Frequently Asked Questions
1. How did Chinese immigration patterns to the United States affect Chinese American surnames?
Chinese immigration can be divided into several periods: 1850 to 1882, 1882 to 1943, 1944 to 1965, and 1965 to the present. The early immigrants who came before 1882 were almost all from Guangdong (Canton) province, speaking certain dialects of Cantonese and the Hakka language. They came when names in America were phonetically spelled according to the way they were heard or thought to sound. The particular Cantonese dialects that were encoded into names were Siyi (Seiyap) or Four Districts speech, particularly Taishan (Toihsaan), the predominant dialect; the Sanyi (Saamyap) or Three Districts speech and the Zhongshan (Jungsaan) speech. Most of the early Chinese immigrants to the Hawaiian Islands were Zhongshan and Hakka speakers. Therefore Chinese Americans, who are 5th and later generation descendants, have surnames that are reminders of the language spoken by their ancestors; surnames that are not usually found in dictionaries.From 1882 to 1944, Chinese immigration was severely restricted but merchants, teachers and students were allowed entry. During the early 1900s, dictionaries were used for name spelling according to Mandarin, standard Cantonese, Shanghai, and the dialects spoken in Fujian province. After 1950, after China became a communist country, thousands of foreign born Chinese remained as permanent residents; others emigrated as refugees from communism.
In 1965, when all restrictions on Chinese immigration were removed, there was the Chinese American population suddenly increased but the tremendous sharp increase came after 1980 when both People’s Republic of China and Taiwan received annual quotas of 20,000 immigrants a year. Suddenly, Mandarin sounding surnames were heard more often and this will continue to take place in the future as Mandarin replaces Cantonese as the lingua franca* of the Chinese in America.
*a language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different
2. Did the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Laws have any effect on Chinese American surnames?
Yes. Since the Cantonese predominated in the Chinese population prior to 1882, these laws (1882-1944) kept them as the dominant group for over a century of Chinese immigration. Surnames also remained predominantly Cantonese-sounding names for well over a century. The 2000 list of U.S. surnames based on Social Security records reveal that surnames of Mandarin pronunciation have surpassed those for Cantonese pronunciations.
3. What are Wade-Giles and Pinyin, and why do they matter?
Both Wade-Giles and Pinyin are names of spelling methods — called romanization and latinization, respectively — to transcribe the Beijing standard for Mandarin pronunciation. The Wade-Giles system was named for the two British diplomats in China who devised it: Thomas F. Wade initiated it in mid-1800s and Herbert A. Giles who revised and published it in his Chinese-English dictionary of 1912. This occurred before Mandarin became China’s national language.
During the early 1920s language reform program in the Republic of China (ROC), the Mandarin spoken in Beijing — Peking at the time — was selected as the national language. Wade-Giles became the most popular method used in the English-speaking world for transcribing names, placenames, and other information about China in articles, books, and reference materials.
Pinyin — meaning “spelled-out sounds” — was developed in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) during the 1950s. It is based on the spelling method used by the Russians to raise the literacy rate among its Chinese settlers. During the 1980s, our country and other countries officially replaced Wade-Giles with Pinyin latinization. This occurred in Taiwan in 2009 although its citizen may still use Wade-Giles for spelling their names.
One feature of Wade-Giles is the absence of the initial letters B, D, and G. These sounds are represented instead by P, T, and K and the usual sounds for these letters are indicated by an apostrophe: P’, T’, and K’. Because the apostrophe and other diacritic marks are not used in American names, some Chinese American surnames are terribly mispronounced; its owners having to acquiesce to the spelling pronunciation.
Some Pinyin-spelled words can be baffling too. For example, the X in Xie should be pronounced “sh” as in “shield;” the Zh, as in Zhang, has a dj sound and the surname Qin is pronounced ch’in. Could one guess that the surname Cai is pronounced Tsai.
4. How did you compile your lists of surnames?
I looked for Chinese American materials that had names of Chinese Americans accompanied by their Chinese name. This is to ensure that the surname is Chinese in origin and the pronunciation is Chinese pronunciation. Resources included Chinese American business directories of various cities, organization and church membership lists, and articles and books about Chinese Americans. I visited cemeteries in various cities to search for gravestones and niches etched in English and Chinese.
5. What is the difference among your three lists of Chinese American surnames?
I wanted to illustrate the fact that one cannot assume the spelling of a Chinese American surname represents a particular surname character. Besides the diversity in spelling the same Chinese family name according to pronunciation, different family names could have the same spelling variations. Hence the compilation of the second list. As the Chinese began settling in America, unawareness of the differences in name traditions led to the development of new surnames; surnames that arose from a father’s Chinese name for his children, which are called patronymic surnames. Since numerous such surnames are found among 5th and later generations of Chinese and partial-Chinese Americans, a third list was created.
6. What if my family’s surname isn’t on any of your three lists on this website?
There was never any intention to list every Chinese American surname that exists or existed. Also it is not possible to locate every single one. If you want to ascertain the surname character to your surname, you would have to do some researching. Some of the resources that are used for researching family genealogy include looking for documents that include signatures of names in English and Chinese, such as: Chinese records (up to 1943) in a National Archives branch, cemetery gravestones, Chinese students’ directories, and a trip to the birthplace of your ancestor.
