Chinese origin of surnames
Prior to the Warring States Period (fifth century BC), only the royal family and the aristocratic elite could generally take surnames. Historically there was also difference between xing () and shi (). Xing were surnames held by the immediate royal family. They generally are composed of a n (, meaning “female”) radical which suggests that they originated from matriarchal societies based on maternal lineages. Another hypothesis has been proposed by sinologist Lon Vandermeersch upon observation of the evolution of characters in oracular scripture from the Shang dynasty through the Zhou. The “female” radical seems to appear at the Zhou period next to Shang sinograms indicating an ethnic group or a tribe. This combination seems to designate specifically a female and could mean “lady of such or such clan”. The structure of the xing sinogram could reflect the fact that in the royal court of Zhou, at least in the beginning, only females (wives married into the Zhou family from other clans) were called by their birth clan name, while the men were usually designated by their title or fief.
Prior to the Qin Dynasty (third century BC) China was largely a feudal society. As fiefdoms were divided and subdivided among descendants, so additional sub-surnames known as shi were created to distinguish between different seniority of lineages among the nobles though in theory they shared the same ancestor. In this way, a nobleman would hold a shi and a xing. After the states of China were unified by Qin Shi Huang in 221 BC, surnames gradually devolved to the lower classes and the difference between xing and shi blurred.
Shi surnames, many of which survive to the present day, usually from a/an:
Xing: These were usually reserved for the central lineage of the royal family, with collateral lineages taking their own shi. Of the six or so common xing, only Jiang () and Yao () have survived as frequently occurring surnames.
Royal decree by the Emperor, such as Kuang ().
State name: Many commoners took the name of their state, either to show their continuing allegiance or as a matter of national and ethnic identity. Common examples include Song (), Wu (/), Chen (/), Tan (/). Not surprisingly, due to the population size of the peasantry, these are some of the most common Chinese surnames.
Name of a fief or place of origin. Fiefdoms were often granted to collateral branches of the aristocracy and it was natural as part of the process of sub-surnaming for their names to be used. An example is Di, Marquis of Ouyangting, whose descendants took the surname Ouyang. There are some two hundred examples of this identified, often of two-character surnames, but few have survived to the present.
Names of an ancestor: Like the previous example, this was also a common origin with close to 500 or 600 examples, 200 of which are two-character surnames. Often an ancestor’s style name would be used. For example, Yuan Taotu took the second character of his grandfather’s style name Boyuan () as his surname. Sometimes titles granted to ancestors could also be taken as surnames.
Seniority within the family: In ancient usage, the characters of meng (), zhong (), shu () and ji () were used to denote the first, second, third and fourth eldest sons in a family. These were sometimes adopted as surnames. Of these, Meng is the best known, being the surname of the philosopher Mencius.
Occupation: These could arise from both official positions, as in the case of Sima (/), originally akin to “Minister of War”. They could also arise from more lowly occupations, as with Tao (), meaning “potter” or Wu (), meaning “shaman”.
Ethnic groups: Non-Han Chinese peoples in China sometimes took the name of their ethnic group as surname.
Distribution of surnames
Liang (), Luo (/), Kwong ()
Liang (), Lu (/)
Zheng (/), Lin (),Hsia ()
Xu (), Zhu ()
Mao (),Shen ()
Hu (), Liao ();
He (), Deng (/)
Dong () and Guo ()
Surnames are not evenly distributed throughout China’s geography. In northern China, Wang () is the most common surname, being shared by 9.9% of the population. Next are Li (), Zhang (/) and Liu (/). In the south, Chen (/) is the most common, being shared by 10.6% of the population. Next are Li (), Huang (), Lin () and Zhang (/). Around the major crossing points of the Yangtze River, the most common surname is Li (), taking up 7.7%, followed by Wang (), Zhang (/), Chen (/) and Liu (/).
A 1987 study showed over 450 family names in common use in Beijing, but there were fewer than 300 family names in Fujian.
A study by geneticist Yuan Yida has found that of all the people with a particular surname, there tends to be a population concentration in a certain province, as tabled to the right. It does not show, however, the most common surnames in any one province.
The 55th most common family name “Xiao” () appears to be very rare in Hong Kong. This is explained by the fact Hong Kong uses traditional Chinese characters not simplified Chinese characters. Originally, the surname (Xiao) was rather common while the surname (Xiao) was extremely rare, if not non-existent (it is mentioned only sporadically in historical texts). The first round of simplification in 1956 simplified into , keeping / and distinct. However the second-round in 1977, which has long been abolished, merged and into . Despite the retraction of the second round, some people have kept as their surname, so that there are now two separate surnames, and .
Chn (trad , simp ) is perhaps the most common surname in Hong Kong and Macau (romanized as Chan) and is also common in Taiwan (romanized as Chen). Fang (), which is only the 47th most common overall, is much more common in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the United States (more often romanized as Fong based on the Cantonese dialect). As with the concentration of family names, this can also be explained statistically, as a person with an uncommon name moving to an unsettled area and leaving his family name to large number of people.
