101 Most Common Surnames in China and Their Meanings (2023)
23,813 surnames have been recorded throughout the history of China, of which 5,662 surnames are still in active use today, however, the top 100 are extremely common, making up 85.9% of the 1.4 billion population in China. In fact, 596.3 million Chinese people, or 42.9% of the population share the same 10 family names!
So what are the most common family names in China right now?
The Ministry of Public Security of China surveys registered names and populations every year. According to the most recent report released in January 2022, these are the top 20 most common Chinese surnames:
- 王 (Wáng): 101.5 Million
- 李 (Lǐ): 100.9 Million
- 张 (Zhāng): 95.4 Million
- 刘 (Liú): 72.1 Million
- 陈 (Chén): 63.3 Million
- 杨 (Yáng): 46.2 Million
- 黄 (Huáng): 33.7 Million
- 赵 (Zhào): 28.6 Million
- 吴 (Wú): 27.8 Million
- 周 (Zhōu): 26.8 Million
- 徐 (Xú): 20.2 Million
- 孙 (Sūn): 19.4 Million
- 马 (Mǎ): 19.1 Million
- 朱 (Zhū): 18.1 Million
- 胡 (Hú): 16.5 Million
- 郭 (Guō): 15.8 Million
- 何 (Hé): 14.8 Million
- 林 (Lín): 14.2 Million
- 罗 (Luó): 14.2 Million
- 高 (Gāo): 14.1 Million
Compared with 2021, the ranking hasn’t changed much. With 101.5 million people sharing the surname, 王 (Wáng) remains the most common surname in China, followed by 李 (Lǐ), 张 (Zhāng), 刘 (Liú), and 陈 (Chén). The only change to the top 20 list is that 罗 (Luó) went up from 20 to 19 with a small spike in births, taking the place of 高 (Gāo).
Do you have any Chinese friends or colleagues sporting one of these top 20 common last names from the 2022 government statistics? If not, there’s a pretty good chance their surnames would show up in the top 100 list which I include in the next section!
Also interested in Chinese given names? Check out our guide to the most popular Chinese names, where you’ll find lists of top names for boys and girls in China of 2022, as well as historical trends in baby names over the last 70 years!
And now, I’ll walk you through each surname’s origin and meaning in detail. Before that, there are two things you need to know.
1. Common Chinese family names have only one syllable or character. But double-character and multiple-character family names do exist (they’re called compound surnames). You’ll see examples of these later in this article.
2. Pronunciation of the family names is based on Mandarin Chinese and uses the official romanization scheme in mainland China called “Pinyin”. People from Hongkong, Macau, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia usually base the romanization on how the names sound in their dialects with other schemes (e.g. Jyutping, Wade-Giles). So it’s common to have different transliterations for the same family name, like “Chen”, “Chan”, “Chin”, “Tan” and so on for Mr 陈 depending on which part of the Chinese speaking world he comes from.
All right, without further ado, let’s check out the complete list of the most commonly occurring surnames in China, along with details on each name’s origin and meaning.
Top 10 Surnames in China
The 2022 government report reveals that 30.8% of China’s registered population bears one of the top 5 surnames: 王 (Wáng), 李 (Lǐ), 张 (Zhāng), 刘 (Liú), and 陈 (Chén).
1. 王 (Wáng): 101.5 Million
7.25 % of the Chinese people have the surname 王 (Wáng), making it not only the most common surname in China but also the world. The character 王 means ‘king’. It’s composed of three horizontal lines representing the sky, earth, and people, and a vertical line that connects them, indicating they are all ruled by the king.
The family name 王 which has a royal origin is pronounced and spelled differently among various Chinese dialect groups. For Mandarin speakers, the surname is spelled ‘Wang’. Among Cantonese and Hakka speakers, however, this surname is spelled ‘Wong’. Hokkien speakers spell the surname Wang as ”Ong”. Finally, in Teochew, it’s spelled ‘Heng’.
Famous people with the surname 王 (Wáng): fashion designer Vera Wang (Chinese name: 王薇薇 Wáng Wēiwēi)
2. 李 (Lǐ): 100.9 Million
李 (Lǐ) comes in a close second by representing 100.9 million Chinese. It used to be the most common surname in China, but it has now been eclipsed by 王 (Wáng).
The surname 李 (Lǐ), meaning ‘plum’, originated from the plum tree, a totem in ancient China. It was the imperial surname in the Tang dynasty. 李 is generally spelled ’Li’ in Mandarin and Hokkien. In Cantonese and Hakka, it is spelled ‘Lee’ or ’Lei’.
Famous people with the surname 李 (Lǐ): iconic actor and martial artist Bruce Lee (Chinese name: 李小龙 Lǐ Xiǎolóng)
3. 张 (Zhāng): 95.4 Million
张 (Zhāng) is the third most common surname in China and the first in Shanghai. The character 张 is in fact a drawing of a bow and arrows. It originated from 挥 (Huī), the grandson of the Yellow Emperor who was bestowed the surname 张 (Zhāng) after he invented the bow and arrow. The surname Zhang can be found in many other languages, for example, ‘Archer’ in English.
张 is pronounced and spelled differently among various Chinese speakers. In Mandarin Pinyin, the surname is spelled ‘Zhang’. In Taiwan, ‘Chang’, the traditional Wade-Giles spelling is used. Cantonese speakers spell the surname ‘Cheung’ or ‘Cheong’, Hakka speakers spell and pronounce it as ‘Chong’. Foochowese speakers spell it as ‘Tiong’ or “Diong”. And finally, in Hokkien, the surname is spelled ‘Teo’ or ‘Teoh’.
Famous people with the surname 张 (Zhāng): Hong Kong singer Jacky Cheung (Chinese name: 张学友 Zhāng Xuéyǒu)
4. 刘 (Liú): 72.1 Million
刘 (Liú) is the fourth most common Chinese last name. You certainly don’t want to mess with anyone whose family name is 刘 (Liú), as the meaning of the character is “kill’ – originally.
Joking aside, 刘 (Liú) was the royal surname in the Han Dynasty two thousand years ago. In Cantonese, Hokkien, and Teochew, it’s spelled and pronounced as ‘Low’ or ‘Lau’. In Hakka, it’s spelled ‘Liew’ or ‘Lew’.
Famous people with the surname 刘 (Liú): Chinese-American actress Liu Yifei (Chinese name: 刘亦菲 Liú Yìfēi), who starred as Mulan in the Disney live-action film Mulan.
5. 陈 (Chén): 63.3 Million
The fifth most common family name in China is 陈 (Chén). It has its origin from the ancient kingdom Chen, which is located in Henan province today.
‘Chen’ is the Pinyin spelling used in Mandarin. Among Cantonese and Hakka speakers, the surname is spelled and pronounced ‘Chan’. Hokkien and Teochew speakers spell it ‘Tan’. 陈 (Chén) is also the most common family name in Taiwan and Singapore.
The next five surnames – 杨 (Yáng), 黄 (Huáng), 赵 (Zhào), 吴 (Wú) and 周 (Zhōu) round out the top 10 most common surnames in China. They are the family names of 163.1 million Chinese people.
6. 杨 (Yáng): 46.2 Million
The sixth popular Chinese family name 杨 (Yáng) originally refers to ‘sun rising over poplar forest’, an ancient Totem from the Yang Kingdom founded during the 8th-9th century B.C.
Yang is the standard Mandarin Pinyin spelling. Cantonese speakers spell it ‘Yeung’, ’Yeong’, or ’Young’. Hakka speakers use ’Yong’ instead of ‘Yang’, and Hokkien speakers spell and pronounce the surname as ’Ngeo’ or ’Yiu’.
