Chinese Surnames — Eight Ancient Chinese Surnames and Their Evolvements

Throughout history, about 18,000 to 23,000 surnames had appeared in China; today, about 3000 to 4000 family names are commonly used. 

 

The exact number is large and unclear, however, these family names are all evolved from Eight Ancient Chinese Surnames during the Matriarchal period:

 

Ji (姬), Jiang (姜), Yao (姚), Gui (妫), Si (姒), Ying (嬴), Yun (妘), and Ji (姞).

 

Since that period, an important rule had been that people with the same surname could not get married.  

 

With the growth of the population, people developed "Shi" to further identify themselves, which included their fiefs, noble titles, political occupations, living places, professions, etc. 

 

Therefore, ancient surnames were people's origin, while "Shi" represented people's present situation and social status.

Painted Pottery Basin with Human and Fish Patterns of the Yangshao Culture (Around 5000 BC — 3000 BC)

Painted Pottery Basin with Human and Fish Patterns of the Yangshao Culture (Around 5000 BC — 3000 BC) — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

In the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC — 403 BC) and the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC), countless annex wars happened, and many ancient vassal states perished.

 

Later, Qin Shi Huang (259 BC — 210 BC) defeated other kingdoms and established the unified Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC).

 

During these periods with huge transformations, many people changed their "Shi". The commonest was using their former states' or fiefs' names as their new surnames, to identify their origin, or to commemorate their ancestors. 

 

In the next Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), ancient surname and "Shi" gradually merged and formed today's Chinese Surnames.

 

Ji 姬 and Its Evolved Common Chinese Surnames

 

The surname of Yellow Emperor (about 2717 BC — 2599 BC), who lived near a river named Ji.

 

Centuries later, one of his descendants named Ji Fa built the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC) and granted many vassal states to loyal feudal lords, who developed hundreds of surnames later.

 

Famous historical figures with the surname Ji: All kings and royals of the Zhou Dynasty, Duke Wen of Jin, great reformer Shang Yang.

Bronze Water Container (Qiang Pan) with 284 Characters Carved Inside, Recorded History of First Seven Kings of the Zhou Dynasty

Unearthed Bronze Ritual Water Container (Qiang Pan) with 284 Characters Carved Inside, Recorded History of First Seven Kings of the Zhou Dynasty — Baoji Museum

Some Common Chinese Surnames Evolved from Ji:

 

Wang 王: the king, monarch. 

 

During the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC — 403 BC) and Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC), many vassal states perished, so was the Zhou Dynasty. 

 

Royals of these states, in order to memorize these vanished states or note their former status, used Wang as their family name. 

 

Today, over 100 million people on the Chinese mainland have Wang as their family name, which is mainly developed from Ji. 

 

Famous historical figures with the surname Wang: Wang Jian, Wang Mang, Wang Yangming.

Zhou 周: name of the Zhou Dynasty; usually means perfect, complete, honest, intimate, careful, etc. 

 

With the collapse of the Zhou Dynasty, many of Zhou's people used Zhou as their family name, to commemorate their ancestors.

Wu 吴: means vast, or big noise.

 

State Wu was built by a royal of the Zhou Dynasty, the uncle of Lord Ji Chang. Sun Tzu, the writer of Art of War, had served and passed away in the State Wu. 

 

After State Wu perished, many of Wu's people used Wu as their surname.

 

During the famous Three Kingdoms (220 — 280) period, one of the kingdoms in the east was named Wu.

 

Famous historical figures with the surname Wu: Wu Qi, Wu Sangui.

Unearthed Spear of Fu Chai the King of Wu

Spear of A King of the State Wu — Hubei Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The following were names of vassal states of the Zhou Dynasty, whose founders were close relatives of Zhou's kings, ancient nobles, or brilliant general that make great contributions to Zhou. 

 

Zheng 郑: solemn, attentive.

Guo 郭: expand, a city's outer wall. 

