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Chinese is significantly lacking in options when it comes to family names, 姓 xing4. Although there are thousands of characters, and nearly infinite possibilities for combinations thereof, very few of them are used as surnames. This lack of options is compounded by the fact that there are no foreign surnames in China. Whereas an American with European ancestry may have a non-English name like “Von Trapp,” there is no such option in China. Therefore the number of surnames has long been small, and does not have much room to grow.
The traditional resource for researching Chinese surnames is a book called “百家姓 (bai3jia1xing4).” This reference dates back to the Song Dynasty (宋朝 song4chao2 960-1279 C.E.). The title translates as “One-hundred Family Names.” The book lists the 494 most common names of its era. Because of the rankings of most common names in the Baijiaxing, there is a folk saying in China: “张王李赵遍地刘 zhang1wang2li2zhao4bian4di4liu2,” which means that the five names Zhang, Wang, Li, Zhao and Liu are the most popular family names in China.
Although the Baijiaxing lists more than one hundred names, the top hundred are used by about eighty five percent of the population, according to a recent study. The prevalence of those hundred names is well known in China. In fact, the Chinese refer to commoners, or the masses of average people as “老百姓 lao3bai3xing4,” which literally means “old hundred names.”
The five names that were most popular in the Song dynasty, Zhang, Wang, li, and Liu, are still at the top of the list today. However, their rankings have changed. In the most recent studies, the Surname Li2 (李) is the most common name in China. Nearly eight percent of Chinese are named Li. After Li, the most popular name is Wang2 (王) at 7.4 percent of the population; followed by Zhang1 (张) at 7.1 percent. In total, there are 19 surnames that are used by 55.6 percent of Chinese, and the top hundred names are enough to address 87 percent of the population—that is to say that over one billion people share the same hundred family names.
There are two basic types of surnames for Han Chinese (China’s Ethnic Minorities’ names follow different rules). The most common type of surname is a single-character name, 单姓 dan1xing4. In the Baijiaxing, 434 names are single characters. The other sixty names are two-character names, 复姓 fu4xing4. One famous example of fu4xing4 is the ancient historian Sima Qian 司马迁. Double-character surnames are not common, but with more people combining the names of both parents, new double-character names are more frequently seen.
A legend explains the popularity of the name Li (李) that dates back to the Tang Dynasty. Historically, common Chinese people were not allowed to use the same surname as the emperor. In fact, the emperor’s name was so sacred, that during his reign, no one would even write the character for his name—it would even be left out of manuscript copies of classic texts. However, the emperor was also supposed to be like a father to all of his subjects.
When Li Shimin, 李世民 li2shi4min2, became emperor in 618, he decided that he would truly be a father to his subjects. He encouraged people to take his name instead of harassing other Lis. While many other family names lost numbers during the reign of certain emperors, the Lis retained their population due to the benevolent Emperor Li.
Most Chinese surnames that are used today trace their roots back to ancient times. There are several sources for Chinese family names:
In very early Chinese civilization, Chinese society was matriarchal, 母系氏族社会 mu3xi4shi4she4hui4. This fact has some interesting repercussions for Chinese surnames. First of all, this fact is reflected in the character for surname, 姓 xing4. The radical on the right-hand side of the character, 女字旁 nü3zi4pang4, indicates that the word is related to women. Traditionally, surnames were always passed down from mother to child. Because of the link between surnames and women, many surnames contain the female radical. For example, the names Ji1 姬, Si4 姒, and Jiang1 姜 all include that radical.
Some names that date back to ancient times are the symbols of tribal totems 图腾崇拜物 tu2teng2chong2bai4wu4. These names are usually objects or animals found in nature. They include such names as Ma3 马 “horse,” long2 龙 “Dragon,” Shan1 山 “Mountain” and yun2 云 “cloud.” All of these names are the symbols for various ancient tribes of Han Chinese.
For names that come from the male side of a family, one source is the name of a “Manor,” 居地特征 ju1di4te4zheng1. These names are similar to the titles of European gentry. For example, an English lord is appointed the “Earl of Oxford” and known as “Lord Oxford.” Chinese family names can come from similar appointments. The descendants of an official retain the name of his appointment.
Some names can also trace back to the place where people lived. So a name might simply translate as a location. In fact, sometimes all of the families in a town share a single name. This name may or may not be related to the location of the town. One result of shared names is that it complicates marriages. There is a saying that “同姓人五百年前是一家, tong2xing4ren2wu3bai3nian2qian2shi1yi4jia1.” This means that five hundred years ago people with the same name were part of the same family. By the traditional logic, men and women who share a surname cannot be married. Therefore, men often had to look outside their hometown for a wife. Nowadays, having the same name does not always deter people from marrying.