French started a big population investigation across Vietnam. In the process, they encountered a problem that so many people had the same first names. In order to solve this confusion and continued the statistical data gathering, they assigned the surname Nguyen to all of them because Nguyen was the name of the latest dynasty, ruled from 1802 to 1945. So again, the Nguyen surname was expanded with a great scale once more.
The portrait of Bao Dai, the last emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty
Now you have an idea for why many Vietnamese have the Nguyen surname. These reasons come down to many historical events throughout Vietnamese history from the Chinese to French-dominated Vietnam.
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