Guan 管: manage, govern, pipe, or a type of wind instrument.

Lu 鲁: willful like fish, capricious, forthright.

Wang 汪: vast of water, broad. Wang was the name of the fief of a son of Lu's lord. 

Cai 蔡: grass, or a type of turtle used in divination in ancient times.

Huo 霍: fast, eliminate.

The most famous historical figure with the surname Huo was Huo Qubing, a brilliant general during Emperor Wu of Han's reign, who made great contributions defeating the Xiongnu. 

Golden Crown of the King of Xiongnu

Golden Crown of the King of Xiongnu — Inner Mongolia Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Kang 康: bran, rice, peace, abundant, praise, rich, health. 

Mao 毛: hair, feather, grass, and tree.

Cao 曹: couple, peer. 

Wei 卫: guard, defend, border.

 

The most famous historical figures with the surname Wei were General Wei Qing and Queen Wei Zifu.

Chang 常: constant, eternity, established, normal, often, rules.

 

The first Lord of Wei awarded a place named Chang to one of his sons. 

After the State Wei perished in 209 BC, Wei's people used Wei or Chang as their surnames. 

The most famous historical figure with the surname Chang was Chang Yuchun, a genius general that made exceptional contributions in establishing the Ming Dynasty

Pan 潘: rice washing water.

Feng 冯: horse galloping fast, ride, rely on.

Bi 毕: hand-net, accomplished.

The most famous historical figure with the surname Bi was Bi Sheng (972 — 1051), who invented Movable Type Printing. 

Wan 万: ten thousand, myriad, certainly. 

It was the name of a famous lord during the Spring and Autumn Period, named Bi Wan, who contributed significantly in perishing other states, and got his fief, Wei. 

His decedents later built the State Wei, one of the seven kingdoms during the Warring States Period. 

Wei 魏: tall, big, watchtower of a palace, name of State Wei.  

Exquisite Cart Decoration of the State Wei Inlaid with Gold and Silver

Exquisite Cart Decoration of the State Wei Inlaid with Gold and Silver — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Yang 杨: poplar. The most famous historical figures with the surname Yang were Yang Jian and Yang Guang, two emperors of the Sui Dynasty (581 — 619).

Jiang 蒋: a type of edible plant named Zizania Latifolia.

Zhan 詹: talkative, or name of an ancient official.

Yu 于: in, on, at, go to. The most famous historical figure with the surname Yu was the great politician, general Yu Qian

Su 苏: wake up, revive, pendant.

Jia 贾: property, do business, merchants.

Yan 阎: the gate of a lane.

Hou 侯: archery target, marquis, monarch. 

Shao 邵: guide, call, summon.

Duan 段: forge, cut, section, figure, satin. 

Cheng 程: measurement, capacity, constitution, distance, measure.  

Xing 邢: well, city, name of places.

The following were other common surnames developed from Ji but were not granted by the kings of the Zhou Dynasty.

 

Besides the central branch that inherited Ji, the Yellow Emperor also awarded some of his sons with fiefs in other places, whose descendants used these places' names as their surnames, such as:

 

Ren 妊: pregnant.

Ren 任: ability, responsibility, guarantee, in charge, believe.

These two Rens were believed the same, or the second was developed from the first.

 

Ji 姞: cautious. 

Ji 吉: lucky, good, auspicious, sacrificial rites.

These two Jis were believed the same, the second Ji was evolved from the first.

 

Teng 滕: the surge of water, field.

Qi 祁: numerous, abundant, pray.

Liu 刘: conquer, kill, some types of ancient weapons.

Liu was the fief's name of a decedent of the lord of Qi. After Liu Bang established the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), the Liu family started to grow fast. 

Today, there are over 70 million people on the Chinese mainland have Liu as the family name. 

 

Zhang 张: string, draw back, open, put up, unfold, post, net, set up, enlarge. 

