Paul began learning Chinese at DLI in 1967. He spent an immersion in Taiwan 1984-1985 improving Mandarin listening, speaking, and reading.
Two Chinese Students
Every language has its most common list of family names or surnames. For a long time, the most common English surnames were Smith and Jones. In Chinese, there is also a listing of the 100 most common surnames. Ten most common Chinese surnames are introduced in this article along with well-known Chinese who have used these family names.
The Ten Most Common Chinese Surnames
According to Wikipedia and my personal experiences over the past years, the ten most common Chinese surnames in the world today are as follows:
1. Wang 王
Wang which means the king is the most common Chinese surname in the world today. Almost 10 percent of the Chinese in mainland China have this family name.
This surname which has ancient origins is spelled and pronounced differently among various Chinese dialect groups. For Mandarin speakers in most of China, the surname is spelled, Wang. Among Cantonese and Hakka speakers, however, this family name is spelled, Wong. Finally, Minnan and Hokkien speakers spell the surname Wang as Ong or Bong.
Some of the well-known Chinese having the family name of Wang include Wang Shiyan, a painter; Wang Wei, a Tang dynasty poet; Wang Dan, student leader of the Tiananmen dissents of 1989; and Wang Ming, a former emperor.
2. Li 李
The second most common Chinese surname is Li. It has the meaning of a plum or plum tree.
Li which was the family name of emperors in the Tang dynasty is generally spelled Li in Mandarin and Hokkien or Minnan. In Cantonese and Hakka, it is spelled, Lee or Lei.
Some of the more famous Chinese with the surname of Li are Li Er or Laozi, a philosopher; Li Bai, a poet of the Tang dynasty; Bruce Lee or Li Xiaolong, a martial arts movie star; Li Teng-hui former President of Taiwan; and Li Peng, former Premier of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1989.
3. Zhang 张
The third most popular Chinese family name is Zhang. It has the meaning of drawing a bow or an archer.
Zhang having its origin from the ancient state of Zhang is spelled and pronounced differently among various Chinese speakers. Zhang is the Pinyin spelling on mainland China, but Chang is the traditional Wade-Giles spelling used in Taiwan among Mandarin speakers. For Hong Kong and Cantonese speakers, the surname is spelled, Cheung. Hakka speakers spell and pronounce Zhang, Chong, but Minnan and Hokkien speakers spell and pronounce the surname Teo or Teoh.
Well-known Chinese having the surname Zhang include Zhang Xueliang, a former Manchurian warlord; Zhang Daqian, an artist; and Zhang Yimou, a mainland filmmaker. One of my friends also has the surname of Zhang.
4. Liu 刘
The fourth most common Chinese family name is Liu. Two thousand years ago, it was the surname of the Han dynasty ruling family.
Although the surname is spelled Liu in Mandarin, it is spelled and pronounced Lao in Cantonese, Hakka, and Minnan.
Some of the more famous Chinese bearing the surname of Liu include Liu Bang, the founder of the Han dynasty; Liu Shaoqi, a PRC politician; and Liu Zongyuan, a poet during the Tang dynasty.
5. Chen 陈
The fifth most common Chinese surname is Chen. It has its origin from the ancient Chen state.
Chen is the spelling and pronunciation used in mainland China or the PRC, however, the traditional spelling in Taiwan has been Ch'en. Among Cantonese and Hakka speakers, the surname is spelled and pronounced Chan. Minnan speakers spell and pronounce Chen as Tan.
Some of the more famous Chinese with the surname of Chen include Steven Chen, co-founder of Youtube; Chen Shui-bian, the first non-KMT President of the Republic of China (Taiwan) 2000-2008; and Jackie Chan, a Hong Kong actor. My former Chinese teacher was Arthur Ch'en and one of my good friends is Robert Chan.
6. Yang 杨
Yang is the sixth most common Chinese surname. Its origin is from the Yang clan founded during the 8th-9th century B.C.
Yang is the spelling and pronunciation of Mandarin speakers. Other Chinese linguistic groups have different spellings and pronunciations. Among Cantonese speakers, Yang is spelled and pronounced Yeung, Yeong, or Young. Hakka speakers use Yong instead of Yang, and Minnan speakers spell and pronounce Yang as Ngeo or Yiu.
