By Emily Hutton
- Last Updated: Sep 17, 2022
If you are of Chinese descent, learning about your heritage can be a little overwhelming. It can feel like the entire Chinese population has your surname. But each individual Chinese clan name has a lot to say about national and ethnic identity – even if your surname is common, it could even reveal a lot of information about your history.
In this guide, you’ll learn about the most common Chinese surnames and their unique histories.
Diversity In China
Mainland China is a diverse place, so your heritage is likely not monolithic either. Chances are you are ethnically Han Chinese – the majority ethnic group – but there are 55 other non-Han ethnic groups and tons of Chinese dialects. Even on a basic level, you can learn a lot about yourself based on which group or dialect your surname comes from.
Learning about Chinese history isn’t just learning about different dynasties, there are a multitude of cultures and customs that your family could be a part of and that affect your surname. While we’ll mostly be dealing with Han Chinese surnames, some common surnames are popular among other ethnic groups like the Hakka Chinese or the Manchus.
A Short History Of Chinese Family Names
Clan names in China actually go back further than surnames in Europe. After all, China is a huge country with a rich culture, and Chinese history stretches further back than you might expect. Unlike the surnames in the West which emerged around the late medieval era, Chinese family names can be thousands of years old.
Legend has it that the first surnames were decreed by the Yellow Emperor as early as the third millennium BC. By the Song dynasty, people were commonly using family names. There was even a famous Chinese book called the Baijiaxing or “Hundreds of Chinese Surnames” which contained over 500 surnames.
It’s possible that your surname is in that book of Hundreds of Chinese Surnames. Of the 12,000 names that have been used throughout Chinese history, about 25% are still in use by Chinese people today.
One Surname For A Whole Village
If your surname is one of the frequently occurring surnames in China, then you may come from southern China where entire villages can have the same surname.
Many ordinary clans began this way, with a single family subsuming a nearby clan and imposing their surname. This created huge communities of the same family name.
Many surnames in China are also derived from ancestral stewardship of land. Your name could come from the official that was assigned to a certain province or who ruled over the land you came from.
Chinese Names In Foreign Lands
A major power for thousands of years, China is a melting pot of trade. Many areas around China have also been affected by waves of immigration. Other countries have some versions of Chinese family names that have been adapted to their country: the Vietnamese name Trần, the Korean “Jin”, and the Japanese “Chin” all share a common root: “陳”, which is originally Chinese.
Despite being ancient, there is a ton of genealogical information about Chinese clan names. In China, many people kept genealogical records called “pudie” or, more popularly, “jiapu”.
If you have one of the old common Chinese family names, then there should be a lot of information available on its history. Jiapu usually tells you something about the first ancestor to hold the surname, such as who they were, what they did, what family values they held, and which children were born to him.
A History Of Chinese Immigration To America
Chinese people have been a part of the American story for hundreds of years. Those who came from mainland China largely settled west of the Rocky Mountains (in states like California), bringing with them their surnames.
Unfortunately, many of these names were Westernized at the border. As there is no standardized way to translate Chinese names, this resulted in countless versions of the same last name. For example, the name “Zhong” can also be spelled “Chung.”
Further complicating this, if you come from any of the Chinese minority ethnic groups and speak a dialect different from Mandarin, the differences are as pronounced as the differences between English and German. One surname can have a variety of different spellings and meanings.
It’s also possible your surname is a first name. Some Chinese clan names in America were actually the first names of the ancestors who came over. Chinese conventions put family names first and, due to confusion at the border, some first names and last names may have been swapped.
Chinese Naming Conventions
Like in Western culture, Chinese surnames are shared between the family. Unlike European practice, however, surnames in China come first rather than last. For example, a child named Jun-ling born to the Zhang family would be Zhang Jun-ling.
First names or given names are often two syllables, while last names are almost always monosyllabic. This is because most Chinese family names are only one character. There are some family names with two syllables (and two Chinese characters) but those are extremely rare.
Chinese names follow the patrilineal line, meaning that children are given their father’s surname. Chinese women do not take their husband’s surname, but they might add their husband’s name to the beginning of her name – ultimately, taking both their surnames. As stated previously, however, in Chinese society, having two separate surnames is very rare.
