Mr. Who? The long, long tail of Chinese names

I was schadenfreudically surprised the other day when a friend of mine, native Mandarin speaker, stopped short while reading through a list of teachers and asked her daughter: “Uh, what’s that teacher’s name?”

鄢老师!Yān Lǎoshī: Teacher Yān, of course!

One of the pleasant surprises in Chinese characters is how few surnames you have to learn, at least in the beginning. The common man isn’t called 老百姓 (lǎobǎixìng, roughly “old one hundred surnames”) for nothing. Heck, you can probably get away with a dozen, speedreading through business cards like, well, like nobody’s business: “Mr. Liu! Ms. Wang! Lawyer Zhang…”

But then the long tail hits. You’re innocently amusing the crowd with your business card skills at the latest schmoozathon, when all of a sudden… “Uhhh, sorry what’s your name?” [Not that it matters, I suppose: if you’re a foreigner you wouldn’t be expected to know and if you’re a native, well if you haven’t seen that surname you can bet its owner has to explain it every frickin’ time anyway.]

How many surnames are out there, and how common are they? It’s pretty easy to come across claims like this:


There are more than 22,000 ancient and modern Chinese surnames
Presently there are about 3500 Han surnames in use
The most common 100 surnames comprise* 87% of the population
There are 19 surnames that each cover more than 1% of the population

It may all be true, but what I’d like to see is an actual frequency list. For our Teacher 鄢, how rare a bird is he?


*What if we just declared a change of regime, an end to the tyranny of those who swear that wholes comprise parts and never vice versa, no matter how or where the usage evidence presents itself? It would be bloodless coup (I hope) and, just as importantly, it would result not in the exile of the former rulers but rather a more modest sequestration. They could spend a few years in the nearest monastery, repeating vows of fealty to the rule of evidence over uninformed reflex.

3 responses to “Mr. Who? The long, long tail of Chinese names”

  1. jdmartinsen says:

    姓姓 blew my mind when I ran across it a few weeks ago.

    There’s a thread on the Chinese Forums where people have been contributing odd surnames. There’s a link in there to this report on some of the least common surnames.

  2. Kellen says:

    I’ve previously compiled a list of 627 surnames. Some I’ve only seen referenced in Wu and others only in Cantonese.

    Some of my favourites: 㡷, 䀠, 玊 and best of all, 芈.

    My obsession with the family names started when I met a Ms. 卜 my third month in China. 2 strokes, i thought. awesome.

  3. Katie says:

    I don’t know anything about Chinese surnames other than that the linguist who is known in the west as San Duanmu threw me for a serious loop. All I really wanted to say was that I appreciate your use of schadenfreudically.

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