So Many People, So Few Surnames

Updated: 2007-07-20 08:33

The world's most populous nation has a long history of using surnames. But in an increasingly industrialized society, surnames are losing some of their functions. Yet their formation, development, and evolution through the ages mean surnames have become an important part of Chinese culture.

How surnames originated and developed is a fascinating subject involving various spheres from sociology, history, linguistics, philology, geography, folk customs, demography, to toponymy. A look into Chinese surnames opens a small window onto an interesting part of China's vast and varied culture.

Many cultures in the world became extinct with the demise of the nations that created them. Chinese surname culture has survived and developed over the past four or five thousand years. Surnames have been used to represent the origin of clans and families, recording the kindred formation of the Chinese nation. They have played an important role in making China a cohesive nation.

So Many People, So Few Surnames

Most Chinese surnames in use today were handed down from thousands of years ago, and some statistics argue that there are about Chinese 5,600 surnames, while the more accountable data is from 4,000 to 6,000, of which about 1,000 are most frequently used. Many surnames have clear origins and have evolved throughout history with rich and interesting stories. For instance, the surname Liu has five separate origins; meaning people with this surname today may actually be unrelated to each other. Meanwhile, other surnames, like Gu and Wu, originate from the same ancestor.

The Book of Family Names (Baijiaxing), a popular children's primer in ancient China, was written in 960. It listed 408 single-character surnames, and 30 double-character ones. These are some of the most common ones:

The top ten surnames used by about 40% of Chinese - more than 400 people: Zhang, Wang, Li, Zhao, Chen, Yang, Wu, Liu, Huang, and Zhou.

The second ten most popular surnames, used by more than 10% of Chinese: Xu, Zhu, Lin, Sun, Ma, Gao, Hu, Zheng, Guo, and Xiao.

The third ten most popular surnames, used by about 10% of Chinese: Xie, He, Xu (written with a different character from another Xu), Song, Sheng, Luo, Han, Deng, Liang, and Ye.

The following 15 surnames are also used by about 10% of the population: Fang, Cui, Cheng, Pan, Cao, Feng, Wang (written with a different character from another Wang), Cai, Yuan, Lu, Tang, Qian, Du, Peng, and Lu.

So in total, more than 70% of the Chinese population uses the same 45 surnames. The other 30% are less frequently used surnames like Mao, Jiang, Bai, Wen, Guan, Liao, and Chi etc.