One of Yellow Emperor's grandsons invented the bow and arrow, so he was assigned as minister to be in charge of the production of these weapons, and awarded the surname Zhang. 

Nowadays, there are over 96 million people in the Chinese mainland with the surname Zhang.

The most famous historical figures with the surname Zhang were: Zhang Qian, a great diplomat, and explorer that opened up the Silk Road; Zhang Juzheng, one of the most exceptional prime ministers in history. 

Shi 史: history, historian.

 

This surname was developed from the historian during the reign of Yellow Emperor or Lords Ji Chang and Ji Fa.

Qiao 乔: tall, arbor, promote, high mountain, disguise. 

After Yellow Emperor passed away, a group of his decedents had been guarding his mausoleum in Mount Qiao. 

Peng 彭: the sound of drums, horses, or strong people marching. 

Peng was an ancient fief that was awarded by King Yao, to a descendent of the Yellow Emperor. After it was perished by King Wu Ding (? — 1192 BC), most people used Peng as their surname. 

Qian 钱: money, copper.

After the ancient State Peng perished, one of King Peng's decedents worked as an important financial official of the Zhou Dynasty, whose offspring used Qian as their surname since then. 

 

Wen 文: figure, character, virtue, classics, rites, write, magnificent, gentle. 

Lord Ji Chang, the founder of the Zhou Dynasty, was respected as King Wen of Zhou. Hence, some of his descendants used Wen as their surname. 

 

Liao 廖: vast, broad. 

Liao was an ancient fief of the Xia Dynasty (about 2070 BC — 1600 BC), built by a relative of Xia's royal family. Another saying was that Liao was the name of one of Lord Ji Chang's sons.

Han 韩: well wall.

 

In the year 403 BC, a lord claimed himself as king and named his kingdom after his fief, the Han. The State Han was one of the seven kingdoms during the Warring States Period.  

The most famous historical figures with the surname Han were: Han Fei (about 280 BC — 233 BC), an influential philosopher of Legalism; Han Xin (about 231 BC — 196 BC), an exceptional general that significantly contributed to the establishment of the Han Dynasty.

 

He 何: carry, load, what, who, how.

After the State Han perished in the year 230 BC, some of Han's nobles rebelled but were defeated. Then, Han's last king was executed, and Han's other nobles escaped to the east and changed their surname to He.

 

Jiang 姜 and Its Evolved Common Chinese Surnames

The surname of Flame Emperor, who lived near a river named Jiang. With the growth of the population,  his descendants developed some different "Shi" to further identify themselves.  

 

One of them was Lv, the one that Lv Shang came from.

 

Lv Shang (? — about 1015 BC), a brilliant strategist, had assisted lords Ji Chang and Ji Fa built the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC).

 

Afterward, Lv Shang was enfeoffed to a place named Qi and built the State Qi, one of the strongest kingdoms during the Spring and Autumn Period and Warring States Period. 

 

In the year 379 BC, another force snatched the throne and replaced Lv's reign in Qi.

 

Afterward, Qi's former royals and other nobles used Lv or Jiang or Qi as their surnames. Their descendants then escaped and moved to different places, and developed many other surnames.

Lv 吕: backbone.

A lord had contributed significantly to assisting Yu the Great and defeating the huge flood and was awarded a big fief named Lv.

The most famous historical figures with the surname Lv were: Lv Buwei (? — 235 BC), a brilliant merchant and politician that assisted Qin Shi Huang and his father got the throne of the State Qin; Lv Zhi (241 BC — 180 BC), Queen of the founding emperor Liu Bang of the Han Dynasty. 

 

Shang 尚: respect, worship, surpass, yet, assist.

 

This was from Lv Shang's given name.

 

Qi 齐: organized, neat, complete, simultaneously.

Bronze Weapon Ge Produced Under Command of Merchant/Prime Minister Lv

Bronze Weapon Ge Produced Under Command of Lv Buwei — Chengdu Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Other Common Chinese Surnames Evolved from Jiang:

 

The same as Lv and Qi, most of them were originally names of noble's fiefs that were built after Flame Emperor's reign, and were perished before the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC).

 

Shen 申: electricity, stretch, express, prolong, reach, report, supernatural being.

Zhang 章: pattern, badge, article, regulation, commend, chapter, remarkable. 

Feng 封: plant, boundary, border, award, confer, limit, seal, close. 

Ding 丁: nail, strong, man, labor.

Cui 崔: tall, grand, fast. 

Xiang 向: window, direction, toward, to, echo.

Gao 高: tall, height, grand, noble, excellent, superior.

Chai 柴: brushwood, firewood, fence. 

 

Xie 谢: apology, thank, decline, wane.

Ji 纪: discipline, regulation, record, principle.  

Qiu (丘 then 邱): hillock, mound, grave, country.

 

Yao 姚, Gui 妫, and Their Evolved Chinese Surnames

 

Yao and Gui were both related to Shun (about 2294 BC — 2184 BC).

 

Shun was a diligent lord living next to a river named Yao, who gained support and reputation for his talent and kindness.

 

Therefore, the current King Yao (about 2377 BC — 2259 BC) granted Shun a place named Gui and later gave the throne to him, after a series of careful observations. 

 

Shun then became one of the greatest monarchs in the history of China.

 

When he was old, he abdicated the throne to Yu the Great, who defeated the huge flood and built the Xia Dynasty (about 2070 BC — 1600 BC).

 

Shun's descendants, afterward, used Yao or Gui as their surnames. Some of them were granted titles and migrated to different places, and evolved surnames using new fiefs' names.  

 

Yao 姚: beautiful, glorious, long, far, distant. 

Gui 妫: ancient name of places.

Common Chinese Surnames Evolved from Yao and Gui:

 

Yu 虞: ancient officials in charge of mountains and seas, guard, expect, surprise.

 

Yu was the fief's name of King Shun's son or the name of King Shun's empire. 

Another version was that after the Zhou Dynasty was built, a royal member was granted a fief, and built the State Yu there. 

 

Chen 陈: display, explain, antiquated. 

After the Zhou Dynasty was built, King Wu of Zhou found one of King Shun's descendants and awarded him a fief, where he built the State Chen.

Today, Chen is one of the biggest Chinese Surnames, with over 63 million people using Chen.

Tian 田: field, land, cultivation. 

A prince of the State Chen escaped to the State Qi, because of political conflict. 

Qi's lord, the Duke Huan of Qi (? — 643 BC), highly appreciated the prince's talent and granted him to a place named Tian. 

 

Che 车: chariot, vehicle, ride.

Yuan 袁: name of place and state.

Lu 陆: high and flat land, road, ordinary.

 

Si 姒 and Its Evolved Common Chinese Surnames 

 

Si was originated from Yu the Great (about 2123 BC — 2025 BC).

 

After he successfully defeated the huge flood, the current King Shun (about 2294 BC — 2184 BC) awarded him a fief named Si. 

 

Decades later, Yu the Great got the throne from King Shun and established the Xia Dynasty (about 2070 BC — 1600 BC). 

 

After the Xia Dynasty perished, many of its nobles used Xia or Yu as their surnames. 

 

Si 姒: older sister or sister in law. 

Xia 夏: Chinese people, summer, tall building. 

Yu 禹: a type of worm, walk slowly, calm, plentiful.

Common Chinese Surnames Evolved from Si:

 

Zeng 曾: increase, once, already, overlap. 

The 6th king of Xia, Si Shaokang awarded a fief named Zeng to his youngest son.

 

Dou 窦: door, hole, cellar.

King Si Shaokang awarded two sons a fief named Dou. 

 

Yue 越: cross, exceed, get over, attain, more and more.

King Si Shaokang commanded one of his sons to guard in the mausoleum of Yu the Great. Afterward, this prince built a state named Yue. 

