Chinese surname

A Chinese surname, family name (Chinese: ; Pinyin: xìng) or clan name (; pinyin: shì), is one of the hundreds or 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. The colloquial expressions lao bai xing (老百姓; lit. "old hundred surnames"), or bǎi xìng (, lit. "hundred surnames") are used in Chinese to mean "ordinary folks", "the people," or "commoners." Bǎi jiā xìng () is also used to call the list of one hundred most common surnames.

Chinese family names are patrilineal, passed from father to children. (In cases of adoption, the adoptee usually also takes the same surname.) Chinese women, after marriage, typically retain their birth surname. Historically, however, only Chinese men possessed xìng (family name), in addition to shì; the women had only the latter, and took on their husband's xìng after marriage.

Origin of surnames

Prior to the Warring States Period (5th 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 nü (女, meaning "female") radical which suggests that they originated from matriarchal societies based on maternal lineages. Another hypothesis has been proposed by sinologist Léon 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 (3rd 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, generally share twelve paths of origin:
  1. From 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 (姜) and Yao (姚) have survived as frequently occurring surnames.
  2. From royal decree by the Emperor, such as Kwong (鄺).
  3. From state names: 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). Not surprisingly, due to the population size of the peasantry, these are some of the most common Chinese surnames.
  4. From the name of fiefs 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.
  5. From the names of ancestors: 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 (伯爰) as his surname. Sometimes titles granted to ancestors could also be taken as surnames.
  6. From 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 fouth eldest sons in a family. These were sometimes adopted as surnames. Of these, Meng is the best known, being the surname of philosopher Mencius, for example.
  7. From occupation: These could arise from both official positions, as in the case of Sima (司马/司馬), originally akin to "Minister of War". They could also arise from more lowly occupations, as with Tao (陶), meaning "potter" or Wu (巫), meaning "shaman".
  8. From 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
GuangdongLiang (梁), Luo (罗/羅), Kwong (鄺)
GuangxiLiang (梁), Lu (陆/陸)
FujianZheng (郑/鄭), Lin (林)
AnhuiWang (汪)
JiangsuXu (徐), Zhu (朱)
ZhejiangMao (毛),Shen (沈)
JiangxiHu (胡), Liao (廖);
HubeiHu (胡)
HunanTan (谭/譚);
SichuanHe (何), Deng (邓/鄧)
GuizhouWu (吴/吳)
YunnanYang (杨/楊)
HenanCheng (程)
GansuGao (高)
NingxiaWan (万/萬)
ShaanxiXue (薛)
QinghaiBao (鲍/鮑)
XinjiangMa (马/馬)
ShandongKong (孔)
ShanxiDong (董) and Guo (郭)
Inner MongoliaPan (潘)
Northeast ChinaYu (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% 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% 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), taking up 7.7%, 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 less 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" () 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 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 , 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 could move to an unsettled area and leave this family name to large numbers of people.

After the Song Dynasty, surname distributions in China largely stabilised. The Kwong family for example, stabilized in Guangdong during the revolts of the Song Dynasty and migrated from the capital in the north. Villages were often made up of individuals with the same surname, often with a common male ancestor. They usually intermarried with nearby villages, creating clusters of individuals with similar genetic background.

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 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 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%.[2] 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% [3], and the top 100 names covered 87% of the sample. Other data suggest that the top 50 names comprise 70% of the population.[4]

Most commonly occurring Chinese family names have only one character; however, about twenty double-character family names have survived into the modern time. These include Sima (, simp. ), Zhuge (, simp. ), Ouyang (, simp. , occasionally romanized as O'Young, giving some Anglophones an Irish impression), 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: 鄭/郑 (pinyin:Zheng) can be romanised into Chang, Cheng, Chung, Teh, Tay, Tee, Zeng or Zheng, (in pinyin, Chang, Cheng, Zheng and Zeng are all different names).

Examples of variations in romanisation

Due to the different pronunciation and romanisations, it is generally able 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, and the younger generation from Singapore will have surnames in pinyin. Those from Taiwan in Wade-Giles romanisation. People from Southeast Asia and Hong Kong usually base their romanisation on Min, Hakka and Cantonese dialects.

There are also people who use non-standard romanisations, eg the Hong Kong media mogul 邵逸夫 Run Run Shaw's surname 邵 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.

Written form Pinyin Wade-Giles Min (Hokkien) (Malaysia/Singapore) Cantonese (Hong Kong) English meaning
陈/陳Chen Ch'enTan Chanarrange; exhibit; narrate; tell; old; stale; to state; to display; to explain
关/ 關Guan KuanKwang/KuangKwanmountain 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 WuWu/ Ng/ Gouw/ GohNgWu
许/ 許XuHsüKohHuito 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 depends on their origin. Please refer to the List of common Chinese surnames for the different spellings and more examples.


In writing Chinese names, Chinese family names are placed before the given name, e.g. Cheung Kwok Wing. Hence the Western concept of first name and last name only creates confusion when used with Chinese names. In Westernized Asian countries or for those residing in the West, often a Western name is chosen, e.g. 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 — China (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, use the Chinese given name 'Kwok-wing' as 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 romanisation exists, translators often will use the transliteration best fit with the locale where the person is originated. For example, the pinyin transcription would be used for a person from Mainland China; Wade-Giles for someone from Taiwan; or a Cantonese-based romanisation for someone from Hong Kong.