Famous people with the surname 杨 (Yáng): Chinese actress Yang Mi (Chinese name: 杨幂 Yáng Mì).
7. 黄 (Huáng): 33.7 Million
黄 (Huáng) is the seventh most common surname in China. This surname has the meaning of yellow and originated from the ancient Huang Kingdom founded in the 7th century B.C.
The Mandarin spelling and pronunciation is ’Huang’. Cantonese, Hakka speakers, however, spell and pronounce ‘Huang’ as ‘Wong’. In Hokkien and Teochew, it’s spelled ‘Ng’, ‘Eng’, ‘Ooi’ or ‘Wee’.
Famous people with the surname 黄 (Huáng): Chinese actor Huang Xiaoming (Chinese name: 黄晓明 Huáng Xiǎomíng).
8. 赵 (Zhào): 28.6 Million
The eighth most common last name in China is 赵 (Zhào). It originated from the ancient kingdom Zhao. 赵 (Zhào) was the surname of the Song Dynasty royalty (year 960-1279). As a result, it appeared first in the famous Chinese book ‘The Hundred Family Surnames (百家姓 Bai Jia Xing) ’ which listed the top 100 Chinese surnames at that time.
‘Zhao’ is the Mandarin Romanization in Pinyin; however, in the Wade-Giles system still used in Taiwan, ‘Zhao’ is Romanized as ’Chao’. Cantonese speakers spell it as ’Chiu’ or ’Ziu’, and in Hokkien, it’s spelled and pronounced as ’Teo’.
Famous people with the surname 赵 (Zhào): Chinese comedian Zhao Benshan (Chinese name: 赵本山 Zhào Běnshān).
9. 吴 (Wú): 27.8 Million
The ninth most common Chinese surname 吴 (Wú) originated from the Wu Kingdom located in the present Jiangsu Province (Wu dialect was also named after this kingdom). The original meaning of 吴 (Wú) is ‘loud’, ‘noisy’.
Cantonese and Hakka speakers spell and pronounce ‘Wu’ as ’Ng’. Hokkien and Teochew speakers spell it as ‘Goh’ or ‘Go’. In Foochowese, it’s spelled as ‘Ngu’.
Famous people with the surname 吴 (Wú): Brunei-born actor and singer Wu Chun (Chinese name: 吴尊 Wú Zūn).
10. 周 (Zhōu): 26.8 Million
周 (Zhōu) breaks into the top 10 surnames in China with 26.8 million people. The history of 周 (Zhōu) can be traced back to the era of Yellow Emperor (five thousand years ago). It has its origin from the Zhou clan at the time. The original meaning of 周 is ‘dragon’.
In Taiwan, 周 (Zhōu) is romanized ’Chou’ among Mandarin speakers. Cantonese speakers pronounce ‘Zhou’ as ’Chow’ or ’Chau’. Hakka and Hokkien speakers pronounce it as ’Chew’, ‘Chiu’, or ‘Chu’.
Famous people with the surname 周 (Zhōu): Taiwanese singer Jay Chou (Chinese name: 周杰伦 Zhōu Jiélún).
Top Chinese Surnames Ranks 11-20
Here are the next ten common surnames in China, from 11 to 20, along with their meanings.
11. 徐 (Xú): 20.2 Million
The surname 徐 (Xú) originated from the ancient kingdom Xu located in the present Anhui Province. The original meaning of the character is ‘slowly’, ‘calmly’. An alternate spelling of ‘Xu’ in Chinese dialects is ‘Hsu’.
12. 孙 (Sūn): 19.4 Million
孙 (Sūn) means ’grandchild, descendant’ in Chinese. The surname was the imperial family name of the Wu Kingdom during the Three Kingdoms Period.
13. 马 (Mǎ): 19.1 Million
马 (Mǎ) means ‘horse’ in Chinese, however, as a surname, 马 (Mǎ) has nothing to do with the horse, but rather the area 马服 (Mǎfú) located in the present Hebei Province. A variant in spelling is ‘Mah’.
14. 朱 (Zhū): 18.1 Million
朱 (Zhū) means ’vermilion red’. The surname refers to the ancient Kingdom of Zhu, which existed in what is now Shandong province. 朱 (Zhū) was the imperial surname of the Ming dynasty. The alternative spelling of ‘Zhu’ is ‘Chu’ based on Chinese regional dialects.
15. 胡 (Hú): 16.5 Million
胡 (Hú) means ‘beard’, ‘whiskers’ in Chinese. Duke of Chen Kingdom, a descendant of the Emperor Shun (2257–2205 B.C.) was bestowed the family name 胡 (Hú), and his descendants adopted this name as their surname. Hokkien speakers spell and pronounce the surname as ‘Oh’.
16. 郭 (Guō): 15.8 Million
The original meaning of 郭 (Guō) is ‘outer city wall’. The surname refers to the ancient Kingdom of Xiguo. Among Cantonese speakers, ‘Guo’ is spelled and pronounced ’Kwok’. Hakka speakers use ’Kok’, and Hokkien speakers spell and pronounce it as ’Kuek’ or ’Kweh’.
17. 何 (Hé): 14.8 Million
何 (Hé) originally means ‘carry the load’ in Chinese. The surname 何 (Hé) can be traced far back to the Yellow Emperor period. However, the prevalent theory about the origin of the surname 何 (Hé) is that it stemmed and branched from the surname 韩 (Hán).
18. 林 (Lín): 14.2 Million
The Chinese surname 林 (Lín) means ‘forest’. In Cantonese, it’s spelled as ‘Lam’, while in Hokkien, Hakka, and Foochowese, it’s spelled as ‘Lim’.
19. 罗 (Luó): 14.2 Million
罗 (Luó) originally means ‘bird catching net’ in Chinese. The surname originated from the Luo Kingdom during the Zhou dynasty (1122–221 B.C.). Some variants in spelling include ‘Loh’, ‘Law’ and ‘Lau’.
20 高 (Gāo): 14.1 Million
The Chinese family name 高 (Gāo) can be literally translated as “high” or “tall”. It comes from the name of the area ‘Gao’ in the state of Qi during the Western Zhou dynasty (1122–771 B.C.). Some places, such as Taiwan, usually romanize this family name into ‘Kao’. In Hong Kong, it is romanized as ‘Ko’. In Macau, it is romanized as ‘Kou’.
Top Chinese Surnames Ranks 21-101
Want more? Here’s the list of the Chinese surnames ranked between 21 and 101.
21. 郑 (Zhèng)
22. 梁 (Liáng)
23. 谢 (Xiè)
24. 宋 (Sòng)
25. 唐 (Táng)
26. 许 (Xǔ)
27. 韩 (Hán)
28. 邓 (Dèng)
29. 冯 (Féng)
30. 曹 (Cáo)
31. 彭 (Péng)
32. 曾 (Zēng)
33. 肖 (Xiāo)
34. 田 (Tián)
35. 董 (Dǒng)
36. 潘 (Pān)
37. 袁 (Yuán)
38. 蔡 (Cài)
39. 蒋 (Jiǎng)
40. 余 (Yú)
41. 于 (Yú)
42. 杜 (Dù)
43. 叶 (Yè)
44. 程 (Chéng)
45. 魏 (Wèi)
46. 苏 (Sū)
47. 吕 (Lǚ)
48. 丁 (Dīng)
49. 任 (Rèn)
50. 卢 (Lú)
51. 姚 (Yáo)
52. 沈 (Shěn)
53. 钟 (Zhōng)
54. 姜 (Jiāng)
55. 崔 (Cuī)
56. 谭 (Tán)
57. 陆 (Lù)
58. 范 (Fàn)
59. 汪 (Wāng)
60. 廖 (Liào)
61. 石 (Shí)
62. 金 (Jīn)
63. 韦 (Wéi)
64. 贾 (Jiǎ)
65. 夏 (Xià)
66. 付 (Fù)
67. 方 (Fāng)
68. 邹 (Zōu)
69. 熊 (Xióng)
