Chinese last names have a history dating back more than 4,000 years. In many ways, Chinese surnames hold the key to understanding Chinese family history. By learning about your Chinese last name, you can uncover your family’s history and heritage.
What Can I Learn from My Chinese Surname?
In the Western world, identity-related documentation has usually been maintained by central, church, or state authorities. In China, families and clans kept all the documentation. For this reason, finding your Chinese surname is often the first step to uncovering your family’s history!
As well as your family origin, your surname can reveal details of your clan’s history, migration patterns, and current distribution.
Origin of Chinese Last Names
As early as the third millennium BC, the legendary Chinese Yellow Emperor is said to have ordered people to adopt hereditary family names. By the Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279), major family names were listed in the ancient poem Baijiaxing or Hundred Surnames. Containing 504 surnames and 564 characters, the poem became the classic crash course for teaching young scholars in Imperial China to read. The names in the poem were so well recognized that the work gave rise to the Chinese expression for ordinary folk—laobaixing—meaning “one hundred old surnames.” Out of the 12,000 family names that have been recorded throughout history, about 25 percent are still in use today.
Each family name has its own origin story, and historians can trace family history all the way back to the very first bearer of each name. Take the surname Zhong (also written Chung), for example. According to historical records, a Zhong family ancestor named Ye moved his family to safety in the Zhongli Mountains in Yingchuan (modern-day Henan province) in the late Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC) because of social instability and political turmoil. In an apparent need to change the family’s identity, Ye’s son Qi adopted the surname Zhong (钟), after the first character of Zhongli Mountain. This event marks the official start of the Zhong clan and made Zhong Qi the very first Zhong ancestor. Nowadays, there are well over 6 million people with the last name Zhong in mainland China alone, and it is the 54th most common Chinese surname.
How Chinese Surnames Have Changed
Originally, Chinese surnames were written using Chinese characters, or hanzi (汉字). However, descendants of overseas Chinese are often left only with their ancestors’ romanized names—“Francis Fung” or “Benjamin Lee,” for instance.
There was no standardized romanization system in place to transcribe Chinese names into foreign languages. In many cases, immigration officials unfamiliar with the foreign sounds they were hearing would simply guess how best to spell a migrant’s name.
The result can be confusing; for example, the surname 陳 can be written as Chen, Chin, Chan, Chinn, Tan, Dan, Tin, Tjin, or Ting. With each surname numbering tens of millions of bearers, it is crucial to narrow a name search to the correct surname.
Another complication stems from the group dialects that make up the Chinese language. Many of these dialects are as distinct from one another as separate languages—think the difference between English and French, for instance—and speakers of one dialect may not be able to understand speakers of another.
These dialects have different pronunciations for various Chinese characters. As a result, one surname could be pronounced and written in several different ways. This variation presents a real difficulty when it comes to working out which Chinese characters represent which romanized equivalents.
In addition, because of the Chinese practice of putting the surname before the given name, Chinese migrants’ surnames were also often incorrectly listed as their first names on official documents. For instance, in the name Long Kaiwei, the family name is Long (龙). This name order confused the foreign officials registering the arrival of migrants. Thus, although 99 percent of Chinese carry a single-character surname such as Lee, Fung, or Wong, many overseas Chinese descendants have double-character surnames, such as Kaiwei, Huaman, or Wing Ho, as officials transcribed given names as family names.
Further communication breakdowns between immigration officials and newly arrived migrants also confounded matters. For instance, many Chinese migrants took the question “What are you called?” literally, and would answer with their nickname, or the name they were most often referred to by friends. The syllable Ah- (阿) at the beginning of many Australian Chinese and American Chinese surnames is a direct result of this confusion; in Cantonese, adding Ah- before a man or woman’s name was, and still is, a common way of creating a nickname, meaning something like “dude” or “pal.” Thus, a person whose surname was Wong would become “Ahwong,” or “the pal, Wong” to his or her friends.
Finally, various anti-Chinese immigration policies, most notably the United States Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, caused many migrants to travel under forged papers. Many claimed to have familial ties with current Chinese American residents. If your ancestor was one of these “paper sons,” you may have some difficulties in finding the real name, as it won’t appear on any official documents.
Chinese Surnames in Other Countries
Not all Chinese family names are technicallyChinese. For centuries, the Chinese empire was a veritable multiethnic and multilingual melting pot where the Han Chinese traded, married, and exchanged with foreign peoples from all over. To integrate into society and sometimes to escape persecution, these foreigners adopted Chinese surnames. For example, people of Persian, Sogdian, Turkic, and Indian origin are known to have taken the surname Hu (胡), while Jin (金) and Man (满) are well known to be adopted by the eastern-Siberian Jurchen and the Manchu people respectively.
Many other foreign surnames have Chinese origins as well. Especially during the Tang dynasty (AD 618–907), when Chinese cultural might was at its peak, neighbouring states wanted to get closer to China. The influence of the Chinese language on Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese largely stems from this period. The Vietnamese name Trần, Korean name Jin, and Japanese surname Chin all share a common root—the Chinese name 陳.
In other countries with long histories of Chinese immigration, the influence is more subtle. In Thailand, Chinese family names have been combined with local ones. The Chinese name Chen, for example, has become Sae-Chin, a hybrid of the two languages. In Indonesia, the Chinese name Tan, has become Tandiono, Tanzil, Tanasal, and so on.
Resources to Find Your Chinese Last Name
If you don’t know your Chinese surname, the easiest way of finding out is to ask relatives. They may already know which Chinese character represents your family name and be able to transcribe it for you.
If you are struggling to find relatives who know your surname, never fear! Even if you don’t read or write Chinese, it is highly likely that your family still has some trace of this information. Look for your ancestors’ old letters, newspaper clippings, photos, notebooks, heirlooms, travel documents, or identification papers or track down their graves and tombstones. If the tomb inscription is in Chinese, then you will most likely find your ancestor’s name on it.
If you know your Chinese family name and are interested in learning about the origins of your own clan, Wikipedia is a good place to start, providing basic information about the origins of major names. For more detailed accounts, you can check out China’s online encyclopedia Baidu (Chinese only). A more complete, but more challenging, resource is the Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279) Xingshi Ji Jiu Pian (《姓氏急就篇》), or Hurriedly-Written Essay on Names, which is online at ctext.org.
The United States government has made available certain case files relating to the Chinese Exclusion Act. You can check them out through the National Archives or the Chinese Family History Group of Southern California.
Another resource is to look for organizations your ancestor may have been part of, such as Chinese clans or native-place associations, which often kept archived members’ lists in Chinese. The Asian Women in Business association has compiled a directory of the Asian American associations in the United States with English-language websites, while the National University of Singapore has compiled a rough list of Chinese Associations in Southeast Asia and Australia (Chinese only).
Legacy Tree Genealogists is a genealogy research firm with expertise in researching ancestors from many different backgrounds. Founded in 2004, the company provides full-service genealogical research for clients worldwide, helping them discover their roots and personal history through records, narratives, and DNA.