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What is the origin of the name 'Nguyễn'?

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My comprehensive dictionary lists Nguyễn only as “family name, name of a dynasty”

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The Vietnamese originally have no Family name.

We might have family names when the Chinese from the north come to live with us. Later on, when the Chinese put their control over the Vietnamese, all Vietnamese should have family names. Of course, all names are written in Chinese. The Vietnamese language and names are not very much like Chinese language, then we have to choose the sounds that best alike between two languages. The Vietnamese have all family names as the Chinese. Among them, there is family name Nguyen 阮 as it is Ruan in Mandarin or Jyun in Cantonese, or Ngiôn in Hakka.

The last Vietnamese King is Nguyen Anh. He allowed people to take Nguyen as their last name, and persecuted enemies who had another last names, that made many people put Nguyen on as their family name. Nguyen become the most popular last name in the Vietnamese people.

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There are a few interpretations of the name

The name Nguyen can be a boy or girls name of Vietnamese origin meaning "sleep". (I’ve also heard it means “origin”). And I’m not sure if it has the same meaning to both a boy and a girl?

Nguyen can be a first name or a second (surname)

The given name Nguyen appeals to parents who seek a name with genuine depth. A daring name, Nguyen possesses great character. Nguyen is unique yet compelling due to its enchanting and mesmerizing nature.

Nguyen - Wikipedia

Nguyen is the most common surname in Vietnam -- an estimated 40 percent of people in the country (and the Vietnamese diaspora) carry the name, according to Vietnam's Tuoi Tre News. Given that the global Vietnamese population totals about 94 million people, this means that some 38 million of them answer to "Nguyen."

The surname Nguyen is believed to have originated in the Chinese surname "Ruan" (in the Mandarin language) or Yuen (Cantonese), owing to China’s long relationship with Vietnam.

By the early 19th century century, the Nguyen Dynasty seized power in Vietnam (which unified the country), prompting yet another wave of surname changes and adoptions.

That dynasty, which "awarded" their surname to many people, ruled the country until the end of World War II.

Dr. Quang Phu Van of the Council on Southeast Asia Studies at Yale University also said that throughout Vietnamese history, due to dynastic changes, clans of royalty and loyal subjects changed their family names to protect their identity in order to avoid persecution by the new rulers.

“Others adopted the Nguyen name for political and personal reasons, including opportunities for jobs, privileges, power, affiliation, and so forth,” he added.

As such, the surname Nguyen does not necessarily denote one's regional origins, class or even lineage. “The surname itself has nothing to do with social class, unless it's combined with, say, Phúc which is a combination of [the names of] the last royal family,” said Dr. Nguyen-vo Thu-huong, associate professor in the departments of Asian Languages and Cultures and Asian American Studies at University of California, Los Angeles.

Given the proliferation of Nguyen’s in Vietnamese society, one might conclude that this would create much confusion and chaos in daily discourse. However, this scenario is largely avoided by the Vietnamese custom -- adopted from the Chinese -- of addressing people by their last name (that is, what is considered the 'first' or personal name in western society).

Most Vietnamese have three names -- the surname (or clan name), followed by a middle name, ending with the personal name. For example, with respect to the previous Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, his family surname is "Nguyen," his middle name is "Tan," and his personal name is "Dung."

Unlike western custom, the Prime Minister is usually referred to as 'Dung' (or 'Mr. Dung') in the media and even in formal occasions. In some cases, he may be referred to as 'Tan-Dung.' (Also, some Vietnamese use dual surnames to further alleviate any confusion).

Current Prime Minister of Vietnam - Nguyễn Xuân Phúc


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Nguyen in full Vietnamese is Nguyễn 阮. This current Vietnamese pronunciation is matched with Middle Chinese reconstructed pronunciation (later Han, Tang, Song). The people of Song dynasty was the last dynasty people who was able to pronounce as Nguyễn along with Vietnamese (Mongolian defeated Song dynasty, beginning a significant change in Chinese language). Nguyễn was associated with “nguyên, nguồn” (head, first, origin). Last name Nguyễn originated in ancient time along with Shang dynasty. Vietnamese legends had the story of "Thánh Gióng" that talked about the country named Văn Lang 文郎国 under Hùng King had fought against "giặc Ân" . Ân Thương (殷商) was another name for Shang dynasty (商朝). In Vietnamese legend history also talked about this lake: Hồ Động Đình Dongting Lake - Wikipedia as the birthplace of the first Hùng King. The radical symbol “phụ, fù” 阝(阜) on the left means mound; abundant, ample, numerous.