Many people of Chinese descent in the US have two names: their official Romanized name and their Chinese name. Someone with the very Chinese name of Zhang Jun-ling might pick a Romanized name that’s close to their Chinese name, such as “June”, or they may go for something completely different like “Susan”.
Susan’s Romanized name would then be Susan Zhang, or she might even incorporate her Chinese name in her full name (e.g. Susan Jun-Ling Zhang). Although Chinese conventions put the last name first, most of the Chinese diaspora have adapted to Western naming conventions and put their surname last.
Translating Chinese surnames into foreign languages poses a unique challenge because one character can have many Westernized spellings. For example, the surname 陳 can be written as any of the following: Chin, Chinn, Chen, Chan, Tan, Dan, Tin, Tjin, or Ting.
Popular Chinese-American Surnames
Here are the top ten surnames for people of Chinese descent in America. These names are Romanized, but as Chinese is a tonal language, some of these may sound different when said out loud. There are different Chinese language variants, but we’ve stuck to Mandarin and included the Chinese characters for clarity.
- Huang (黄): The name Huang comes from an ancient territory. It is also the surname of one of the most legendary Chinese Emperors, Huang Di, also known as the Yellow Emperor.
- Lin (林): Lin means forest.
- Chang (张): Chang is a variant of Zhang, it means to pull on a bowstring or pertains to an archer. “Chang” can also mean often or constant.
- Sun (孫): This Chinese last name means grandson or descendant.
- Cheng (郑): A common surname name meaning “Zheng” which was a state in the Shang dynasty.
- Xiao (萧): This Chinese family name was given to the descendants of the people who were granted the Xiao fiefdom.
- Chuang (庄): This common surname means farmstead, village, place of business, or also solemn.
- Hung (洪): A common surname that means vast, grand, or flood.
- Li (李): Li means plum or plum tree. It was also the royal surname during the Tang dynasty. It is also one of the most common Hakka Chinese family names.
- T’ien (田): This surname appeared in the Chinese poem of the Hundred Family Surnames from the Song Dynasty. It means field.
Common Chinese Surnames In China
Common surnames of Chinese-Americans are different from the most common surnames in mainland China. Here is a list of surnames from China – see if any are familiar to you or your family!
- Wang (王): Wang is one of the most common surnames in the world. It means vast.
- Li (李): Li means plum or plum tree.
- Zhang (张): Zhang is a Chinese surname that means to draw back a bowstring or to open a bow.
- Liu (刘): This was the royal surname during the Han dynasty. It also means to kill or destroy.
- Chen (陈): Chen is an old Chinese name that means ancient. It is the most common surname in southern China.
- Yang (杨): A common surname meaning willow or aspen tree.
- Huang (黄): The name Huang comes from a territory known as Huang.
- Zhao (赵): Zhao is the first name in of the hundreds of traditional Chinese names, because it was the name of song dynasty royalty.
- Wu (吴): Wu is also an ancient territory where a ruling family’s descendants took on the place name as a family name.
- Zhou (周): This surname means to make a lap, to encircle, or to complete, or to cycle through.
Chinese names might seem complicated because their culture is worlds away from ours, but surnames are the same in most cultures. They are names that tie us together to our family, and Chinese surnames are no different. There are millions of Chinese-Americans living in the US today and their family names hold a rich heritage of where they come from.
You can learn so much just by digging around in your family name. If you have fallen down a rabbit hole of heritage and are looking for other places to learn more about your history, old family albums are always a good place to start.
You’ll be surprised how much you can learn from them! If you find photos that are in bad shape and need repair, Image Restoration Center is the perfect service for you. We are experts and our services are affordable, easy to use, and 100% remote. Contact us and we’ll restore your photos to near-original condition!
An Introduction To Most Common Romanian Surnames
What are the list of most common surnames in China? ›
A report in 2019 gives the most common Chinese surnames as Wang and Li, each shared by over 100 million people in China. The remaining top ten most common Chinese surnames are Zhang, Liu, Chen, Yang, Huang, Zhao, Wu and Zhou.How many common Chinese surnames are there? ›
The Chinese Calligraphy Dictionary of Surnames includes 23,813 surnames. Currently, there are more than 7,000 surnames in use, including 6,931 single-character surnames, 9,012 compound and double-character surnames, 4,850 three-character surnames, 2,276 four-character surnames, and 541 five-character surnames.What is the rarest Chinese last name? ›
1. Gui. Gui is the rarest Chinese surname on this list. It is an ancient surname ranked as the 3159th common surname used in present-day China.Why do Chinese have 3 names? ›
Until the mid-1900s in China, a person usually had three names besides his or her surname: ming, zi and hao. Ming is the name given by parents; Zi is the name granted to a person at the beginning of adulthood – men usually at the age of 20 and women at 15.What is the No 1 surname in the world? ›
The most popular last name in the world is Wang, meaning "king." About 92.8 million people in mainland China have the royal last name of Wang.What is the meaning of Xiao? ›
Meaning:Dawn; Little; Reverent. Xiao is a gender-neutral name of Chinese origin and has several meanings, but the most notable translations are “dawn”, “little”, and “reverent of the elderly.” Xiao's connotation with the morning will make natural early-risers fall in love with this precious moniker.What is the royal surname in China? ›
Wáng (王) Wáng is the most common surname in mainland China and is a royal surname meaning “King.” This surname has origins from multiple royal families from the Qin dynasty to the Tang dynasty. Those with the surname Wang are likely descendants of royalty.What is the most famous Chinese surname? ›
- Wang (王) Wang is the most common surname in mainland China, which represents 92.8 million people, and is a royal surname meaning 'King'.
- Li (李) ...
- Zhang (张) ...
- Liu (刘) ...
- Chen (陈) ...
- Yang (杨) ...
- Huang (黄) ...
- Zhao (赵)
There is a list of names that are extinct. It includes Bread, Spinster, Chips, Rummage, Pussett, Temples, Wellbelove, Hatman and Bytheseashore. Know anyone with those names – hardly. Other names with just a few individuals include Fernsby, Rushlands, Berrycloth, Dankworth, Birdwhistle, Relish and Tumbler.What does Liu mean in Chinese? ›
It is the family name of the Han dynasty emperors. The character 劉 originally meant 'kill', but is now used only as a surname. It is listed 252nd in the classic text Hundred Family Surnames. Today, it is the 4th most common surname in Mainland China as well as one of the most common surnames in the world.
What does the surname Zhou mean? ›
Chinese:: Mandarin form of the surname 周 meaning 'surrounding' or 'whole' in Chinese: (i) from Zhou (周) originally the name of a fief (located in present-day Qishan in Shaanxi Province) where Zhou Wen Wang (1152–1056 BC ; 'King Wen of Zhou') resided. Zhou was famous for his virtue and good nature.What are prestigious Chinese surnames? ›
The top five surnames in China – Wang, Li, Zhang, Liu, Chen – are also the top five surnames in the world, each with over 70-100 million worldwide.What is the most Chinese name ever? ›
Zhāng Wěi 张伟, Wáng Wěi 王伟, and Lǐ Nà 李娜 are the three most common full names. (There were 294,282 registered people named Zhang Wei).What Chinese last name means rich? ›
Nhiều Surname Meaning
It is the transliteration of a Chinese surname meaning: rich, abundant, exuberant, to add for free, to throw in as bonus, to spare, to forgive, despite, although.
Many Chinese celebrities have English names so people choose the same name that their favorite singer or actor uses. Other people choose the names of American movie stars or even a character they play. Some people choose a name from their favorite book, either the author's or the main character's name.How do Chinese name their babies? ›
Chinese names are traditionally patrilineal, whereby children are given their father's family name at birth.Why do Chinese drink hot water? ›
According to ancient Chinese medicine, drinking a glass of warm water in the morning helps kick-start the digestive system. Hot water and warm water, because of its temperature, supposedly aids blood flow. As your blood circulation increases, it helps detoxify your body and reduce painful contractions of muscles.Which is the most powerful surname? ›
Powerful And Strong Sounding Last Names
- Ali. Ali in Arabic means “champion.” ...
- Andrews. Of Greek origin, this surname means “manly.” ...
- Beckham. ...
- Caesar. ...
- Chisholm. ...
- Churchill. ...
- Clooney. ...
A study published by ancestry.com found that Smith was by far the most common surname in the United States, followed by Johnson, Miller, Jones, Williams, and Anderson. However there is huge variation in the most frequent last names in different states.What does lumine mean in Chinese? ›
Lumine is an obsolete verb meaning "to illuminate". It may refer to: Lumines, a puzzle video game series. Lumine (Chinese: 荧), the female protagonist in Genshin Impact.
