With a population of over 1.4 billion, you would think that China would have at least a million surnames. However, reality shows that only 4,000 are being actively used in recent years, with the top 100 most common names accounting for roughly 87% of the mainland population.
In a random group of five Chinese citizens, one is likely to have a surname that belongs to the top three: 王 (Wang), which means ‘king’; 李 (Li), which means ‘plum’; and 张 (Zhang), which means ‘to stretch’, referencing a Chinese legend in which a grandson of the Yellow Emperor was inspired to invent the bow and arrow. Given the sheer size of China’s population, these surnames are not only the most common in the country but also in the whole world.
This explains the popularity of a well-known phrase among the Chinese: 老百姓 (lǎobǎixìng) or just 百姓 (bǎixìng), which contextually means ‘the people’ or ‘the masses’ but can be literally defined as ‘a hundred surnames.’ Interestingly, the idea originated from the notion that China was originally composed of 100 families.
According to legend, there were several tribes and clans inhabiting the Yellow River valley in ancient China. Among these were the prominent tribes of Huangdi, Yandi, Yi, and Jiuli, who all fought amongst each other for years in a tribal war. In the end, the Huangdi, Yandi, and Yi tribes created an alliance to defeat the Jiuli. These tribes consisted of about 100 clans, who each took a surname. Thereafter, they were known as the baixing.
Although the surnames of the 100 clans then may not match the existing record for the list now, the idea that 100 families compose most of China remains true to this very day.
As of 2019, here is the current list of the 100 most common surnames in modern-day China: