Family names are an interesting topic. Often, they tell stories. The Scottish clan MacDonald, for example, are literally the “sons of Dhomhnuill“—or Donald. Also consider the Rothschild family, of banking-conspiracy-theory fame. They once lived in a Frankfurt house decorated with a red shield, which in German is called a rothen Schild.

Surnames may also describe occupations or places of origin. Smiths were metalworkers while Mercers were merchants. François Hollande, the former French president, is a descendant of 16th-century immigrants from the Low Countries, the most famous region of which is Holland.

Most Taiwanese surnames today, whether for indigenous individuals or those with continental ancestry, are Chinese in origin. Some of the most common are Chen, Huang, Chang and Lee. Two other extremely common Taiwanese family names—Lin (meaning “forest”) and Wang (meaning “king”)—actually share an origin story that dates back over 3,000 years to a sage named Bi Gan. Yes, if you’ll excuse the pun, this is indeed the story of how it all Bi Gan for the Lin and Wang families of Taiwan.

Photo: Shang dynasty bronze artifact
Shang dynasty (c. 1600—1046 BC) bronze artifact
Gary Todd, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Story of Prince Bi Gan

Before China’s age of emperors (221 BC–AD 1912), the region was a loose confederacy of chiefdoms, lordships and duchies. All of these territories were nominally loyal to a king. A thousand years before Christ, the reigning monarch was King Zhou of Shang, a notorious tyrant hated by his subjects.

Among the King’s advisors was his uncle and prime minister, Prince Bi Gan, a younger son of a previous king. Both nobles and commoners alike considered him a sage. Everyone admired Bi Gan and regarded him as a man of virtue.

One day, disappointed in King Zhou’s conduct, prime minister Bi Gan demanded an audience. Despite the personal dangers this posed, Bi Gan chided the King and urged him to change his ways.

“Think of your subjects sire,” Bi Gan pleaded. “The people look to you for leadership. Yet you neglect your duty and conduct yourself shamefully.” This unsurprisingly angered King Zhou. In his wrath, the King posed a question to his royal court.

“I’ve heard rumours that the hearts of sages are unique in appearance,” the King said. “Uncle, you are both widely regarded as a sage and a loyal servant of mine. Would you be so kind as to gouge out your own heart so as to enlighten my court regarding the truth of this report?”

This was nothing less than an order of execution by suicide. Bi Gan knew the risks of confronting a Neronian tyrant. He was prepared. The prime minister duly drew his dagger and carved out his own heart before the King and died.

But Bi Gan had the last laugh. Soon after his death, a massive uprising overthrew the last Shang king. The dynasty that followed lasted for 800 years. It was considered a Golden Age in pre-imperial Chinese history.

Photo: Two Trees

Lin: Between Two Trees

The story of the Lin family name (Lîm in Taiwanese) is traced back to Bi Gan’s son, who was yet unborn when his father died.

It is said that when the prime minister confronted King Zhou, his wife was heavily pregnant. Hearing of her husband’s death, the lady knew that their unborn son’s life was in danger. A vengeful tyrant, after all, may well order the entire clan’s decimation. And so, she escaped into the wilderness.

Whilst travelling through a heavily wooded area, the lady went into labour. As she gave birth, the branches of two trees beside her miraculously lowered themselves to give her support. Her child who was born between two enchanted trees was thus given the name Lin (林). Technically, the name meant forest. But more specifically, it was chosen because the Chinese symbol for “forest” is constructed using a character containing two trees (as in forest = tree + tree). Some of the descendants of Bi Gan’s son went on to adopt this symbol as their surname.

Photo: Crown

Wang: A Kingly Lineage

It is said that another group of Bi Gan’s descendants chose to commemorate their heritage in another way. They adopted the surname Wang (王)—or Ông in Taiwanese—which means king. This was in honour of Bi Gan’s own royalty as a son of one of the Shang kings.

After the Shang dynasty was overthrown, the descendants of Bi Gan were invited back to court by the new dynasty. This further reinforced the Wang family name and its association with kings.

Quick note here: Several different, unrelated clans sharing the Wang surname exist. Just like how many unrelated individuals could all bear widespread family names like India’s Singh or Korea’s Kim, the various Wang clans all have different origins. The story of Bi Gan is the origin story of only one of these houses.

Antique map: Taiwan

How They Came to Taiwan

The Wang family name is most commonly found in northern China. But it is also widespread across the entire Chinese-speaking world. In Taiwan, it is the sixth most common surname. Lin, on the other hand, is mostly concentrated in China’s far south. From there, 17th-century immigrants brought them overseas to Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Today, Lin is the second most widespread Taiwanese family name—behind only Chen.

Back in the early first millennium AD, many ancient indigenous tribes—like the Yue kingdoms—in what is now southern China adopted Chinese surnames when they were absorbed into the Chinese empire. Similar trends continued in the early modern era when Taiwan’s own indigenous Austronesian peoples began adopting Chinese family names.

Through the Chinese diaspora, intermarriage and adoption by non-Chinese indigenous peoples, these names grew over the centuries. And that is how they came to be such widespread surnames in places like Taiwan.

Posted by:Island Folklore

An online repository of Taiwan’s folktales, history, legends, myths and traditions.