Chinese surnames are used by Han Chinese and Sinicized ethnic groups in China, Brunei, Korea, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and among overseas Chinese communities. In ancient times two types of surnames existed, namely xing (Chinese: 姓; pinyin: xìng) or clan names, and shi (Chinese: 氏; pinyin: shì) or lineage names.
Chinese family names are patrilineal, passed from father to children (in adoption, the adoptee usually also takes the same surname). Women do not normally change their surnames upon marriage, except sometimes in places with more western influences such as Hong Kong. Traditionally Chinese surnames have been exogamous in that people tend to marry those with different last names.
Prior to the Warring States period (fifth century BC), only the ruling families and the aristocratic elite had surnames. Historically there was also a difference between clan names or xing (姓) and lineage names or shi (氏).
Xing were surnames held by the noble clans. They generally are composed of a nü (女, "female") radical which has been taken by some as evidence they originated from matriarchal societies based on maternal lineages.
Another hypothesis has been proposed based upon observation of the evolution of characters in oracular scripture from the Shang dynasty through the Zhou: the 女 radical seems to appear during 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 fengjian (feudal) society. As fiefdoms were divided and subdivided among descendants, so additional sub-surnames known as shi were created to distinguish between noble lineages according to seniority, though in theory they shared the same ancestor. In this way, a nobleman would hold a shi and a xing.
The difference between xing and shi was blurry, initially for women, ever since the Spring and Autumn period. For example: Chunqiu referred to Duke Xuan of Lu's consort Lady Mujiang (穆姜), who bore the clan name (姓, xing) Jiang, as Jiangshi 姜氏, "[lady of the] Jiang lineage" (!) (氏, shi).
After the states of China were unified by Qin Shi Huang in 221 BC, surnames gradually spread to the lower classes. Many shi surnames survive to the present day. According to Kiang Kang-Hu, there are 18 sources from which Chinese surnames may be derived, while others suggested at least 24. These may be names associated with a ruling dynasty such as the various titles and names of rulers, nobility and dynasty, or they may be place names of various territories, districts, towns, villages, and specific locations, the title of official posts or occupations, or names of objects, or they may be derived from the names of family members or clans, and in a few cases, names of contempt given by a ruler.
The following are some of the common sources:
Many also changed their surnames throughout history for a number of reasons.
|Regions with high concentration of particular surnames|
|Liaoning||Zhang (张/張), Jiang (江)|
|Guangdong||Liang/Leung (梁), Luo (罗/羅), Kuang (邝/鄺), Chan/Chen (陈/陳)|
|Guangxi||Liang (梁), Lu (陆/陸), Zhang/Chong (章)|
|Fujian||Zheng (郑/鄭), Lin (林), Xǔ (许/許), Xie (谢/謝)|
|Jiangsu||Xú (徐), Zhu (朱)|
|Shanghai||Wang (王), Yang (杨/楊)|
|Zhejiang||Mao (毛), Shen (沈)|
|Sichuan||He (何), Deng (邓/鄧)|
|Shanxi||Dong (董) and Guo (郭)|
|Inner Mongolia||Pan (潘)|
Surnames are not evenly distributed throughout China's geography. In northern China, Wáng (王) is the most common surname, being shared by 9.9% of the population. Next are Lǐ (李), Zhāng (张/張) and Liú (刘/劉). In the south, Chén (陈/陳) is the most common, being shared by 10.6% of the population. Next are Lǐ (李), Huáng (黄/黃), Lín (林) and Zhāng (张/張). Around the major crossing points of the Yangzi River, the most common surname is Lĭ (李), taking up 7.7%, followed by Wáng (王), Zhāng (张/張), Chan/Chén (陈/陳) and Liú (刘/劉).
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 tabulated to the right. It does not show, however, the most common surnames in any one province.
The 55th most common family name "Xiào" (肖) appears to be very rare in Hong Kong. This is explained by the fact Hong Kong uses Traditional Chinese characters rather than Simplified Chinese characters. Originally, the surname 蕭 (Xiāo) was rather common while the surname 肖 (Xiào) 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.
Fāng (方), which is only the 47th most common overall, is much more common in San Francisco's Chinatown in the United States, although the surname is more often than not romanized as Fong, as based on the Yue 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 descendants.
After the Song Dynasty, surname distributions in China largely settled down. The Kuàng (邝/鄺) family, for example, migrated from the northern capital and settled in Guangdong after the Song Dynasty revolts. Villages are often made up of a single patrilineage with individuals having the same surname, often with a common male ancestor. They usually intermarry with others from nearby villages, creating genetic clusters.
Of the thousands of surnames which have been identified from historical texts prior to the modern era, most have either been lost (see extinction of family names) or simplified. Historically there are close to 12,000 surnames recorded (including those from non-Han Chinese ethnic groups), of which only about 3,100 are in current use, a factor of almost 4:1 (about 75%) reduction. Surname extinction is due to various factors, such as people taking the names of their rulers, orthographic simplifications, taboos against using characters from an emperor's name, and others. A recent example of near surname extinction is the rare surname Shan (𢒉). The character is not able to be displayed on a computer and people born after the system change as well as people who didn't want a hassle had to change their name to another character such as Xian (冼). The name still exists for those who were grandfathered but some people from the village are concerned that future generations will forget their name origin.