A king of Yue named Gou Jian (? — 464 BC) perished Kingdom Wu and obtained hegemony.

Unearthed Sword of Gou Jian the King of Yue

Sword of Gou Jian the King of Yue — Hubei Museum

Gu 顾: turn around, look back, take care of, visit, consider.

A descendant of King Gou Jian contributed significantly to warfare centuries later and was awarded a fief named Gu.  

 

Tan 谭: talk, conversation, opinion.

When the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC) was established, King Wu of Zhou tracked a descendant of Yu the Great and awarded him a fief named Tan. The Tan State was perished by Duke Huan of Qi in the year 684 BC.

 

Bao 鲍: abalone, fish.

A noble had protected and assisted Duke Huan of Qi successfully to win the throne, and later he was awarded a fief named Bao.

 

Ying 嬴 and Its Evolved Common Chinese Surnames 

 

Boyi had assisted Yu the Great successfully defeated the flood, then the current King Shun (about 2294 BC — 2184 BC) awarded him a surname, Ying.

 

Besides Yu the Great, Boyi was another possible writer of the Classic of Mountains and Seas.

 

After Yu the Great built the Xia Dynasty, he granted Boyi and his sons some fiefs.  

 

One of Boyi's descendants contributed significantly to defeating a rebellious army and got awarded a fief named Zhao.

 

Later, a descendant of the Zhao clan did an excellent job raising large numbers of warhorses and was highly appreciated by the current king of the Zhou Dynasty. Hence, he was granted a place named Qin, which later developed as the State Qin.  

 

The State Qin kept growing. Centuries later, the State Qin defeated other kingdoms and established the unified Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC), under command of the great Emperor Qin Shi Huang.

Unearthed Terre Cotta Warriors of the Qin Dynasty

Unearthed Terre Cotta Warriors of the Qin Dynasty — Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum 

After the Qin Dynasty was overthrown by uprising armies, many people changed their surnames to Zhao or Qin, or the names of their former fiefs.  

 

Ying 嬴: win, increase, afford, affluent.

Zhao 赵: walk quickly, jump. 

Besides State Qin, other people of the Zhao's clan also built the State Zhao (403 BC — 222 BC), one of the strongest kingdoms during the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC).

Over a millennium later,  Zhao Kuangyin built the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), Zhao again became a royal surname. 

Today, Zhao is still a big surname in China, with over 26 million people. 

 

Qin 秦: name of places or ancient states, or today's Shaanxi Province. 

Besides the people of former State Qin, another group of people with the surname Qin were from the fief's name of the Zhou Dynasty's royal's.

Common Chinese Surnames Evolved from Ying;

 

Fei 费: money, fee, cost, expand, consume. 

Fei was another name of Boyi or the name of Boyi's fief. 

Lian 廉: side of the central room, honest, investigate.

Lian was the name of the oldest son of Boyi, also the first ancestor of Ying.

 

Xu 徐: calmly, slowly, composed, dignified.

Boyi's second son was granted a fief named Xu. 

The most famous historical figures with the surname Xu were: Xu Da (1332 — 1385), a genius general that made exceptional contributions in establishing the Ming Dynasty; his daughter Empress Renxiao (1362 — 1407), the beloved queen of Yongle Emperor

Ma 马: horse, big. 

A royal of the State Zhao once had successfully defeated the State Qin and was given a fief named Ma. 

The most famous historical figures with the surname Ma were: Empress Ma (1332 — 1382), beloved queen of Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder emperor of the Ming Dynasty; great navigator, diplomat Zheng He (originally named Ma Sanbao). 

 

Ge 葛: Pueraria lobata, summer clothes, thrifty, entanglement.

Bai 白: white, pure, bright, notable, plain, honest, know, explain, in vain. 

The most famous historical figure with the surname Bai was exceptional general Bai Qi (? — 357 BC) of the State Qin.