If you are of Chinese descent, learning about your heritage can be a little overwhelming. It can feel like the entire Chinese population has your surname. But each individual Chinese clan name has a lot to say about national and ethnic identity – even if your surname is common, it could even reveal a lot of information about your history.
In this guide, you’ll learn about the most common Chinese surnames and their unique histories.
Mainland China is a diverse place, so your heritage is likely not monolithic either. Chances are you are ethnically Han Chinese – the majority ethnic group – but there are 55 other non-Han ethnic groups and tons of Chinese dialects. Even on a basic level, you can learn a lot about yourself based on which group or dialect your surname comes from.
Learning about Chinese history isn’t just learning about different dynasties, there are a multitude of cultures and customs that your family could be a part of and that affect your surname. While we’ll mostly be dealing with Han Chinese surnames, some common surnames are popular among other ethnic groups like the Hakka Chinese or the Manchus.
Clan names in China actually go back further than surnames in Europe. After all, China is a huge country with a rich culture, and Chinese history stretches further back than you might expect. Unlike the surnames in the West which emerged around the late medieval era, Chinese family names can be thousands of years old.
Legend has it that the first surnames were decreed by the Yellow Emperor as early as the third millennium BC. By the Song dynasty, people were commonly using family names. There was even a famous Chinese book called the Baijiaxing or “Hundreds of Chinese Surnames” which contained over 500 surnames.
It’s possible that your surname is in that book of Hundreds of Chinese Surnames. Of the 12,000 names that have been used throughout Chinese history, about 25% are still in use by Chinese people today.
If your surname is one of the frequently occurring surnames in China, then you may come from southern China where entire villages can have the same surname.
Many ordinary clans began this way, with a single family subsuming a nearby clan and imposing their surname. This created huge communities of the same family name.
Many surnames in China are also derived from ancestral stewardship of land. Your name could come from the official that was assigned to a certain province or who ruled over the land you came from.
A major power for thousands of years, China is a melting pot of trade. Many areas around China have also been affected by waves of immigration. Other countries have some versions of Chinese family names that have been adapted to their country: the Vietnamese name Trần, the Korean “Jin”, and the Japanese “Chin” all share a common root: “陳”, which is originally Chinese.
Despite being ancient, there is a ton of genealogical information about Chinese clan names. In China, many people kept genealogical records called “pudie” or, more popularly, “jiapu”.
If you have one of the old common Chinese family names, then there should be a lot of information available on its history. Jiapu usually tells you something about the first ancestor to hold the surname, such as who they were, what they did, what family values they held, and which children were born to him.
Chinese people have been a part of the American story for hundreds of years. Those who came from mainland China largely settled west of the Rocky Mountains (in states like California), bringing with them their surnames.
Unfortunately, many of these names were Westernized at the border. As there is no standardized way to translate Chinese names, this resulted in countless versions of the same last name. For example, the name “Zhong” can also be spelled “Chung.”
Further complicating this, if you come from any of the Chinese minority ethnic groups and speak a dialect different from Mandarin, the differences are as pronounced as the differences between English and German. One surname can have a variety of different spellings and meanings.
It’s also possible your surname is a first name. Some Chinese clan names in America were actually the first names of the ancestors who came over. Chinese conventions put family names first and, due to confusion at the border, some first names and last names may have been swapped.
Like in Western culture, Chinese surnames are shared between the family. Unlike European practice, however, surnames in China come first rather than last. For example, a child named Jun-ling born to the Zhang family would be Zhang Jun-ling.
First names or given names are often two syllables, while last names are almost always monosyllabic. This is because most Chinese family names are only one character. There are some family names with two syllables (and two Chinese characters) but those are extremely rare.
Chinese names follow the patrilineal line, meaning that children are given their father’s surname. Chinese women do not take their husband’s surname, but they might add their husband’s name to the beginning of her name – ultimately, taking both their surnames. As stated previously, however, in Chinese society, having two separate surnames is very rare.
Many people of Chinese descent in the US have two names: their official Romanized name and their Chinese name. Someone with the very Chinese name of Zhang Jun-ling might pick a Romanized name that’s close to their Chinese name, such as “June”, or they may go for something completely different like “Susan”.
Susan’s Romanized name would then be Susan Zhang, or she might even incorporate her Chinese name in her full name (e.g. Susan Jun-Ling Zhang). Although Chinese conventions put the last name first, most of the Chinese diaspora have adapted to Western naming conventions and put their surname last.
Translating Chinese surnames into foreign languages poses a unique challenge because one character can have many Westernized spellings. For example, the surname 陳 can be written as any of the following: Chin, Chinn, Chen, Chan, Tan, Dan, Tin, Tjin, or Ting.
Here are the top ten surnames for people of Chinese descent in America. These names are Romanized, but as Chinese is a tonal language, some of these may sound different when said out loud. There are different Chinese language variants, but we’ve stuck to Mandarin and included the Chinese characters for clarity.
Common surnames of Chinese-Americans are different from the most common surnames in mainland China. Here is a list of surnames from China – see if any are familiar to you or your family!
Chinese names might seem complicated because their culture is worlds away from ours, but surnames are the same in most cultures. They are names that tie us together to our family, and Chinese surnames are no different. There are millions of Chinese-Americans living in the US today and their family names hold a rich heritage of where they come from.
You can learn so much just by digging around in your family name. If you have fallen down a rabbit hole of heritage and are looking for other places to learn more about your history, old family albums are always a good place to start.
You’ll be surprised how much you can learn from them! If you find photos that are in bad shape and need repair, Image Restoration Center is the perfect service for you. We are experts and our services are affordable, easy to use, and 100% remote. Contact us and we’ll restore your photos to near-original condition!