Three Zhang, Four Li: The Secret History of Chinese Surnames

Three Zhang, Four Li: The Secret History of Chinese Surnames
Apr 18, 2011 By Susie Gordon ,

When you want to refer to regular folk in Mandarin, you can either use the phrase Zhang san  Li si (张三李四) meaning “three Zhang and four Li”, or or laobaixing (老百姓) meaning “old hundred names”. Both sayings refer to the relatively small number of surnames shared by the majority of Chinese people. Laobaixing comes from the fact that around 85% of Chinese people share just 100 surnames; Zhang san Li si refers to two of the most popular, used by 7.9% and 7.1% of the population. The famous Song Dynasty text known as Baijiaxing lists the 500-odd Chinese surnames in common use, including 60 that have two characters. So why are there so few names?

Three Zhang, Four Li: The Secret History of Chinese Surnames

The Chinese surname tradition began way back in pre-Imperial times. Before the Warring States period in the fifth century B.C., only the nobility and high ranked feudal officials had surnames, or xing (姓). The presence of the female radical in the xing character implies that the names were passed down from the mother. Throughout the Warring States era before unification in 221 BC, shi (氏) tribe or clan names were used by the non-nobles in the feudal system. Many survive today as surnames, such as Ouyang (欧阳) from the fiefdom of Ouyangting, and Meng (孟), Zhong (仲), Shu (叔) and Ji (季) to signify the place in the family birth order. Shi also included profession names like Tao (陶) meaning “potter” and Tu (屠) for “butcher”. Loftier jobs like war minister – Sima (司马) – also became surnames. Around 20 double character surnames like Sima and Ouyang have survived into modern times.

Interestingly, certain names are more common in the north of China. Wang (王) is the most popular, shared by 10% of people. This is followed by Li (李), Zhang (张) and Liu (刘). In the south, however, the top three are Chen (陈), Li (李) and Huang (黄). Generally, names used by the peasant majority have survived as popular surnames today, for the simple reason that the peasantry was so large. They often used the name of their state, such as Song (宋), Wu (吴) and Chen (陈), hence the popularity of these surnames.
Sadly, many documents about the history of Chinese surnames were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, when the Communists attempted to eradicate ties with the past. Ancestral temples were sacked, and genealogical records were burned. However, Sima Qian’s Historical Records survived the purges, and offer plenty of information about the early noble houses or shibiao (世表). Historian Ouyang Xiu’s New History of the Tang also survived, which also contains important data regarding family names.

The ten most common Chinese surnames are shared by nearly half of the population. They are Li (李), Wang (王), Zhang (张), Zhao (赵), Chen (陈), Yang (杨), Wu (吴), Liu (刘), Huang (黄) and Zhou (周). There are several reasons and theories behind why there are so few Chinese names. One is that low inward migration from foreign countries kept the pool of names relatively uniform. Conversely, in a country like the USA that was built on immigration, the surname bank is understandably higher, with Anglo-Saxon names appearing alongside Hispanic and Asian. Another is that many of the most popular Chinese surnames have many different origins. So while a person with a rare surname like Cen or a Gu may be able to trace his or her origins to a single ancestral area, a Li or a Wang will have problems. The name Li has over 100 possible origins. So previously there would have been 100 distinct Li family groups dotted around, all of which ended up under the general Li heading. Also, certain surnames hold particular kudos, so families have been keen to preserve and propagate them. Anyone surnamed Kong (孔) can claim common ancestry with Confucius, while people called Ji (姬) believe that they are descended from the Yellow Emperor, who came from the Ji River area in modern Hebei.

The history of China’s surnames is a mix of sociology, politics and geography, and naming traditions form part of that oft-vaunted 5000 years of history.

Related links
The Chinese Name Game
Confusion over Confucian Names for Foreigners
Who Are We? Race and Face in China

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Keywords: Chinese name history why so few Chinese surnames history of Chinese surnames Chinese surnames


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These 2 links might be of interest:

Apr 20, 2011 05:50 Report Abuse



Very interesting!
I once heard that in the past the Chinese community and civilization went through a lot of assimillation and adoption of other or smaller tribes into the bigger tribe HANZU, is this true? Could this probably account for a few surnames?

Apr 19, 2011 06:06 Report Abuse


Alan Wicker

Very good I'm beginning to understand Eminem, now.
Alan Wicker.

Apr 19, 2011 03:25 Report Abuse


Canny Loh

This is quite interesting. I wonder where my surname, Loh, comes from.

Apr 19, 2011 02:09 Report Abuse



Well maybe you should have a look at how it is spelled in Chinese. If it is of Chinese origin that is. Sounds...Hakka?

Apr 21, 2011 06:20 Report Abuse


comment|14878|37889 the way the security code must be typed in lower case, UPPER CASE doesn't work!

Apr 18, 2011 23:02 Report Abuse



B.A.D., thank you for pointing out the error. We have fixed the problem.

Apr 19, 2011 02:25 Report Abuse