Chinese surname

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A Chinese family name is one of the thousands of family names that have been historically used by Han Chinese and Sinicized Chinese ethnic groups in mainland China, Taiwan, and among overseas Chinese communities. In ancient times only aristocrats had surnames; two types of surnames, family names (Chinese: ; pinyin: xìng) denoting ancestral lineage and clan names (氏; pinyin: shì), derived from the subdivision of fiefdoms into sub-lineages, were used. After the states of China were unified by Qin Shi Huang in 221 B.C.E., surnames gradually devolved to the lower classes and the difference between xing and shi blurred. Surnames were derived from the names of ancestors, places of origin, occupation, and titles bestowed by emperors. Of the thousands of surnames which have been identified from historical texts prior to the Han Dynasty, most have either been lost or simplified.

Chinese surnames have served a number of sociological purposes throughout history, allowing candidates competing for civil service jobs to claim noble ancestry, and becoming the basis for the formation of groups that provided education and welfare services for their members. The three most common surnames in Mainland China, Li, Wang and Zhang account for almost 300 million people and are easily the most common surnames in the world. Chinese family names are patrilineal, passed from father to children. Chinese women typically retain their maiden names after marriage. In writing Chinese, the surname precedes the first name. Romanization and transliteration of Chinese surnames into other languages has given rise to confusion over identity.

Origin of Chinese surnames

Prior to the Warring States Period (fifth century B.C.E.), only the royal family and the aristocratic elite in China used surnames. Until the Qin Dynasty (third century B.C.E.), while China was largely a feudal society, both family names (Chinese: ; pinyin: xìng) and clan names (; pinyin: shì), were used.

Xing were surnames held by the immediate royal family. They are generally composed of a nü (女, meaning "female") radical, suggesting that they originated from matriarchal societies based on maternal lineages. Sinologist Léon Vandermeersch has proposed another hypothesis based upon observation of the evolution of characters in oracular scripture from the Shang dynasty through the Zhou. The "female" radical seems to appear during the Zhou period next to Shang sinograms indicating an ethnic group or a tribe. This combination seems to specifically designate 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.

As fiefdoms were divided and subdivided among descendants, additional sub-surnames known as shi were created to distinguish among the lineages of differing seniority of nobles who shared the same ancestor. A nobleman would hold a shi and a xing surname indicating his ancestor and his sub-lineage. After the states of China were unified by Qin Shi Huang in 221 B.C.E., 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 derive from:

  1. Xing: Names 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 (姜) and Yao (姚) have survived as frequently occurring surnames.
  2. Royal decree by the Emperor, such as Kwong (鄺).
  3. 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 (宋), Wu (吴/吳), Chen (陈/陳), and Tan (譚/谭). Since the peasant population was so large, these are some of the most common Chinese surnames.
  4. Name of a fief or place of origin. The names of fiefdoms granted to collateral branches of the aristocracy naturally became incorporated in sub-surnames. An example is Di, Marquis of Ouyangting, whose descendants took the surname Ouyang. About two hundred examples, often of two-character surnames, have been identified, but few have survived to the present.
  5. Name of an ancestor: Like the previous example, this was also a common origin of Chinese surnames. There are 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 (伯爰) as his surname. Sometimes titles granted to ancestors were also taken as surnames.
  6. Seniority within the family: In ancient usage, the characters of meng (孟), zhong (仲), shu (叔) and ji (季) 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.
  7. Occupation: These could arise from official positions, such as Sima (司马/司馬), originally "Minister of War; or from more lowly occupations, such as Tao (陶), meaning "potter" or Wu (巫), meaning "shaman."
  8. Ethnic groups: Non-Chinese peoples in China sometimes took the name of their ethnic group as surname. The best example is Hu (胡), which originally referred to all "barbarian" groups on the northern frontier of China.