After the Song Dynasty, surname distributions in China largely settled down. The Kwong family for example, migrated from the capital in the north and settled in Guangdong after the revolts of the Song Dynasty. Villages were often made up of a single patrilineage, being individuals with the same surname, often with a common male ancestor. They usually intermarried with others from nearby villages, creating genetic clusters.
Surnames at present
Of the thousands of surnames which have been identified from historical texts prior to the Han Dynasty, most have either been lost (via the Galtonatson process of extinction of family names) or simplified. In recent centuries some two-character surnames have often dropped a character. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, moreover, some surnames have been graphically simplified.
Although there are thousands of Chinese family names, the 100 most common surnames, which together make up less than 5% of those in existence, are shared by 85% of the population. The three most common surnames in Mainland China are Li, Wang and Zhang, which make up 7.9%, 7.4% and 7.1% respectively. Together they number close to 300 million and are easily the most common surnames in the world. In Chinese, the phrase “some Zhang, some Li” (Chinese: ; pinyin: zhng sn l s) is used to say “just anybody”.
In a 1990 study, the top 200 family names accounted for over 96% of a random sample of 174,900 persons, with over 500 other names accounting for the remaining 4%. In a different study (1987), which combined data from Taiwan and mainland China (sample size of 570,000 persons), the top 19 names covered 55.6% , and the top 100 names covered 87% of the sample. Other data suggest that the top 50 names comprise 70% of the population.
Most commonly occurring Chinese family names have only one character; however, about twenty double-character family names have survived into modern times. These include Sima (, simp. ), Zhuge (, simp. ), Ouyang (, simp. ), occasionally romanized as O’Young, suggesting an Irish origin to English-speakers), and Situ (or Sito ). There are family names with three or more characters, but those are not ethnically Han Chinese. For example, Aixinjueluo (, also romanized from the Manchu language as Aisin Gioro), was the family name of the Manchu royal family of the Qing dynasty.
Transliteration of Chinese family names (see List of common Chinese surnames) into foreign languages poses a number of problems. Chinese surnames are shared by people speaking a number of dialects and languages which often have different pronunciations of their surnames. The Chinese diaspora into all parts of the world resulted in the Romanization of the surnames based on different languages. As a result, it is common for the same surname to be transliterated differently. In certain dialects, different surnames could be homonyms so it is common for family names to appear ambiguous when transliterated. Example: / (pinyin:Zheng) can be romanised into Chang, Cheng, Chung, Teh, Tay, Tee, Tsang, Zeng or Zheng, (in pinyin, Chang, Cheng, Zheng and Zeng are all different names). Translating Chinese surnames from foreign transliteration often presents ambiguity. For example, the surname “Li” are all mandarin-based pinyin tranliteration for the surnames (L); , and (L); /, , /, and (L) depending on the tone which are often omitted in foreign transliterations.
Examples of variations in romanisation
Due to the different pronunciation and romanisations, it is generally easy to tell whether a Chinese person has origins in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Southeast Asia including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. In general people from China will have both their surnames and names in pinyin. Those from Taiwan use Wade-Giles romanisation. People from Southeast Asia (mainly Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines) and Hong Kong usually base their romanisation of surnames and names on Min, Hakka and Cantonese dialects. The younger generation from Singapore predominantly have their surname in dialect and given name in English.
There are also people who use non-standard romanisations, eg the Hong Kong media mogul Run Run Shaw’s surname is spelt as Shaw, pinyin: Shao. The use of different systems of romanisation based on different Chinese language variants during the 1900~1970 also contributed to the variations.
Min Nan (Hokkien)/ Teochew (Malaysia/Singapore)
Cantonese (Hong Kong)
arrange; exhibit; narrate; tell; old; stale; to state; to display; to explain
gate, gateway, mountain pass; to close; to shut; to turn off; to concern; to involve
carry; what; how; why; which
to allow; to permit; to praise
a measure word for flat objects like paper or tables; open up
Malaysia/Singapore/Indonesia/Philippines: various spellings are used depending on name origin. Please refer to the List of common Chinese surnames for the different spellings and more examples.
The sociological use of surnames
Throughout most of Chinese history, surnames have served sociological functions. Because of their association with the aristocratic elite in their early developments, surnames were often used as symbols of nobility. Thus nobles would use their surnames to be able to trace their ancestry and compete for seniority in terms of hereditary rank. Examples of early genealogies among the royalty can be found in Sima Qian’s Historical Records, which contain tables recording the descent lines of noble houses called shibiao (Chinese: ; pinyin: shbio).
Later, during the Han Dynasty, these tables were used by prominent families to glorify themselves and sometimes even to legitimise their political power. For example, Cao Pi, who forced the abdication of the last Han emperor in his favour, claimed descent from the Yellow Emperor. Chinese emperors sometimes passed their own surnames to subjects as honours. Unlike European practice in which some surnames are obviously noble, Chinese emperors and members of the royal family had regular surnames except in cases where they came from non-Han ethnic groups. This was a result of Chinese imperial theory in which a commoner could receive the Mandate of Heaven and become emperor. Upon becoming emperor, the emperor would retain his original surname. Also as a consequence, many people also had the same surname as the emperor, but had no direct relation to the royal family.
The Tang Dynasty was the last period when the great aristocratic families, mostly descended from the nobility of pre-Qin states, held significant centralised and regional power. The surname was used as a source of prestige and common allegiance. During the period a large number of genealogical records called pudie (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: pdi) were compiled to trace the complex descent lines of clans and their marriage ties to other clans. A large number of these were collected by Ouyang Xiu in his New History of Tang.
During the Song Dynasty, ordinary clans began to organise themselves into corporate units and produce genealogies. This trend was led by the poet Su Shi and his father. As competition for resources and positions in the bureaucracy intensified, individuals used their common ancestry and surname to promote solidarity. They established schools to educate their sons and held common lands to aid disadvantaged families. Ancestral temples were also erected to promote surname identity. Clan cohesion was usually encouraged by successive imperial governments since it aided in social stability. During the Qing Dynasty surname associations often undertook extrajudicial roles, providing primitive legal and social security functions. They played important roles in the Chinese diaspora to South-East Asia and elsewhere, providing the infrastructure for the establishment of trading networks. In southern China, however, clans sometimes engaged in armed conflict in competition for land. Of course, clans continued the tradition of tracing their ancestry to the distant past as a matter of prestige. Most of these origin myths, though well established, are spurious.
As a result of the importance of surnames, rules and traditions regarding family and marriage grew increasingly complex. For example, in Taiwan, there is a clan with the so-called “double Liao” surname. The story is that “Chang Yuan-zih of Liao in Siluo married the only daughter of Liao San-Jiou-Lang who had no son, and he took the oath that he should be in the name of Liao when alive and should be in the name of Chang after death.” In some places, there are additional taboos against marriage between people of the same surname, considered to be closely related. Conversely, in some areas, there are different clans with the same surname which are not considered to be related, but even in these cases surname exogamy is generally practiced.
Surname identity and solidarity has declined markedly since the 1930s with the decline of Confucianism and later, the rise of Communism in Mainland China. During the Cultural Revolution, surname culture was actively persecuted by the government with the destruction of ancestral temples and genealogies. Moreover, the influx of Western culture and forces of globalisation have also contributed to erode the previous sociological uses of the Chinese surnames.
Common Chinese surnames
Main article: List of common Chinese surnames
According to a study by Li Dongming (), a Chinese historian, as published in the article “Surname” () in Dongfang Magazine () (1977), the common Chinese surnames are:
Top 10 surnames, which together account for about 40% of Chinese people in the world. Many surnames have various ways of romanization, the following listed spellings include Hanyu Pinyin (first listed), which is the standard in the PRC, and other commonly used spellings.
Li/Lee , Wang/Wong , Zhang/Chang/Cheung /, Zhao/Chao/Chiu /, Chen/Chan /, Yang/Young/Yeung /, Wu/Woo/Ng /, Liu/Lau /, Huang/Wong /, Zhou/Chou/Chow
The 11th to 20th common surnames, which together account for more than 10% of Chinese people in the world:
Xu/Hsu/Tsui , Zhu/Chu , Lin/Lam , Sun/Suen /, Ma /, Gao/Kao/Ko , Hu/Wu , Zheng/Cheng /, Guo/Kuo/Kwok , Xiao/Siu/Hsiao/Siew //
The 21st to 30th common surnames, which together account for about 10% of Chinese people in the world:
Xie/Hsieh/Cheu/Hsia/Tse /, He/Ho , Xu/Hsu/Hui /, Song/Soong/Sung , Shen/Shum , Luo/Lo/Law /, Han/Hon /, Deng/Teng/Tang /, Liang/Leung , Ye/Yeh/Yip/Ip /
The next 15 common surnames, which together account for about 10% of Chinese people in the world:
Fang/Fong , Cui/Tsui/Chui , Cheng an/Poon , Cao/Cho , Feng/Fung /, Wang/Wong , Cai/Choi , Yuan/Yuen , Lu/Lo /, Tang/Tong , Qian/Chien/Chin /, Du/To , Peng/Pang , Lu/Luk /
Chinese compound surname
Chinese given name
Chinese style name
Hundred Family Surnames
List of common Chinese surnames
Naming laws in the People’s Republic of China
Top 100 Chinese surnames
Top 19 surnames, and estimated population, with chart
Chinese Surnames (Simplified), with sound
Chinese-sounding surnames in the 1990 US census
Chinese family name information from the US National Archives
Meaning Behind 19 Most Common Chinese Surnames
The Ten-Thousand Families of Surnames from Netor (NETOR:) (in simplified Chinese only)
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