阮 - Wiktionary

From Nguyên (“ first ; original ”). Wikipedia

Pronunciations for 元 in Middle Chinese (from 元 to 元)

Oracle bone and bronze script


In conclusion, Nguyên 元 without tone means “head, first, source, origin, beginning”. Nguyễn 阮 with tone becomes a last name of the most abundant members of Vietnamese identity and one among the oldest name in South Eastern language. The character 阝means abundant, numerous. It becomes true for the current Vietnamese population. (Updated)

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Nguyen is a common last name and I don’t think the last name have any meaning in Vietnam. It tells us you come from your family that your father or your mother or both have the same last name as yours. It can tell us what your ancestor or origin are (we don’t bother that). Or it just a proof that you relate to your family. Maybe the middle name and first name have a meaning based on how our parent names it, but the last name has to stick close to the family tree.

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I guess 'Nguyen' probably has something to do with the Chinese name '阮' or Ruan , whose old Chinese pronunciation may be 'Ngyuan' or 'Ngon'.

Additionally, This Vietnamese name is always being translated into '阮' in Chinese. For example, Ho Chi Minh (胡志明) was once called Nguyen Ai Quoc (阮爱国).

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So first, Nguyễn is not a name but a family name. It can be Nguyễn Phúc Ánh or Nguyễn Đắc Duy, etc.

As for why many Vietnamese use “Nguyễn”, the above answer has mentioned that people changed it to indicate their loyalty to the Nguyễn Dynasty back in the 19th and 20th century.

However, the roots of the surname “Nguyễn” come from far in the past, in many occasions. Mostly they were about the members of a fallen family or dynasty changing their name in order to avoid executions. Take the “Lý” for example, after the “Trần” took over as the ruler of Viet Nam, they had to change their surname to “Nguyễn” because Trần Thủ Độ - the prime minister at the time were hunting down “Lý” people to prevent dissents.

Moreover, it is a habit of the Emperor to grant people who contribute to the country their surname. And since many ruling families of Vietnam have the leader whose surname is “Nguyễn” (e.g. Tây Sơn - Nguyễn Huệ, Nguyễn Quang Toản; the Nguyễn Lord and the Nguyễn Dynasty), it can be fairly safe to assume that this is one of the reasons why many of the population have a Nguyễn family name.

Below, a graph of the Vietnamese Surname. You can see that “Nguyễn” takes up 39% of the population.

Mine is Đoàn thou -_- Which is nowhere to be seen whilst my mom’s Võ is about 4%.


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May you talk about “nguyễn”? the most popular last name in Vietnam, many memes or jokes followed this fact. Well, actually no one uses it nowaday as daily communication, and may be more than 99% people dont know what its mean. Like some names of western country like Donald or Robert,…..

“nguyễn”also was name of an ancient musical instrument, and of course, no one uses it today. Fact: almost every name of people or place in Vietnam’s meaningful but using ancient Viet language, for now we dont use it much, many words’re going to be forgotten.

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What does “Nguyen” actually mean?

The narrative upstair by Mr. T. Nguyen has covered a fair amount of information. Nevertheless, allow me to add a few interesting meanings to the family name “Nguyen”.

1. Vietnam has the largest number of the Nguyen’s in the world, totalling 35M (almost 40% of Vietnam’s population). In comparison, China has only 1.1M, most of whom live in the province just north of Vietnam.

2. The cause for this exceedingly high 40% concentration in Vietnam was started by an odd decree in 1232AD, when the Tran Dynasty had overthrown the Ly Dynasty, the new king ordered everyone with the family name Ly in the country to be reregistered as Nguyen! (It proved to be a bad policy because you let your arch rivals disappear from your radar.)

3. At the time Nguyen was not yet a big family in Vietnam; no apparent reason was known for its being downgraded for “losers”. But subsequently after a series of regime changes, Nguyen was also adopted by many families in order to skip persecution or retaliation.

4. After enough people had been re-named as Nguyen, many of whom had already possessed good “political genes” during their previous life, a powerful Nguyen Dynasty would pop up sooner or later. And it indeed happened in 1802.

5. After that, more Nguyen had been added during the next 80 years, either for rewards of loyalty by the court, or for social climbing by the ambitious type, or for escaping detection by the criminals.

6. Then the last regime change happened in 1883, when Vietnam had became a French Ptotectorate. But even more Nguyen were added, because a French decree had ordered all people without a family name to become Nguyen. This last addition had included all poor people and those at the bottom of the social scale in Vietnam.

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It has to do with Nguyen Dynasty, the last dynasty of Vietnam who ruled between 1802–1945.


The last dynasty of Vietnam who ruled is called the Nguyen Dynasty. The dynasty ruled the whole area Vietnam effectively between 1802 and 1945. It ruled independently until 1883 when Vietnam became French Protectorate and Vietnam was divided into three different areas of Tonkin (in the north), Annam (in the central Vietnam), and Cochinchina (in the south).

It was a common practice among Vietnamese people to change their surnames into Nguyen to indicate their loyalties to the Nguyen Dynasty.

Other than that, there are also some indications that people with the surnames Nguyen are descendants of the Nguyen royal family as it was a common practice among the emperors in the past to have so many concubines. Hence, there are many offsprings who were born from an emperor.

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