Distribution of surnames

Province Surnames
Guangdong Liang (梁), Luo (罗/羅), Kwong (鄺)
Guangxi Liang (梁), Lu (陆/陸)
Fujian Zheng (郑/鄭), Lin (林),Hsia (謝)
Anhui Wang (汪)
Jiangsu Xu (徐), Zhu (朱)
Zhejiang Mao (毛),Shen (沈)
Jiangxi Hu (胡), Liao (廖);
Hubei Hu (胡)
Hunan Tan (谭/譚);
Sichuan He (何), Deng (邓/鄧)
Guizhou Wu (吴/吳)
Yunnan Yang (杨/楊)
Henan Cheng (程)
Gansu Gao (高)
Ningxia Wan (万/萬)
Shaanxi Xue (薛)
Qinghai Bao (鲍/鮑)
Xinjiang Ma (马/馬)
Shandong Kong (孔)
Shanxi Dong (董) and Guo (郭)
Inner Mongolia Pan (潘)
Northeast China Yu (于)

Surnames are not evenly distributed throughout China's geography. In northern China, Wang (王) is the most common surname, being shared by 9.9 percent of the population. Next are Li (李), Zhang (张/張) and Liu (刘/劉). In the south, Chen (陈/陳) is the most common, being shared by 10.6 percent of the population. Next are Li (李), Huang (黄), Lin (林) and Zhang (张/張). Around the major crossing points of the Yangtze River, the most common surname is Li (李), accounting for 7.7 percent of the population, followed by Wang (王), Zhang (张/張), Chen (陈/陳) and Liu (刘/劉).

A 1987 study showed over 450 family names in common use in Beijing, but there were fewer than 300 family names in Fujian.[1]

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" (肖) appears to be very rare in Hong Kong. This is explained by the fact that Hong Kong uses traditional Chinese characters, not simplified Chinese characters. Originally, the surname 蕭 (Xiao) was rather common while the surname 肖 (Xiao) was extremely rare, if not non-existent (it is mentioned only sporadically in historical texts). The first round of simplification in 1956 simplified 蕭 into 萧, keeping 蕭, /萧 and 肖 distinct. However the second round in 1977, which has long been abolished, merged 萧 and 肖 into 肖. Despite the retraction of the second round, some people have kept 肖 as their surname, so that there are now two separate surnames, 萧 and 肖.

Chén (trad 陳, simp 陈) is perhaps the most common surname in Hong Kong and Macau (romanized as Chan) and is also common in Taiwan (romanized as Chen). Fang (方), 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 in a specific province, this can be explained statistically, by 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.

Chinese surnames today

The colloquial expressions lao bai xing (老百姓; lit. "old hundred surnames"), and bǎi xìng (百姓, lit. "hundred surnames") are used in Chinese to mean "ordinary folks," "the people," or "commoners." Bǎi jiā xìng (百家姓) is also used to call the list of one hundred most common surnames.

Of the thousands of surnames which have been identified from historical texts prior to the Han Dynasty, most have either been lost or simplified. In recent centuries some two-character surnames have 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 percent of those in existence, are shared by 85 percent of the population. The three most common surnames in Mainland China are Li, Wang and Zhang, which make up 7.9 percent, 7.4 percent and 7.1 percent respectively. Together they account for close to 300 million people and are easily the most common surnames in the world.

In a 1990 study, the top 200 family names accounted for over 96 percent of a random sample of 174,900 persons, with over 500 other names accounting for the remaining 4 percent. 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 percent, and the top 100 names covered 87 percent of the sample.[2] Other data suggests that the top 50 names comprise 70 percent of the population.

Most commonly occurring Chinese family names have only one character; however, about 20 double-character family names have survived into modern times. These include Sima (司馬, simp. 司马), Zhuge (諸葛, simp. 诸葛), Ouyang (歐陽, simp. 欧阳), occasionally romanized as O'Young, suggesting an Irish origin to English-speakers), and Situ (or Sito 司徒). There are family names with three or more characters, but those are not ethnically Han Chinese. For example, Aixinjueluo (愛新覺羅, 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 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: 鄭/郑 (pinyin: Zheng) can be romanized into Chang, Cheng, Chung, Teh, Tay, Tee, 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" is a Mandarin-based pinyin transliteration for the surnames 黎 (Lí); 李, 理 and 里 (Lǐ); 郦, 酈, 栗, 厉, 厲, and 利 (Lì) depending on the tone of pronunciation, which is often disregarded in foreign transliterations.

Examples of variations in Romanization

Due to the different pronunciation and Romanizations, it is generally easy to tell whether a Chinese person has origins in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Southeast Asia including Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. In general people from mainland China will have both their surnames and names in pinyin. Those from Taiwan use Wade-Giles romanization. People from Southeast Asia (mainly Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia) and Hong Kong usually base their romanization of surnames and names on Min, Hakka and Cantonese dialects. The younger generation from Singapore predominantly have their surnames in dialect and names in pinyin.

