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March 8, 2014
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Chinese Family Names

Original Work by Wikipedia Editor

A Chinese family name/clan name/surname (姓, pinyin: x?ng) refers to one of the over seven hundred family names used by Han Chinese and Sinicized Chinese ethnic groups. The term the hundred family names (百姓 bǎix?ng) is colloquially used in Chinese to mean people/commoners. Chinese family names are passed from the father, and there is generally a taboo against marriage between persons of the same surname. In cases of adoption, the adoptee also takes the same surname.

Although there are over 700 Chinese family names, the vast majority of Chinese have relatively few names. The 20 most common names are used by the majority of Chinese. The reason for this is statistical it is more likely that the father of a child will have a common family name than an uncommon name, and this can be mathematically shown to crowd out uncommon names over time. This effect is more pronounced among Chinese than Europeans because Chinese surnames have existed for a much longer time.

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. The surname of the Han emperors was Liu, and that of the Ming emperors were Chu. 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. In addition, unlike European practice, the family of a deposed emperor would lose all power. Also as a consequence, many people also had the same surname as the emperor, but had no direct relation to the royal family.

In writing Chinese names, Chinese family names are put 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. When the Western name and Chinese name are put together, it often becomes hard to tell what the family name is. Some variants include:

  • Cheung Kwok-wing -- China, direct Chinese translation
  • Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing -- Hong Kong, hybrid of Western/Chinese
  • Leslie Kwok-wing Cheung -- United States among others, use given name as middle name

Some publications and legal documents will print the family name in small capital letters , e.g. Leslie CHEUNG Kwok Wing.

Chinese women usually retain their maiden names after marriage, sometimes placing 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 FONG On-sung (陳方安生) where Fong is her maiden name.

There are sometimes complex traditions associated with surnames. 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 certain surnames, 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.

Most commonly occurring Chinese family names have only one character; however, about twenty double-character family names have survived into the modern time. Some famous ones include Sima (司马), >Zhuge (诸葛), >Ouyang (欧阳 occasionally >Anglicized, or rather, Irishized, as O'Young), and >Situ (司徒 in Cantonese: Szeto). There are family names with three or more characters, but those are extremely rare and most likely have non-Han origin, for example, Aixinjueluo (愛新覺羅, also romanized as Aisin-gioro), the family name of the Manchu royal family of the Qing dynasty.

Popularity of family names has regional distributions. Some common Northern names are rare in the South. For example, the 55th most popular family name Xiao (肖) is almost unheard of in Hong Kong. Chen is a particularly common name in Taiwan. On the other hand, the 47th most popular family name Fong (方) is a major name in the Chinatown of San Francisco, California, USA. 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.

Transliteration of Chinese family names (see Table 1 below) into English poses a number of problems. It is common for the same surname to be transliterated differently and for different family names with similar pronounciations to be transliterated identically.

Table 1: Top 60 Family Names in Mandarin and Cantonese Transliterations
The "Other" columns are common transliterations, used before the formalization and popularization of existing Romanizations, still can be found in the names of some overseas Chinese. The last columns are some popular transliterations in other Chinese languages (dialects) used by some overseas Chinese whose ancestral mother tongue is neither Mandarin nor Cantonese.
The tone marks, though a part of the official Romanizations, are not used officially in passport or in overseas schools.
Char. Mandarin Chinese Cantonese Other dialects
T. S. Pinyin W-G Other Jyutping Yale/py Other
1 Wang2 Wang Wong4 Wong Vong Ong
2 Chen2 Chen Chern Can4 Chan Chun Tan, Ding
3 Li3 Li Lee Lei5 Lee Ly, Le
4 Zhang1 Chang Zoeng1 Cheung
5 Liu2 Liu Liou Lau4 Lau
6 Yang2 Yang Joeng4 Yeung
7 Huang2 Huang Hwang Wong4 Wong Vong
8 Wu2 Wu Woo Ng4 Ng
9 >Lin2 Lin Lam4 Lam Lum Lim
10 Zhou1 Chou Joe Zau1 Chow
11 >Ye4 Yeh Jip6 Yip Ip
12 Zhao4 Chao Ziu6 Chiu Jiu
13 L?3 Lu Leoi5 Lui
14 >Xu2 Hsu Ceoi4 Tsui
15 Sun1 Sun Suen Syun1 Sun / Suen
16 >Zhu1 Chu Zyu1 Chu Chue Gee, Ju
17 >Gao1 Kao Gou1 Ko Go
18 Ma3 Ma Maa5 Ma Mah
19 >Liang2 Liang Loeng4 Leung / Leong Lang
20 >Guo1 Kuo Gwok3 Kwok
21 He2 H?, Ho Ho4 Ho
22 >Zheng4 Cheng Jehng Zeng6 Cheng
23 Hu2 Hu Wu4 Wu Woo
24 >Cai4 Tsai Coi3 Choi Choy
25 >Zeng1 Tseng Tzeng Cang4 Tsang
26 She1 She Se4 Sheh
27 >Deng4 Teng Dang6 Tang Dung
28 Shen3 Shen Sam2 Sum Shum
29 >Xie4 Hsieh Sheih Ze6 Tse
30 Tang2 T'ang (Tang) Tong4 Tong
31 >Xu3 (X?3) Hsu Heoi2 Hui
32 Luo2 Luo Lo4 Lo Law, Lowe
33 Yuan2 Y?an (Yuan) Jyun4 Yuen
34 >Feng2 Feng Ferng Fung4 Fung / Fong
35 Song4 Sung Soong Sung3 Shung (?)
36 Su1 Su Sou1 So
37 >Cao2 Tsao Cou4 Cho
38 Lu4 Lu Luk6 Luk (?)
39 >Mai4 Mai Maak6 Mak Muk
40 Dong3 Tong Dung2 Tung
41 >Yu2 Yu Jyu1 or Jyu4 ? Yu
42 Han2 Han Hon4 Han
43 Ren4 Jen Jam4 or Jam6? Yam Yum
44 >Jiang3 Chiang Chung Zoeng2 Cheung Chiang
45 Gu4 Ku Gu3 Gu Goo
46 >Zhong1 Chong Zung1 Chung
47 Fang1 Fang Fong1 Fong
48 Du4 Tu Dou6 To / Do
49 >Ding1 Ting Ding1 Ting Ding
50 Yao2 Yao Jiu4 Yao
51 Pan1 P'an (Pan) Pun1 Poon
52 >Jiang1 Chiang Goeng1 Geung
53 Tan2 T'an (Tan) Taam4 Tam Tom Hom
54 >Qiu1 Chiu Chiou Jau1 Yau
55 >Xiao4 Hsiao Ciu3 Chiu
56 >Jin1 Chin Kim Gam1 Kam Gum
57 >Jia3 Chia Gaa2 Ga
58 >Tian2 T'ien (Tien) Tin4 Tin
59 >Cui1 Tsui Tsuei Ceoi1 Cheui (?)
60 >Cheng2 Ch'eng (Cheng) Cing4 Ching

Reference for Table 1

External Links

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Chinese family name".

Last Modified:   2004-01-02

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