What does Ling mean Chinese? ›
Origin:Chinese. Meaning:Sound of Jade; Dawn; Unbreakable spirit. Ling is a gender-neutral name of Chinese origin.What does the name Zhan mean? ›
Meaning:Valuable, genuine, innocent. Zhan is a girl's name of Chinese origin. This name has an array of meanings. Being defined as "valuable", "genuine", and "innocent", baby will have their priorities sorted from day one.What is a double Chinese last name? ›
Double-barrelled surname (雙姓) occurs sometimes when both families of a marriage wish to pass down their surnames, or when a child wishes to commemorate both the biological and foster parents. This is often distinguished from compound surnames (複姓), which cannot be split into two single-character surnames.Why are so many Chinese last names the same? ›
Sometimes, ancient rulers and clans would adopt the names of their state or fiefdom; others were granted new royal surnames by emperors. Over the dynasties, ethnic minorities and nomadic groups also adopted Han Chinese names, sometimes given no choice during periods of conflict or intense Sinicization campaigns.Can Chinese people have two surnames? ›
Although two-syllable surnames exist, they are not common. The most common xìng in China, shared by nearly 93 million people, is Wang (王) which means 'King'. The next most common xìng, are Li (李), Zhang (张), Liu (刘), Chen (陈), Yang (杨), Huang (黄), Zhao (赵), Wu (吴) and Zhou (周).What Chinese surnames mean dark? ›
Lí 黎 (2nd tone), the 84th most common surname in China. "Lai" or "Lye" in Cantonese. The character also means "dark".What Chinese surname means brave? ›
Yong (Chinese: 勇) is a common Chinese name. From Chinese 勇 (yǒng) means "brave" or 永 (yǒng) meaning "perpetual, eternal".What Chinese surname means dragon? ›
Long is the pinyin romanization of a Chinese surname. It includes 龍 / 龙, which means "dragon" in Chinese, ranking number 80 on the list of common Chinese surnames in 2006, up from 108 in 1990. Another name transcribed as Long is 隆, which is very rare in contemporary China.What is the best Chinese name for a girl? ›
- Ài (爱). It's a name that means “love” and “affection” and is fit for a little princess. ...
- Ǎi (蔼). This name is similar to the name Ài. ...
- Chun (春). Another common Chinese girl name you could select is Chun. ...
- Fang (芳). ...
- Fēn (芬). ...
- Hua (花). ...
- Jing (静). ...
- Li (丽).
- Annalise. A combination of the name Anna and Lise, this name is simple, pretty, and unique.
- Brigitta. ...
- Charmaine. ...
- Constance. ...
- Geneviève. ...
- Larisa. ...
- Lorelei. ...
What is the most unused name? ›
Most unpopular boys names for 2022:
Long is the pinyin romanization of a Chinese surname. It includes 龍 / 龙, which means "dragon" in Chinese, ranking number 80 on the list of common Chinese surnames in 2006, up from 108 in 1990. Another name transcribed as Long is 隆, which is very rare in contemporary China.What Chinese surname means dark? ›
Lí 黎 (2nd tone), the 84th most common surname in China. "Lai" or "Lye" in Cantonese. The character also means "dark".What Chinese name means pure? ›
Jun: This Chinese baby name means “obedient, pure,” and has an uplifting sound to it.What is the prettiest Chinese name? ›
- 映月 Yingyue: Girls' names containing 'moon' have the cherished meanings of beauty and harmony. ...
- 芷若 Zhiruo: The Chinese characters 芷 and 若 are two herbal plants. ...
- 望舒 Wangshu: Wang means 'hope' and shu means 'comfortable'.
- 莫愁 Mochou: Mochou means 'free of sadness'.
Zhāng Wěi 张伟, Wáng Wěi 王伟, and Lǐ Nà 李娜 are the three most common full names. (There were 294,282 registered people named Zhang Wei).What Chinese name means jade? ›
For the Chinese, the Stone of Heaven – more precious than gold – is juhk (Cantonese), yù (Mandarin), or jade. It is also known as the “stone for eternity” because its hardness and durability are associated with immortality.