There are also people who use non-standard Romanizations; for example, the Hong Kong media mogul 邵逸夫 Run Run Shaw's surname 邵 is spelled as Shaw, pinyin: Shao. The use of different systems of romanization based on different Chinese language variants between 1900~1970 also contributed to the variations.


Written form Pinyin Wade-Giles Min Nan (Hokkien)/ Cantonese (Malaysia/Singapore) Cantonese (Hong Kong) English meaning
陈/陳Chen Ch'enTan Chan arrange; exhibit; narrate; tell; old; stale; to state; to display; to explain
关/ 關Guan KuanKwang/KuangKwan gate, gateway, mountain pass; to close; to shut; to turn off; to concern; to involve
HeHoHo/HoeHocarry; what; how; why; which
Huang HuangOoi/Oei/Wee/NgWongsulfur; yellow
简/ 簡JianChien Kan/Gansimple
LinLinLimLamwoods; forest
吴/ 吳Wu WuGohNgWu
许/ 許XuHsüKohHui/Huato allow; to permit; to praise
张/ 張Zhang ChangTeo/ChongCheunga measure word for flat objects like paper or tables; open up
赵/ 趙Zhao ChaoChew Chiu

Malaysia/Singapore/Indonesia: some people use Pinyin or other spellings depending on their origin.


In writing Chinese names, Chinese family names are placed before given names, for example, Cheung Kwok Wing. The Western concept of first name and last name creates confusion when used with Chinese names. In Westernized Asian countries or for those residing in the West, a Western name is often chosen, for example, Leslie Cheung (張國榮). When the Western name and Chinese name are put together, it often becomes hard to tell what the family name is. Using Leslie Cheung as an example, some variants include:

  • Zhāng Guóróng—China, transcription using official Hanyu pinyin system, which Romanizes Mandarin pronunciation of Chinese characters and adds suprasegmental tone markers.
  • Cheung Kwok-wing—Hong Kong (Cantonese-speaking), romanization of Cantonese pronunciation of Chinese characters.
  • Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing—Hong Kong, hybrid of Western/Chinese.
  • Leslie Kwok-wing Cheung—United States among others, the Chinese given name 'Kwok-wing' is used as a middle name.

Some publications and legal documents will print the family name in small capital letters to allow it to be easily distinguished, e.g. Leslie Cheung Kwok Wing. When no official romanization exists, translators often will use the transliteration that best fits with the locale where the person originated. For example, the pinyin transcription would be used for a person from Mainland China; Wade-Giles for someone from Taiwan; and a Cantonese-based romanization for someone from Hong Kong.

Chinese family names are patrilineal, passed from father to children. (In cases of adoption, the adoptee usually also takes the same surname.) Chinese women typically retain their maiden names after marriage. Outside of Mainland China they will sometimes place their husbands' family names in front of theirs. For example, former Chief Secretary for Administration of Hong Kong, Mrs. Anson Chan is known as Chan Fang On-sang (陳方安生) where Fang is her maiden name. It is thus, technically possible for a married woman to have a six-character full name if both she and her husband have compounded surnames such as in this hypothetical example: 歐陽司徒美英 or Mrs. Au-Yeung Szeto Mei-ying. Most Hong Kong women retain their own surnames after marriage, but they may choose to be known as Mrs. (husband's surname).

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 development, surnames were often employed as symbols of nobility. Nobles would use their surnames to trace their ancestries 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: 世表; pinyin: shìbiǎo).

Later, during the Han Dynasty, these tables were used by prominent families to glorify themselves and sometimes even to legitimize their political power. For example, Cao Pi, who forced the abdication of the last Han emperor in his favor, claimed descent from the Yellow Emperor. Chinese emperors sometimes passed their own surnames to subjects as an honor. 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 according to which a commoner could receive the Mandate of Heaven and become emperor. Upon becoming emperor, the emperor would retain his original surname. As a consequence, many people had the same surname as the emperor, but had no direct relation to the royal family.

