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.
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.
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, usually from a/an:
|Guangdong||Liang (梁), Luo (罗/羅), Kwong (鄺)|
|Guangxi||Liang (梁), Lu (陆/陸)|
|Fujian||Zheng (郑/鄭), Lin (林),Hsia (謝)|
|Jiangsu||Xu (徐), Zhu (朱)|
|Zhejiang||Mao (毛),Shen (沈)|
|Jiangxi||Hu (胡), Liao (廖);|
|Sichuan||He (何), Deng (邓/鄧)|
|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% 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 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" (肖) 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 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, 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.
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%. 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 (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 (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). Translating Chinese surnames from foreign transliteration often presents ambiguity. For example, the surname "Li" are all mandarin-based pinyin tranliteration 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.
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 Nan (Hokkien)/ Cantonese (Malaysia/Singapore)||Cantonese (Hong Kong)||English meaning|
|陈/陳||Chen||Ch'en||Tan||Chan||arrange; exhibit; narrate; tell; old; stale; to state; to display; to explain|
|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|
|许/ 許||Xu||Hsü||Koh||Hui/Hua||to allow; to permit; to praise|
|张/ 張||Zhang||Chang||Teo/Chong||Cheung||a measure word for flat objects like paper or tables; open up|
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 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.
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, which is the standard in the PRC and Singapore, and other commonly used spellings.
The 11th to 20th common surnames, which together account for more than 10% of Chinese people in the world:
The 21st to 30th common surnames, which together account for about 10% of Chinese people in the world:
The next 15 common surnames, which together account for about 10% of Chinese people in the world: