The distant past is shrouded by the mists of time.
While it is often challenging to ascertain definitively how a surname came about, several origin stories of the Seah family name exist.
In English, “Seah” is a transliteration of several different Chinese surnames, with different Chinese characters, with different origins.
Here, we are referring to 佘, which can be transliterated variously as Seah, Siah, Sia, She, Sheh, Shea, or even Xà. One common way to refer to this surname is Seah (dialect) or She (Mandarin).
How the Seah (佘) Family Name Came About
According to Tang Zongli’s Local Clan Communities in Rural China: Revolution and Urbanisation Since the Late Qing Dynasty, there are three possible origins for the Seah family name.
First, the surname could have come from the name of a place in China. During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), a mountain in Qingpu was called Sheshan (or Seah Mountain). To be more accurate, Sheshan should be described as a pair of hills. In this version of the origin story, residents adopted Sheshan’s name as their family name: Seah.
A Common Ancestor?
Second, the surname could have originated from another surname, Yu. In ancient China, there was originally no “Seah”, but there was “Yu”. In fact, the Chinese character Seah (佘) closely resembles Yu (余). As this version is compatible with most narratives surrounding the Seah clan’s origin story, there is likely a large degree of truth to this possibility of a common ancestor.
An Imperial Edict?
Third, a dramatic story goes that at the beginning of the Western Jin Dynasty (around 266 CE), Yu Zhaoyuan, a brave general, made meritorious military contributions that were recognised by the emperor.
When the general led his army to occupy and guard Yanmen Pass (Yanmenguan) in Shanxi, the emperor Sima Yan was overjoyed with his achievement, and appointed him Great General of Zhenhai and conferred upon him a new surname: Seah.
This story where the family name is conferred by imperial edict corroborates to some extent the second version of the origin story, namely that the Seah clan is related to the Yu clan.
Significantly, Seah genealogical books generally accept that Seah and Yu share a common ancestor. According to Tang Zongli, Seah clan bylaw states that Seah descendants are not allowed to marry anyone with the surname Yu. We can consider Tang’s personal knowledge and experience reliable, because during the Cultural Revolution, he was sent to Shecun (Seah Village), located on the south bank of the Zhang River. He lived surrounded by many Seahs for two years, closely observing Shecun’s clan life, traditions, and culture.
Traditional Origin Story
But Tang did not refer to what could be considered the Seah clan’s traditional origin story. This is the version that I have heard most often and one that is often repeated in Singapore.
In 323 CE, during the reign of Emperor Ming (Sima Shao) of the Eastern Jin Dynasty, Yu Feng satirised an official of the Jin Dynasty. To avoid being on the receiving end of trouble or repercussions, he changed his surname to Seah (by adjusting his surname, Yu, slightly).
He also changed his name, and became known as She Wan.
By doing so, She Wan essentially became the first grand ancestor to carry the Seah surname.
It is said that there are many genealogies in Fujian and Chaozhou that corroborate this account to varying degrees.
Interestingly, in this version of events, it is sometimes said that She Wan’s son was none other than She Zhaoyuan who was granted the title of General Zhenhai for his meritorious service in guarding Yanmen Pass.
One might correctly observe that the timelines for different personalities vary slightly for different versions of the origin stories. However, given the similarities shared by different stories, there would likely have been some truth to the events, even if they are not perfectly accurate.
Over the centuries, there arose many prominent Seah ancestors in China and beyond.
And among the most prominent ones in Singapore were Teochew leader Seah Eu Chin and his sons, like Seah Liang Seah and Seah Peck Seah. Many descendants would like to trace their roots and learn more about those who have come before them.
It is always interesting to peer into the past, through the mists of time. While there remains much to discover, re-discover, and recover, it is undeniable that the study of history and literature help us better understand our past.
Sources and Acknowledgements for the article on the Seah (佘) Surname
Tang Zongli, Local Clan Communities in Rural China: Revolution and Urbanisation Since the Late Qing Dynasty, New York: Routledge, 2021.
Seah Clan traditional oral history and genealogical book (zupu).