70. 白 (Bái)
71. 孟 (Mèng)
72. 秦 (Qín)
73. 邱 (Qiū)
74. 侯 (Hóu)
75. 江 (Jiāng)
76. 尹 (Yǐn)
77. 薛 (Xuē)
78. 闫 (Yán)
79. 段 (Duàn)
80. 雷 (Léi)
81. 龙 (Lóng)
82. 黎 (Lí)
83. 史 (Shǐ)
84. 陶 (Táo)
85. 贺 (Hè)
86. 毛 (Máo)
87. 郝 (Hǎo)
88. 顾 (Gù)
89. 龚 (Gōng)
90. 邵 (Shào)
91. 万 (Wàn)
92. 覃 (Qín)
93. 武 (Wǔ)
94. 钱 (Qián)
95. 戴 (Dài)
96. 严 (Yán)
97. 莫 (Mò)
98. 孔 (Kǒng)
99. 向 (Xiàng)
100. 常 (Cháng)
101. 欧 (Ōu)
Most Common Double-character Chinese Surnames
While the vast majority of Chinese family names consist of only one character (one syllable), dozens of double-character family names have survived into modern times. They are commonly referred to as ‘复姓 fùxìng’ – compound surnames.
There are many origins of compound surnames. Some derive from royal or official titles, place-names, professions, while others originate from non-Han Chinese clans that lived in ancient China or were simply created by combining two single-character family names.
Only a few double-character surnames are still commonly seen in China nowadays, with 欧阳 (Ōuyáng), 上官 (Shàngguān), 皇甫 (Huángfǔ) being the most popular ones, shared by 1.271 million Chinese people.
Though becoming rare in real life, compound surnames can still be found quite commonly in Chinese Wuxia novels and movies (a genre of fiction featuring the lives and adventures of martial artists in ancient China) as the names sort of ooze a “martial-chivalric” feel and seem extraordinary.
Here is the list of the 14 most common Chinese surnames with two characters.
- 欧阳 (Ōuyáng): 1.117 Million
- 上官 (Shàngguān): 89 Thousand
- 皇甫 (Huángfǔ): 65 Thousand
- 令狐 (Línghú): 55 Thousand
- 诸葛 (Zhūgě): 49 Thousand
- 司徒 (Sītú): 47 Thousand
- 司马 (Sīmǎ): 23 Thousand
- 申屠 (Shēntú): 19 Thousand
- 夏侯 (Xiàhóu): 11 Thousand
- 贺兰 (Hèlán): 10 Thousand
- 完颜 (Wányán): 7 Thousand
- 慕容 (Mùróng): 5 Thousand
- 尉迟 (Yùchí): 4 Thousand
- 长孙 (Zhǎngsūn): 3 Thousand
Most Common Family Names for Chinese Newborns
王 (Wáng) is the most common surname in China, but it’s not the most common surname among Chinese babies.
According to the data from the 2021 Chinese government report, 李 (Lǐ) is the most common surname given to newborns in China the previous year.
10.035 million babies were born in 2020, and 李 (Lǐ) came out on top with 725,972 babies registering it as their last name. It was followed by 王 (Wáng), 张 (Zhāng), 刘 (Liú), and 陈 (Chén).
The top 10 surnames for Chinese newborns are:
- 李 (Lǐ): 725,972
- 王 (Wáng): 707,524
- 张 (Zhāng): 670,291
- 刘 (Liú): 505,749
- 陈 (Chén): 464,557
- 杨 (Yáng): 339,075
- 黄 (Huáng): 253,963
- 吴 (Wú): 201,063
- 赵 (Zhào): 199,046
- 周 (Zhōu): 184,753
Why Are Chinese Surnames So Common?