Chinese women usually 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 () 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 or choose to be known as Mrs. (husband's surname).

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: 世表; Pinyin: shìbiǎo).

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: 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 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 extra-judicial 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 the founder of the clan was adopted and so 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, 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 surname.

See also

External links

Chinese or the Sinitic language(s) (汉语/漢語, Pinyin: Hànyǔ; 华语/華語, Huáyǔ; or 中文, Zhōngwén) can be considered a language or language family.
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Pinyin, more formally called Hanyu Pinyin (Simplified Chinese: 汉语拼音; Traditional Chinese: 漢語拼音
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A family name, surname, last name, patronymic, or metronymic, is the part of a person's name indicating the family to which the person belongs. The use of family names is currently widespread in cultures around the world.
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Majority populations
 People's Republic of China []
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Sinicization, Sinicisation or Sinification, is the linguistic assimilation or cultural assimilation of terms and concepts into the language and culture of China.
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The following is a list of ethnic groups in China.

The Han Chinese are the largest ethnic group based on the 2000 census, where some 91.5% of the population was classified as Han Chinese (~1.2 billion).
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Mainland China (Simplified Chinese: 中国大陆; Traditional Chinese: 中國大陸; Pinyin:
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Republic of China. For other uses, see Taiwan (disambiguation).
Taiwan (Traditional Chinese: or ; Simplified Chinese:
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Majority populations
 Singapore [1]
 Christmas Island, Australia []
Minority populations
 Indonesia [2]
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Patrilineality (a.k.a. agnatic kinship) is a system in which one belongs to one's father's lineage; it generally involves the inheritance of property, names or titles through the male line as well.
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Matriarchy is a term, which is applied to form of society, in which the leading role is with the female and especially with the mothers of a community. [1] Some authors consider it as hypothetical form of human society.
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Shang Dynasty (Chinese: ) or Yin Dynasty () (ca. 1750 BC - ca. 1045 BC) is the second historic Chinese dynasty and ruled in the northeastern region of the area known as "China proper", in the Yellow River valley.
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Zhou Dynasty (Chinese: ; Pinyin: Zhōu Cháo; Wade-Giles: Chou Ch`ao; 1123 BC to 256 BC[1]) preceded by the Shang Dynasty and followed by the Qin Dynasty in China.
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A Chinese character or Han character (Simplified Chinese:
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History of China
3 Sovereigns and 5 Emperors
Xia Dynasty 2070–1600 BCE
Shang Dynasty 1600–1046 BCE
Zhou Dynasty
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Feudalism refers to a general set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility of Europe during the Middle Ages, revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals, and fiefs.
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The monarch known now as Qin Shi Huang (Chinese: 秦始皇; Pinyin: Qín Shǐ Huáng; Wade-Giles: Ch'in Shih-huang) (259 BCE – September 10, 210 BCE),[1]
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3rd century BC - 2nd century BC
250s BC  240s BC  230s BC - 220s BC - 210s BC  200s BC  190s BC 
224 BC 223 BC 222 BC - 221 BC - 220 BC 219 BC 218 BC

State leaders - Sovereign states

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Jiang can be a pinyin transliteration of one of several Chinese surnames:
  1. 江, Jiāng
  2. 蔣 (traditional) or 蒋 (simplified), Jiǎng
  3. 姜, Jiāng


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Yao can refer to:
  • The name of the demiurge in Gnostic scripture
  • Yao, Chad, a town in Chad
  • Yao (ethnic group in Africa), the waYao people of south-central Africa and their language
  • Yao, Osaka, a city in Japan

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Kwong (Traditional Chinese: ; Simplified Chinese: ; Hanyu Pinyin: kuàng; Wade-Giles: k'uang) is a Chinese family name originated from northern China.
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Song is the pinyin transliteration of the Chinese family name . It is transliterated as Sung in Wade-Giles, and Soong is also a common transliteration. In addition to being a common surname, it is also the name of a Chinese dynasty, the Song Dynasty
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Wu is the Pinyin transliteration of the Chinese surname (Traditional Chinese), (Simplified Chinese), which is the tenth most common surname in Mainland China. Several other, less common Chinese surnames are also translated into English as "Wu": , , , , and .
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Family Name

陳; Chén
Meaning after a region in Henan
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Ouyang (Simplified Chinese: 欧 阳 ; Traditional Chinese: 歐 陽 ; Pinyin: Oūyáng also spelled Owyang,
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A Chinese style name, sometimes also known as a courtesy name (zì), is a given name to be used later in life. After 20 years of age, the zì is assigned in place of one's given name as a symbol of adulthood and respect.
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Yuan Taotu 轅濤塗 (died c. 625 BC, posthumous title "Xuanzhong" 宣仲) was a nobleman and diplomat of the Spring and Autumn state of Chen. He is regarded as the ancestor of those surnamed Yuan (袁).
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Meng can refer to the following:
  • Master of Engineering (MEng or M.Eng), an academic or professional master's degree in the field of engineering
  • ɱ, the symbol used for the labiodental nasal consonantal sound

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Courtesy name (字): Unknown[2]
Master Meng the Second Sage[3] (Ch: 亞聖孟子; Py: Yàshèng Mèngzǐ)
Master Meng[4] (Ch: 孟 子 ; Py: Mèngzǐ)

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