While new names have arisen for various reasons, this has been outweighed by old names disappearing. The most significant factor affecting the surname frequency is other ethnic groups identifying as Han and adopting Han names. 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, 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 "third son of Zhang, fourth son of Li" (Chinese: 张三李四; pinyin: zhāng sān lǐ sì) 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 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 (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). Sima, Zhuge, and Ouyang also happen to be the surnames of four extremely famous premodern Chinese historical figures. 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 (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 spread of 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, 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 transliteration for the surnames 黎 (Lí); 李, 理 and 里 (Lǐ); 郦/酈, 栗, 厉/厲, and 利 (Lì) depending on the tone which are often omitted in foreign transliterations.
Due to the different pronunciation and romanizations, it is sometimes easy to tell whether a Chinese person has origins in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, or Taiwan. In general people who are of Mainland descent will have both their surnames and names in pinyin. Those who are Taiwanese descent use Wade-Giles romanization. People from Southeast Asia (mainly Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines) and Hong Kong usually base their romanization of surnames and names on the Min, Hakka and Cantonese languages. The younger generation from Singapore predominantly have their surname in dialect and given name in English.
The use of different systems of romanization based on different Chinese language variants from 1900~1970 also contributed to the variations.
|Hokkien / Teochew
|Current meaning |
(the original meanings of the surnames may differ greatly)
|陈 / 陳||Chen||Ch'en||Tan/Tang/Tung/Chin/Tjhin||Chan||State of Chen|
|关 / 關||Guan||Kuan||Kwang/Kuang||Kwan||gate, gateway, mountain pass; to close; to shut; to turn off; to concern; to involve|
|何||He||Ho||Ho/Hoe||Ho||carry; what; how; why; which|
|黄 / 黃||Huang||Huang||Uy/Ooi/Oei/Wee/Ng/Wong/Bong||Wong||State of Huang|
|简 / 簡||Jian||Chien||Kan/Kean||Kan/Gan||simple|
|吴 / 吳||Wu||Wu||Goh||Ng||State of Wu|
|许 / 許||Xu||Hsü||Koh/Kho/Khoh/Khor/Khaw/Ko(Malaysia)/Hee||Hui/Hua||State of Xu|
|张 / 張||Zhang||Chang||Teo/Chong/Tear||Cheung/Cheong||a measure word for flat objects like paper or tables; open up|
|赵 / 趙||Zhao||Chao||Chew/Teo||Chiu/Chiew||State of Zhao|
Malaysia/Singapore/Indonesia/Philippines: various spellings are used depending on name origin.
See List of common Chinese surnames for the different spellings and more examples.
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 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 honors. 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 centralized and regional power. The surname was used as a source of prestige and common allegiance. During the period many 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. Many of these were collected by Ouyang Xiu in his New History of Tang. To differentiate between different surnames, the Tang also choronyms before stating beforehand, for example Lǒngxī Lǐshì 隴西李氏, meaning Li of Longxi. These were generally the names of commanderies used prior to the reorganization during the Tang, so that they became exclusively associated to clans as their common use had died out. Cadet branches were also listed for further differentiation, such as Gūzāng Fáng 姑臧房, meaning Clan Li of Guzang.
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 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. 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's 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 globalization have also contributed to erode the previous sociological uses of the Chinese surnames.
According to a comprehensive survey of residential permits released by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security on 24 April 2007, the ten most common surnames in mainland China are Wang (王), Li (李), Zhang (张), Liu (刘), Chen (陈), Yang (杨), Huang (黄), Zhao (赵), Wu (吴), and Zhou (周). The same names were also found (in slightly different orders) by a fairly comprehensive survey of 296 million people in 2006, and by the 1982 census.
A commonly cited fact from the 1990 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records estimated that Zhang was the most common surname in the world, but no comprehensive information from China was available at the time and more recent editions have omitted the claim.
The MPS survey revealed that the top 3 surnames in China have a combined population larger than Indonesia, the world's fourth-most-populous country. The top 10 surnames each have populations greater than 20 million; the top 22 have more than 10 million. The top 100 surnames cover 84.77% of China's population.
Names in Taiwan – both among the immigrant ethnic Chinese and Taiwanese aborigines – are similar to those in southeast China but differ somewhat from the distribution of names among all Han Chinese. According to a comprehensive survey of residential permits released by the Taiwanese Ministry of the Interior's Department of Population in February 2005, the ten most common surnames in Taiwan are Chen (陳), Lin (林), Huang (黃), Chang (張), Li (李), Wang (王), Wu (吳), Liu (劉), Tsai (蔡), and Yang (楊).
Taiwanese surnames include some local variants like Tu (塗) which do not even appear among the Hundred Family Surnames. However, names in Taiwan show less diversity than China as a whole: the top ten comprise 52.63% of the Taiwanese population and the top hundred 96.11%. There were also only 1,989 surnames recorded by the Ministry's survey, against China's four or five thousand.
As is typical of China as a whole, these surnames conflate many different lineages and origins, although tradition may bind them to the same ancestral temples and rituals or ban intermarriage. For example, some Taiwanese converts to Presbyterianism adopted the name Kai (偕, pinyin Xié) in honor of the Canadian missionary George Leslie Mackay (馬偕, Pe̍h-ōe-jī Má-kai).
Only 3,100 surnames are now in use in China [...] compared with nearly 12,000 in the past. An 'evolutionary dwindling' of surnames is common to all societies. [...] [B]ut in China, [Du] says, where surnames have been in use far longer than in most other places, the paucity has become acute.
Why the lack of surnames, then? The reason, according to Du Ruofu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is that all societies experience an 'evolutionary dwindling' of family names as less-common ones die out. Because the Chinese have used surnames for thousands of years (compared to just a few centuries in many parts of Europe), this effect has become particularly significant.