You may have noticed while China has the world’s largest population (1.4 billion), it has a disproportionately small surname pool (less than 6,000 surnames in use). What’s more curious is that of these surnames, the top ones are incredibly common – if you stop a random person on the street in China, there’s a 30.8% chance he or she is either Wang, Li, Zhang, Liu, or Chen!
To put that into perspective, the U.S. – with only 23.64% of China’s population, reported 6.3 million surnames in its 2010 census. And the most common U.S. surname – Smith is shared by no more than 0.75% of its people.
So why do the Chinese have so few surnames? Why are Chinese surnames so common?
There are five reasons.
1. Many surnames are derived from place–names.
By place, I don’t mean just villages or towns. Many ‘big’ Chinese surnames originate from the names of ancient states or kingdoms, for example, 赵 (Zhào), which was about the size of Britain. You can picture the sheer number of people that adopted the surname to reflect where they were from.
2. It’s hard to create a new surname in Chinese.
Unlike European names that often come with many spelling variations (e.g. in French: Bernaud, Bernat, Bernau, Bernaus, Bernaut, Bernaux…), there is only one standard written form of each Chinese surname even though it sounds different in various dialects
For example, ‘Huang’ in Mandarin, ‘Wong’ in Cantonese, ‘Ng’ in Hokkien and ‘Wee’ in Hakka all correspond to the same surname written down in character: 黄. You can’t just add a random stroke to a Chinese character like adding a letter to a European name and create a new surname.
3. Many ancient surnames have disappeared naturally over time.
In China, the inheritance of surnames was predominantly through the male line. There were more surnames in ancient China than it is now, but with girls taking on their father’s surnames in each generation, many were lost or died out over time.
Compared with younger nations where surnames didn’t become common practice until more recently, China has lost substantially more surnames for its long history (surnames appeared in China at least 3,000 years earlier than in Europe).
4. China is less racially and ethnically diverse than most other countries.
Unlike countries where a wealth of minority groups add great diversity to surnames (e.g, two Hispanic surnames – Garcia and Rodriguez – made the top 10 list in the U.S.), China is overwhelmingly homogeneous. 91.51% of the country’s population is ethnically Han Chinese.
And over the long history, ethnic minorities also adopted Han Chinese surnames, sometimes voluntarily to assimilate into Han Chinese culture, sometimes given no choice during periods of war, conflict, or intense ‘ethnic unity’ campaigns.
5. People with rare characters in surnames are prompted to change names.
For centuries, people with rare characters in their names could get by, since documents were all handwritten. But when the digital age arrived, many faced issues of non-computable names – not all Chinese characters have been coded into computer systems (Chinese government worked hard in the past years to expand the database to include 70,000 characters whereas there are only 3,500 common characters in daily use, but even so, tens of thousands of even rarer characters were left out).
And if the character in your surname happens to be so rare that it’s not registered in the database or font library, you won’t be able to get a new digitized national ID card, and certainly can’t do anything online from opening a bank account to booking a train ticket. Many felt they had no choice but to change their surnames to a similar-sounding but more common character.
Family Name or Given Name?
A Chinese person’s name consists of a 姓 (xìng) – family name, and a 名 (míng) – given name (also known as ‘first name” in western culture). The family name is usually only one character, while the given name normally consists of one or two characters (two-character given name is more common nowadays).
Chinese people place more importance on the concept of a family than on any individual family member, hence, the family name comes before the given name.
Take the Chinese name 王建国 (Wáng Jiànguó) for example, the first character 王 (Wáng) is the family name, and 建国 (Jiànguó) is the given name. This is the most common type of Chinese name.
However, people with experience of living in the West sometimes reverse their names when interacting in English to conform to the common Western practice. If you are not sure whether a switch has been made when you meet Chinese people and they introduce themselves, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask which of their names is their family name or their given name.
How Important Is Family Name to Chinese People?