Background: A Brief Journey Through China’s History
Throughout history, there has been great interest in China’s history, with rigorous and heated debates as leaders, researchers, historians, and even genealogists or family historians try to make sense of the distant past.
The task is noble, but not an easy one. History is not neat and tidy, even as researchers define conventional historical periods, and generalise, simplify, or organise the complex and complicated past. And when new archaeological evidence emerges, new forms of understanding or reinterpretations of what the past was like emerge.
According to legend and tradition as recorded in Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, there were three Sovereigns and five Emperors (San Huang Wu Di) before the Xia Dynasty.
The Xia (c. 2070–1600 BCE) is generally considered as the first dynasty of ancient China, even though some modern historians regard it as semi-mythical, an invention of the Zhou (that came later) to justify their overthrow of the Shang, who were said to have overthrown the Xia. From what is known, there was a revolt against the Xia, who were defeated at the Battle of Mingtiao.
The Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BCE) was then established, the first dynasty with historical records remaining to this day. Given debates surrounding the Xia, the Shang is sometimes seen as the first of China’s dynasties. The Shang were supplanted by the Zhou Dynasty, after King Wu defeated the Shang at the Battle of Muye. The Zhou invoked a concept known as the “Mandate of Heaven” to legitimise their rule and justify why they had overthrown the Shang.
The Zhou Dynasty was divided into the Western Zhou (c. 1046–771 BCE), the Spring and Autumn period (771–476 BC), and the Warring States (475–221 BCE). The latter two periods are also known as the Eastern Zhou. Seven prominent states emerged: Qin, Zhao, Wei, Han, Chu, Qi, and Yan.
Qin was the eventual winner and unified the other states. Qin Shihuang became the first to use the title of emperor in China. Reaching deep into the traditional Chinese legend of San Huang Wu Di, the new title was intended to convey greater prestige and power than the kings who came before, and therefore should be more accurately interpreted as “holy emperor” or “divine sovereign”.
However, the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE) was soon replaced by the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) when rebel leader Liu Bang overthrew Qin Shihuang’s son. There was a short-lived Xin Dynasty (9–23 CE) established by a usurper, but it was soon overthrown and the Han Dynasty was restored in the form of the Eastern Han (or Later Han) Dynasty.
When the Han Dynasty declined, it fractured into the Three Kingdoms period (220–265) of Wei (or Cao Wei), Shu (or Shu Han), and Wu (or Dong Wu), followed by the Western Jin Dynasty (265–316/317), the Eastern Jin (317–420), and the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420–589) in turn. The next dynasty was the short-lived Sui Dynasty (581–618) that unified the Southern and Northern territories.
It was followed by the Tang Dynasty (618–907), widely regarded as the golden age for many achievements, such as poetry, painting, and woodblock printing.
After the Tang came a period of warring, followed by the Song Dynasty (960–1279). The Song was defeated by the Mongols under Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan. Kublai Khan founded the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368 CE), China’s first foreign-led dynasty ruled by Mongol tribes. Kublai Khan was simultaneously khagan of the Mongols and emperor of China.
The Yuan was deposed by the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the last dynasty ruled by Han Chinese.
The Manchu people of northeastern China defeated the Ming and established the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), the last imperial dynasty in China’s history. The Manchu were, and are, an ethnic minority with their own language and customs. At the zenith of the Qing, Emperor Kangxi (1661–1722), Emperor Yongzheng (1722–1735), and Emperor Qianlong (1735–1796) ruled a civilisation with around one-third of the world’s population; China was one of the largest economies in the world. It was during the period of the Qing that my direct ancestor Seah Eu Chin was born.
As an aside, according to Sir Song Ong Siang, Seah Eu Chin was born in 1805 and lived in the village of Guek-po (Yuepu) in the interior of Swatow within the sub-prefecture of Theng-hai (Chenghai). This was during the rule of the Jiaqing Emperor (1796–1820) and Qianlong had passed away several years earlier. Seah Eu Chin set sail for Singapore and arrived on the island’s sunny shores in 1823.
The revolution led by Sun Yat-sen ended the rule of the Qing and formed the Republic of China in 1912, before the subsequent establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, under the Communists.
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