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Traditionally, Chinese surnames precede a person's given name. However, the influence from other cultures and the more recent use of westernized first names has led to a flip of surnames and given names. For example, Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh was born Yeoh Chu-Keng adopted Michelle as a western first name and moved her family surname to the end.
Chinese last names are typically passed down from father to children, although they may not have started that way. Many early last names contain the character for the word "woman." It is thought that early names, roughly 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, were more commonly passed down from the mother, perhaps because one did not always know who their father was during such times.
Today in China, it is still common for the surname or family name to go first. A married woman will typically take on her husband’s name, much like in Western cultures.
The origins of Chinese family names are varied; some are regional, others occupational, and there is a wide range of names with prefixes that indicate one’s rank amongst the nobility and ruling class.
Chinese languages are complex and one character can have many meanings depending on the way it is pronounced or other characters it is combined with; therefore interpretations of some last names vary. However, we have attempted to gather a wide selection of Chinese surnames and the history and meaning surrounding them.
10 Most Common Chinese Surnames
China is the most populated country on the earth, with nearly a billion and a half residents. And that's not counting individuals of Chinese origins that live in other Asian countries where various forms of Chinese are spoken, like Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Hong Kong, not to mention Chinese descendants around the world! Therefore there are many popular Chinese surnames. However, we have narrowed down the ten most common Chinese last names below according to the 2007 census.
- Wang - This last name is the pinyin romanization of the Chinese character and means prince.
- Li - Minister or plum. Li became popular during the Tang dynasty (618-907) when emperors would assign this surname to subjects for services to the throne.
- Zhang - Archer. This name can be traced back to the mythical founder of China, the Yellow Emperor, who supposedly invented the bow and arrow.
- Liu - Liu in Mandarin or Lau in Cantonese originally meant kill. It is the family name of the emperors of the Han dynasty.
- Chen - Those with this regal last name are the descendants of Emperor Shun, the final of the eight legendary emperors. This last name means old and antiquated.
- Yang-Yang is a clan name and was the royal family's surname during the Zhou Dynasty.
- Huang - Huang has many variations; Hwang in Korean, Huynh in Vietnamese, and Wong in Cantonese.
- Zhao - Zhao is a variant of Chao, and it means excellent.
- Wu - This popular surname refers to the Wu State, which existed from the 11th century B.C. until 473 B.C.
- Zhou - Zhou means boat. The name is derived from the Zhou dynasty.
China and The Hundred Family Surnames
During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), a scholar living in Hangzhou city created the epic Chinese poem The Hundred Family Surnames. It is considered the earliest writing on Chinese surnames in history by the China World Records Association.
- Cheng - To become
- Chong - Sublime
- Qiu - Autumn
- Peng - Mythical bird
- Shen - Spirit, deep thought
- Shi - Stone
- Wei - Power or pomp
- Xiong - Bear
- Yao - Born on a Thursday
- Zhu - Upright
Occupational Surnames in China
Chinese people, much like those of other cultures, often have surnames that reflect the jobs their ancestors held. Similar to Smith or Baker in the English language, Chinese has Fu (teacher) or Hu (marquis).
- Ding - This last name means powerful or strong man and could refer to someone in a position of power or a physical trait needed for hard labor
- Dong - Mentor or supervisor
- Fu - Teacher or guide. A name with imperial origins believed to be passed from the Yellow Emperor to one of his sons
- Luo - Bird-trapping net
- Shao - Pottery. Most likely an occupational name
- Wei - Soft leather. Wei is possibly the surname of a leatherworker or tanner
- Wong - There are two versions of the last name Wong represented by different characters. In Cantonese, it is derived from Wang which means KIng. Prince Jin was demoted by his father King Jing and lived as a commoner. His descendants carried the last name Wang which meant “the king’s family.”
- Wu - Military
- Xue - Chief of carts
- Zhuang - Banker or farmstead or place of business
Chinese Regional Names
China’s vast landscape provided much inspiration for topographical and regional names. Many of China’s regional names are connected to the various dynasties that rose and fell over its many thousands of years of history.
- Cai - Cain was an ancient Chinese state. This name also means firewood.
- Deng - A name popular name in East Asia derived from the Deng Kingdom.
- Feng - The city of Feng was in the Wei state during the Zhou Dynasty.
- Gao - This surname means high or tall and is common is East Asia.
- Guo - This name means a wall surrounding a city and references the Guo state from the Xia dynasty.
- Qin - Those with the Qin last name have ancestors that lived in present-day Gansu Province, which was known as the Qin valley.
- Tan - The Tan surname originated during the Zhou Dynasty and came from the Tan state.
- Xie - Xie is a popular surname in Tawain or Southern China, and it means thanks.
- Zeng - This surname stems from the state of Kuai and began with the youngest son of King Shaokang.
- Zheng - This name originates from the Western Zhou dynasty when King Xuan Wang gifted the fife of Zheng to his brother.
Surnames Used a First Names
Some traditional surnames transitioned and become first names too. The Chinese language is rich and complex, and names often have deep meanings. The naming of a child has great significance in Chinese culture. Parents often consider how many strokes it takes to write a character and the elements associated with it.
- Chan - A girl’s name meaning snow.
- Chang - A boy’s name that means smooth or unhindered.
- Fang - A boy’s name that means wind.
- Liang - A girl’s name meaning good or fine.
- Lin - A girl’s name that means forest or fine jade gem.
- Shao - A boy’s name meaning knowledgeable or inventive.
- Xia - A girl’s name that means the glow of the sunrise.
- Xiao - A gender-neutral name that means dawn or little.
- Yuan - A boy’s name that means round or circular.
- Zhong - A boy’s name meaning middle.
Surnames from Other Cultures
While mainland China is vast and it was also a formidable conqueror throughout Asia. As a result, some Chinese surnames come from other Asian cultures and languages.
Dai-Dai - A popular surname in Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar.
Gong - Of Korean origin, this name means Palace
Jin - Of Korean origin, this name means Truth.
Mao - Of Japanese origin, this name means Flourishing
Ren - Of Japanese origin, this name means Lotus
Use the list below to find your last name and learn about its meaning and origins.
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Image: The Great Wall of China