Urban Planning + Design + Research


Writing on a variety of topics related to cities, urban theory, sustainable development, China, urbanism.

Mapping China's Surnames 制图 "老百姓"


Zhang Using this cool new website that maps global surnames according to geographic origin, I was able to map a few of the most common Chinese surnames.  The map shows data at the sub-national level, enabling a province-level map of China's surnames.  China presents a unique context in which to study the origin of surnames due to the continuity and prevalence of recorded Chinese characters associated with each surname, and the relatively low number of total surnames.  There are, by some estimates, 4,100 surnames in China, while in the US that number is around 6.2 million total.

The geographic spread of names in China could be explained in many ways: from population and migration patterns over history, the geographic divisions between north and south, and watersheds.  Historian William Skinner came up with the concept of  "macro-regions"  that defined patterns of trade, commerce, language, and culture in China: the Yangzte Delta, the North China Plain, etc.

With China's massive internal migration today, one might think that the importance of geographic divisions such as the macro-regions, would fade.  As these maps show, that is clearly not the case.

Here's are maps for some of the most common surnames*: Purple indicates a high density of surnames in that province.

Li 李  

Currently the most common Chinese surname, with estimated 95 million "family members".  Highest concentration in the North China plain (Henan,Hebei,Shandong, Shanxi) and parts of Yunnan, Manchuria.  中国第一个大姓, 主要集中在华北平原,东北,云南。


Wang 王

Literally meaning King, with a population of 92 million.  Dominance in Northern China, with prevalence in Inner Mongolia and Manchuria as well.  Second-most common surname.  主要集中在北方包括内蒙古与华北平原地区。



Third-most frequent surname with 87.5 million people.  The highest concentrations are also in China's northern Mandarin-speaking areas.  中国第三大姓, 集中在华北平原与东北。


Chen 陈 

Prevalent in southern China, Chen is the most common name in Guangzhou and Fujian province.  That makes it one of the more common Chinese names in Taiwan and areas with large overseas Chinese populations like SE Asia and California, since many overseas Chinese trace their origins to these coastal provinces.  The purple areas below also seem to correspond closely with the Chen Dynasty   (CE 557-589).  陈是集中在南方, 特别是广东与福建省。因为大部分的华侨是从广东和福建来的, 所以很多欧美和东南亚的华裔姓陈。紫色的地区也很像陈朝的边界。

C hen


Guo 郭 

Common in Northern and Northwestern China, Guo was a common surname adapted by Hui Muslims, and in the Song Dynasty, Chinese Jews in Kaifeng.  郭原来是皇帝给回族和宋朝开封的犹太人用。宋朝开封时期中国政府把回族和犹太人混在一起。


Ma 马

 Meaning horse, this name has a clear prevalence in Northwestern China, showing origins amongst Hui Muslims and even other nomadic minority peoples.  Ma Bufang 马步芳, the Republican-era Hui warlord, ruled much of Northwestern China from Xining.  原意为 “马”,集中在西北和新疆。 回族和其他小数民族常用的一个姓。中国民国时期马步芳是最强的一个军阀之一。





* Data on prevalence of surnames in China based on: "公安部统计:'王'成中国第一大姓 有9288万人 [Public Security Bureau Statistics: 'Wang' Found China's #1 'Big Family', Includes 92.88m People]." 24 Apr 2007. Accessed 27 Mar 2012.(Chinese)

Maps generated by Public Profiler, a project by several professors at UCL in the UK.