Compared with Westerners, the Chinese have a totally different attitude toward surnames.
Western families apparently place greater importance on selecting a cool, unique given name (e.g. Gravity Blue or Audio Science) than carrying on an ordinary, common family surname (e.g. Smith or Johnson).
Chinese, on the other hand, really don’t care that much about given names and instead place greater importance on the extremely limited number of family names, as Chinese society regards family names as a symbol of one’s blood relationship.
Feudal-minded people prefer sons simply because then their grandchildren are more likely to inherit their family name. Similar to most other countries, children in China usually keep their father’s surname (but it’s not a must).
Fun Facts about Chinese Family Names
- The Chinese character 姓 (xìng), meaning ‘family name’, has a 女 (nǚ) radical, meaning ‘female’, an indication that the Chinese had once a matriarchal society.
- In the past, only privileged people had a family name. Common people did not, until they were bestowed.
- Chinese women usually keep their maiden name after marriage rather than adopting their husband’s surname.
- Chinese family names are often inspired by daily things and activities, and hence can be anything. For instance: sugar, salt, oil, vinegar, tea, wine, money, laugh, cry, live, die…
- The simplest Chinese family name consists of only one stroke: 一 yī (meaning: one)
- The longest Chinese family name consists of 17 characters: 鲁纳娄于古母遮熟多吐母苦啊德补啊喜
王 (Wáng) is the most common surname in China right now, with 101.5 million people sharing the family name, according to the new data released by China’s Ministry of Public Security in 2022.
陈 (Chén), which is often romanized as ‘Chan’ by Cantonese speakers, is the most common surname in Hong Kong, with 10.11% of the Hong Kong population sharing the family name. 陈 (Chén) is also the fifth most common Chinese surname on a global level.
According to data released by the Department of Household Registration, Ministry of the Interior Taiwan, 陈 (Chén) is the most common surname in Taiwan, with 2.51 million Taiwanese people, or 10.97% of the population sharing the family name. It is followed by 林 (Lín), 黄 (Huáng), 张 (Zhāng), and 李 (Lǐ).
贶 (kuàng) takes the top spot in rarest Chinese surnames as of the latest China census. The family name, created in the late Qing Dynasty, means ‘bestow’ and has less than 100 bearers in the country (mostly based in Anyang, Henan Province).
Chinese family names appear to be short in Pinyin romanization because the vast majority of them are inspired by the most common things in daily life that consist of only one syllable. But the characters actually convey far more information than they sound. For instance, 陈 (Chén) can refer to the ancient state of Chen in Zhou Dynasty or Chen – another dynasty a hundred years apart, as well as meaning ‘old’, ‘used’, ‘arrange’, ‘describe’, and ‘instruct” in different contexts.
The fundamental reason Chinese surnames come first in name order is that in Chinese culture, collectivism is much more important than the self. Surnames, being the symbol of relationships with other members of the group and the interconnectedness between people, is the first identity marker of each individual, and it thus only appropriate to be said ahead of the specific given name.
Chinese citizens have the freedom to take up the surname of either parent or even grandparent, although traditionally children take their father’s surname as it’s strongly believed that the surname carries on the family.
This, however, has been gradually changing in the last few years. An increasing number of newborns took their mother’s surname as women in China start to enjoy more independence and higher status, especially in affluent areas and for a couple’s second child. Official statistics in 2022 show that one in thirteen babies born in China last year were given their mother’s surname.
Yes. There’s no law against marrying a person with the same surname in China and it’s totally socially acceptable. China has one of the smallest surname pools in the world and it’s not uncommon to see two people with the same surname get married. (Sometimes even with the same full name!)
Chinese surnames play a central role in each person’s identity. They are the first introduction of someone to the Chinese way of dealing with things (Chinese given names are only used among family and close friends). Make sure to ask “what’s your surname” – NOT “what’s your name” when you first meet a Chinese. Here’s how you raise the question.