Some famous Chinese with the surname of Yang include Yang Jin, the first emperor of the Sui dynasty 581-618 A.D; Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo; and Yang Liwei, a Chinese astronaut.
7. Huang 黄
The seventh most common surname is Huang. This surname has the meaning of yellow.
The Mandarin spelling and pronunciation is Huang. Minnan speakers, however, spell and pronounce Huang as Ng, and Cantonese spell and pronounce Huang as Wang.
A few well-known Chinese with the family name of Huang include Huang Menzan, the first Chinese-American fighter pilot; Huang Peiqian or Puey Ungpakorn, a Thai-Chinese bureaucrat who was instrumental in shaping Thailand's economic development and higher education; and Huang Hsin-Chieh, the first chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party DPP in Taiwan.
8. Zhao 赵
The eighth most common Chinese family name is Zhao. It was the royal surname of the Song dynasty during the years 960-1279.
Zhao is the Mandarin Romanization in Pinyin Chinese; however, in the Wade-Giles system still used in Taiwan, Zhao is Romanized as Chao. In Cantonese Zhao is spelled and pronounced as Chiu or Ziu while in Minnan. Zhao is spelled and pronounced as Teo.
Important Chinese figures bearing the surname of Zhao include Zhao Ziyang, the former President of China in 1989; Yuen Ren Chao, a Chinese linguist; and Vincent Zhao, an artist, and actor.
9. Zhou 周
Zhou is the ninth most common Chinese surname in the world. It has its origin in the Zhou dynasty many years ago.
Zhou is the Mandarin Pinyin Romanization used in China. In Taiwan, the name is Romanized Chou among Mandarin speakers. Hong Kong and Cantonese speakers Romanize and pronounce Zhou as Chow or Chau. Minnan speakers spell and pronounce Zhou as Chew or Chiu.
Well-known Chinese bearing the surname of Zhou include Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the PRC; Zhou Shuren, the great revolutionary Communist writer who used the pen name of Lu Xun; Zhou Long, a composer; and William Kwai Sun Chow, a martial artist.
10. Wu 吴
Finally, the tenth most common Chinese surname is Wu. The name for this surname originates in the ancient state of Wu in present Jiangsu Province.
The Mandarin spelling and pronunciation of this surname is Wu. Cantonese and Hakka speakers spell and pronounce Wu as Ng. Minnan and Hokkien speakers use the Romanization and spelling of Ngoh or Goh for Wu.
Notable Chinese with the surname of Wu include Wu Yi, Vice-Premier of the PRC; Wu Baifu, Taiwanese born Japanese inventor of instant noodles; and Woo Kwong Chiang, Hong Kong entrepreneur, billionaire, and politician.
Among the Chinese, there are only about 400 surnames that are used. The ten most commonly used among Chinese have been listed in this article.
Origins/Facts of Top 10 Chinese Surnames
Your Familiarity with Chinese Surnames
Ten Most Common Chinese Surnames
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2014 Paul Richard Kuehn
Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on January 07, 2015:
&peachpurple Thanks for your praise of this hub and I'm happy you liked it. Years ago, the rich Mandarin Chinese men had a lot of minor wives. I think these surnames are popular in most East Asian and Southeast Asian countries.
peachy from Home Sweet Home on January 07, 2015:
you did a great hub on the chinese names, yes these are popular surnames in malaysia and singapore. Most are LIM , TAN, CHAN, WONG, very common, must be their ancestors have many mistress
Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on December 22, 2014:
Thanks for the comments and I am very happy that you found my hub interesting. Hopefully, I can do a comparable hub on Thai surnames.
Pinky de Garcia on December 12, 2014:
This is an interesting article. I just knew it now. Thanks for sharing.
Voted up and interesting.
Bronwen Scott-Branagan from Victoria, Australia on December 12, 2014:
Thanks for an interesting hub. There are so many interesting topics concerning Mandarin and it's good to learn more about them.
Santi Lio from erehwon on December 12, 2014: