Common Chinese Names – Don’t get a Chinese name until you’ve read this

You might not know that some Chinese parents pay a high price for a Feng Shui master to find the right given name character with the right element just to match with the babies’ birth elements. The attachment and importance between names and fortunes are a more important than you might realise in China.

Nonetheless, you could still find yourself a funny and cute Chinese name if that is the intention, this is probably why I see some foreign exchange students in university have Chinese names which literally mean panda, chocolate… – words rarely used by any native Chinese for a name. It’s kind’ve amusing. And to tell you the truth, young Chinese also do this! (Having their English names like “apple, cat, ring…” )

Or some given names like 爱国(ài guó; love country), 建国(jiàn guó; build country), 国庆(guó qìng; national celebration),these were once the most popular given names in the 1950s and ’60s, yet they are a bit out-dated and old-fashioned as Chinese names today.

Chinese family names
One hundred Chinese family surnames and their family motto

This article might be very helpful if you intend to get a proper, decent, and meaningful Chinese name, for people who plan to study,work in China or dealing with business partners in the Asia market, and also parents who wish to get an exotic and auspicious Chinese name for your baby!

Tips on choosing a Chinese name:

  1. In a Chinese name, the family name comes as first, the given name follows as the second
  2. Suggested to go with 3 characters Chinese names and this is why: by 2018, 84.3% of all Chinese names have 3 characters,14% have 2 characters, less than 2% have four or more characters, often because they have a compound Chinese family which has two characters as family name.
  3. Our chief editor got his Chinese name from a Chinese friend: 白矛 which was done by literally translating his given name: ‘Barrie‘ – an old Irish word for ‘spear – Chinese ‘Mao’ – and his fathers’ family name: ‘Weiss’ – Chinese – Bai – meaning white – the family name coming ‘first’;
    hence: Bai Mao – 白矛

Great Chinese translations of English given name: inspirations in picking a Chinese given name

EnglishPinyinChineseMeaning in Chinese
Simonshì mín世民common citizen forever; same name to the Tang dynasty great emperor
Waynewěi ēn伟恩great kindness
Danieldà niu大牛Literarily means big bull, but, here means: expert/ace, Mr.big, big gun…
Lilylì lì莉莉pretty

Top 10 most common family names in China, their meanings plus interesting origin stories

1. China’s most populous surname: Wang, 101.5million people!

Wang, 王,pinyin: wáng, means king in Chinese. There are a few origin stories about the Wang family name, here is one of the popular versions:

During the East Zhou dynasty (BC 770-BC 256), crown prince Jin was reduced to civilian status following an official remonstration,  but his son was still serving at court. The commoners at the time still recognised them as royal descendants, so they were called the “Wáng family”.

Notable people:

  • Wang Jianlin王健林,a billionaire and founder of Dalian Wanda Group
  • Wong Kar-wai, 王家卫,film director (Wong because it’s Cantonese instead of Mandarin)

2. Li, second most common surname in China,1.009 million people

李, pinyin: Lǐ, is the second most common surname in China, shared by 100.9 million Chinese people as of 2018. Apart from being a family name, also means “plum” or “plum tree”. It is pronounced as “Lei” (lay) in Cantonese and is often spelled as Lee in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and many other overseas Chinese communities. 


One of the most recognised origin stories of Li family name is this: Gao Yao served as Dali( 大理, Dà Lǐ, meaning “great judge”), the Minister of Law. During the Xia dynasty 2070 bc~1600 bc, Gao Yao’s descendants adopted Li (理) as their family name from the title.

At the end of the Shang dynasty (1600 to 1046 B.C.), Li descendants were persecuted and escaped to the wild forests and survived by eating plums. In gratitude, the Li people changed their surname from 理 to 李, a character is a homophone to 理 but means “plum”.

The ruling family of China’s Tang dynasty family name was ‘Li’ (618—907), whose reign lasted nearly 300 years and had 20 ruling Li Emperors,
Li became a very common family name, bestowed upon or adopted by many people.

Notable people:

  • Bruce Lee, World famous martial artist and film actor
    李小龙 (Lǐ Xiǎo Lóng).
  • Jet Li, 李连杰(Lǐ Lián Jié),Chinese martial arts star.
  • Robin Li, 李彦宏(Lǐ Yàn Hóng), co-founder of the Chinese search engine: Baidu, a Chinese software engineer and now billionaire internet entrepreneur.
  • Li Ka-shing, 李嘉诚(Lǐ Jiā Chéng), Hong Kong business magnate,
  • Lee Shau Ke 李兆基 (Lǐ Zhào Jī), a real estate tycoon and majority owner of Henderson Land Development, a business magnate, investor, and philanthropist.
  • Lee Kuan Yew 李光耀 (1923 – 2015), Singaporean politician and lawyer who served as the first Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990.
  • Lee Hsien Loong , 李显龙,the eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew, a Singaporean politician.

3. Zhang, 95.4 million Chinese people’s family name

张, Zhāng, is the third most common surname in China as of 2018, shared by 95.4 million Chinese people. It is formed by two Chinese characters,弓 (gōng, “bow”) as the left block and 长 (cháng, “long”) as the right block, originally meaning “to stretch or to spread, to open up” as an archer preparing to shoot, the opposite word is release or loose.


As regards the family name Zhang, one of the popular original legends goes like this: A people named pinyin: Huī; (pronounced hwey) Invented the bow and arrow in ancient China: the invention of the bow and arrow and archery was such a great development to the China (by the way: China – in Chinese is Zhong Wo) that Emperor Huang or the Yellow Emperor(黄帝), appointed Hui to be master in charge of bow and arrow manufacturing, and bestowed upon him the surname 张. Common belief is that Zhang Hui is the ancestor of the Zhang family tree.

, also has another meaning which is used as a measure word for flat objects such as paper and cloth, like the English “sheet of“.

Notable people

  • Zhang Xueliang, 张学良 (1901- 2001) was a Chinese warlord
  • Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, 张国荣 (1956 – 2003) singer and actor,
    (Zhang spelled as Cheung in Cantonese.)

4. Liu, 72.1 million people

刘, Liú in Mandarin Chinese, (Lau in Cantonese), is the fourth most common surname in china as of 2018, 72.1 million people. Liu was the name of the ruling family of the Han dynasty 202 BC–220 AD, one of the most prosperous and influential empires in Chinese history. 

One of the popular stories about the Liu family Origin goes thus:

Liú Lèi 刘累, pinyin:,lived in the late Xia dynasty 2070 bc~1600 bc, was descendant of the ancient Emperor Yao. He mastered the skill of training dragons and was a dragon training officer for the 13th King of Xia. The king bestowed him with a surname: the dragon trainer; unfortunately one of the 4 dragons he trained died as a result of a mistake he made, and fearful of punishment, he took his family and escaped the country.
He was regarded as the ancestor of the Liu family tree.

Notable people:

  • Carina Lau, 刘嘉玲, actress
  • Andy Lau, 刘德华, singer and actor
  • Liu Qiangdong, 刘强东, Chinese commerce entrepreneur, founder of
  • Liu Yifei or Crystal Liu, 刘亦菲, Chinese-American actress, whose latest notable work is that she played ‘Mulan’ in Disney’s live-action film Mulan in 2020.

To be continued…

You might also like: top 20 Chinese surviving phrases you need.