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A style name is an alternative name that one uses upon reaching adulthood.
The idea behind this is that one’s given name should be respected and not used lightly.
In China, just as in the West, children take the surname of their father.
And just a Mr Smith does not have to have any connection to the profession of smiths, Chinese surnames carry little meaning even though long ago they may have referred to something concrete.
From the ancient document The Book of Rites, we know that it has been a tradition since the early Zhou dynasty that one receives a name at childhood and a style when he is 20 years old, at the coming of age ceremony known as the “capping ceremony”.
In an edict announcing the naming of his four sons, Sun Xiu, the third emperor of the Wu kingdom, sums up this tradition nicely: “People have names, so that they can be told apart from one another.
While it is all right for a teacher or a friend to pick the name, it is wrong for a father or older brother to do it.
Picking one’s own style is simply the ultimate lack of decency.” A father would not be able to use his son’s style, nor could one refer to himself by his own style.
Individuals are officially referred to by their surname and their given name (in that order), thus Liu Bei has the surname “Liu” and the given name “Bei”.
Although this anecdote, written sometime during the Wei/early Jin dynasty, cannot be a true story (the presence of Guan Yu in Shu in this tale is not consistent with historical facts), it nonetheless shows that during the Three Kingdoms period it was offensive to address one’s lord by their style.
As friendly as Liu Bei and Ma Chao could be to one another, they are first and foermost lord and vassal, and Ma Chao’s addressing Liu Bei by his style is overly presumptious.
There is a anecdote about how Ma Chao, after joining Liu Bei in Shu, often addressed Liu Bei by his style name.
This infuriated Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, and the two pleaded with Liu Bei to let them kill Ma Chao (2).