The Tang Dynasty was the last period during which the great aristocratic families, mostly descended from the nobility of pre-Qin states, held significant centralized and regional power. The surname was a source of prestige and common allegiance. During this period a large number of genealogical records called pudie (Simplified Chinese: 谱牒; Traditional Chinese: 譜牒; pinyin: pǔdié) 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 organize 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 encouraged by successive imperial governments because it promoted social stability. During the Qing Dynasty surname associations often undertook extra-judicial roles, providing primitive legal and social security functions. They played important roles in the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, providing an 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. According to the story, the founder of the clan was adopted and took the surname Liao, but in honor of his ancestors, he demanded that he be buried with the surname Chen. As a result, his descendants use the surname Liao while alive and the surname Chen after death. In some places, there are additional taboos against marriage between people of the same surname because they are considered to be closely related. Conversely, in some areas, different clans with the same surname 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, and ancestral temples and genealogies were destroyed. The influx of Western culture and forces of globalization have contributed to erode the previous sociological uses of the Chinese surname.

Common Chinese surnames

According to a study by Li Dongming (李栋明), a Chinese historian, as published in the article "Surname" (姓) in Dongfang Magazine (东方杂志) (1977), the common Chinese surnames are:

Top ten surnames, which together account for about 40 percent of Chinese people in the world. Many surnames have various ways of romanization, the following listed spellings include Hanyu Pinyin, which is the standard in the PRC and Singapore, and other commonly used spellings.

Li/Lee 李, Wang/Wong 王, Zhang/Chang 張/张, Zhao/Chao 趙/赵, Chen/Chan 陳/陈, Yang/Young 楊/杨, Wu 吳/吴, Liu 劉/刘, Huang/Wong 黃/黄, Zhou/Chow 周

The 11th to 20th common surnames, which together account for more than 10 percent of Chinese people in the world:

Xu/Hsu 徐, Zhu/Chu 朱, Lin/Lam 林, Sun 孫/孙, Ma 馬/马, Gao/Kao 高, Hu 胡, Zheng 鄭/郑, Guo 郭, Xiao/Siu/Hsiao/Siew 蕭/萧/肖

The 21st to 30th common surnames, which together account for about 10 percent of Chinese people in the world:

Xie/Hsieh/Cheu/Hsia 謝/谢, He/Ho 何, Xu/Hsu 許/许, Song/Soong 宋, Shen 沈, Luo 羅/罗, Han 韓/韩, Deng 鄧/邓, Liang 梁, Ye 葉/叶

The next 15 common surnames, which together account for about 10 percent of Chinese people in the world:

Fang/Fong 方, Cui 崔, Cheng 程、Pan 潘, Cao 曹, Feng 馮/冯, Wang 汪, Cai 蔡, Yuan 袁, Lu 盧/卢, Tang 唐, Qian 錢/钱, Du 杜, Peng 彭, Lu 陸/陆

See also

  • Japanese name
  • Korean name


  1. List of Most Common Surnames - China Retrieved August 7, 2008
  2. Sun Bin, Chinese and Korean Family Names Retrieved August 7, 2008

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Chao, Sheau-yueh J. In search of your Asian roots: genealogical research on Chinese surnames. Baltimore, MD: Reprinted for Clearfield Co. by Genealogical Pub. Co. 2000. ISBN 0806349468 (in English)
  • Chung, Yoon-Ngan, Voon-Li Chung, Soo-Ming Chung, and Jeffrey Simmonds. The origin of Chinese surnames = Hua ren xing shi de lai yuan. Nedlands, W.A.: Yoon-Ngan Chung through Rio Bay Publishing. 2000. ISBN 1876763663
  • Fang, Basilia. A short summary of Chinese family names and first names: with simplified characters and Wade-Giles transcription throughout ; Eine kurze Zusammenfassung der chinesischen Familien- und Personennamen in alphabetischer Reihenfolge nach Pinyin geordnet. [Vienna]: B. Fang. 1996.
  • Jones, Russell. Chinese names: the traditions surrounding the use of Chinese surnames and personal names. Petaling Jaya, Selangor Darul Ehsan, Malaysia: Pelanduk Publications. 1997. ISBN 9679786196
  • Kiang, Kang-hu. Genealogy and origin of Chinese family names. Sciangai: s.n. 1942.
  • Law, Yip-wang. The Origins of Chinese family names. Distributed by Hawaii Chinese History Center. Los Angeles, CA?: J. Mei?. 1983.
  • United States. Chinese-Korean readings of selected Chinese family names from Giles Chinese-English dictionary in McCune-Reischauer romanization. 1945.
  • Wang, Cynthia. Bai Jia Xing= 100 most common Chinese surnames. Melbourne: Word Connection. 1997.

External links

All links retrieved December 10, 2023.


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