7. Is ascertaining my family’s correct Chinese surname difficult if I don’t read or write Chinese?
Yes, because it’s easy to mistake one Chinese character for another that looks almost similar in structure. Examples of lookalike surname characters can be seen in the surnames lists. You must look carefully to see that each stroke in the Chinese character matches up. You can also obtain help from a Chinese speaking person, such as a relative, the minister of a church, a teacher at a Chinese language school, or a professor at a university.
8. Are cemetery gravestones really helpful in discovering or confirming accurate Chinese surname?
It’s helpful only when the deceased is identified by a name in English and a name in Chinese characters. Sometimes the surname character is etched separately from the Chinese given name or is placed on the back of the gravestone. You can also ask for help if the cemetery has a Chinese-speaking staff member.
While doing research for the book Chinese American Names, gravestones were an excellent resource because I never found any errors in the surname characters. Unfortunately, since the year 2000, a few have been seen. The wrong character that was engraved looked almost the same as a surname character. For example, the word 鐘 (meaning “clock” or “bell”) has been mistaken for the common family name 鍾, which means “a wine container.” The two characters even have the same spelling in dictionaries: Chung in Cantonese, Zhong in pinyin. But the “clock” character is not for a family name.
9. Why do different Chinese surname characters have the same spelling in English?
Every Chinese/English dictionary is filled with an abundance of words of different meanings that have the same spelling. But after the spelling for each character, there may be a number, from 1 to 4, or an accent mark, such as an umlaut. These diacritic marks indicate the tone or musical accent for pronouncing the word correctly. Every variety of spoken Chinese uses the tonal system, which helps to differentiate the meaning of spoken words when used in context with other words.
But accent marks or diacritic marks are not usually used in America for spelling names. Therefore the spelling cannot reveal the exact surname character. In some cases, the accent mark would not help when two different family names have the same sound and the same tone. You would still need to see the surname character.
10. Why is there so much diversity in spelling the same Chinese surname?
There are many reasons because: 1) different letters can be used to convey the same sound; 2) the family settled in America when names were spelled according to the American way; 3) different Chinese-English dictionaries were used; 4) the spelling was received at a certain port of departure from China; 5) the Chinese name was spelled according to the system used in a country of former residence; 6) after settling in America, the surname was respelled to personal whim.
11. Why was there a sudden proliferation of new Chinese American surnames?
The elimination of restrictions on Chinese immigration in 1965 enabled ethnic Chinese from all over the world to immigrate as long as they fulfilled U.S. requirements. The quotas granted the People’s Republic of China and the Taiwan government more than doubled the number of Chinese nationals to be admitted.
Each wave of new immigrants brought additional spelling variants for Chinese family names already in this country. They also brought family names that hadn’t been seen before among Chinese Americans.
The entire Chinese American population in 1960 was less than 240,000. In 1980 the number jumped to over 800,000, just .003 percent of the total U.S. population of 240 million. Over 2 million were counted in the 2000 census. And the 2010 census listed close to 4 million, which included part-Chinese Americans and 230,000 Taiwanese Americans.
12. What are the most common Chinese American surnames?
The latest information on American surnames of Chinese origin comes from the 2000 U.S. census list of surnames for Asian Americans. The surname Lee heads the list for the Chinese in America. It ranks 22 out of 1,000 common American surnames. Out of over 600,000 persons that have this surname–a surname for Americans of different ethnicity, about 230,000 were for those of Chinese ancestry. The next eleven common surnames, in the order of ranking (placed is in parenthesis) are: Chen (260), Wong (277), Yang (397), Wang (438), Chang (424), Chan (459), Li (519), Lin (624), Liu (650), Wu (683), and Huang (697).
Some of these surnames also belong to Korean Americans. The surnames are likely spelling variants for the same family name: Chen and Chan; Wong and Huang. But this doesn’t change the ranking. Wong was the most common Chinese American surname according to the 1984 U.S. census listing of common American surnames, which was based on the 1980 census.
13. What is a Chinese “paper name”?
Several practices arose to circumvent the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Laws that limited Chinese immigration. Since certain categories of Chinese could be admitted, Chinese owners of stores enabled laborers and kinsmen to claim being merchants so they could bring their families. Some young men gained entry as “sons” of merchants. When it was discovered that foreign-born children of a citizen were able to enter this country, many Chinese were able to claim San Francisco as a birthplace by taking advantage of the destruction of legal documents and records in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Since most Chinese had wives in China, they often made trips to see them. And it became common practice, on returning to America, to claim a son was born in China (seldom a daughter) and to have a certificate issued for him. Such certificates were later sold to ablebodied young men so they could come as a “son” of a citizen.
The Chinese called the owner of such a certificate a “paper son” and the Chinese name (transcribed in English) on the certificate, a “paper name.” The “paper son” had to use the name on the certificate as his legal name or face deportation if the ruse were discovered during the exclusion period. When a “paper son” married, his “paper surname” had to be handed on to his children. Nevertheless the “paper son” always kept his full Chinese name so that his children and next generations would know their actual family name. It is not unusual to hear a Chinese American say that his (or her) surname is not the real surname, but a “paper name.”
14. Why do some Chinese surnames begin with “A” or “Ah”?
The type of surname that begins with the letter A or letters Ah is a reminder of the southern Chinese way of calling or referring to a person informally by name. For some unknown reason, almost all patronymics of this type arose among the early Chinese families in the Hawaiian Islands. Many surnames of this type can be seen in Hawaiian telephone directories.
15. What is a patronym, patronymic surname, or “turned-around name”?
Many early immigrants kept the Chinese tradition of stating and transcribing into English, the family name first in their names. As a result, in some families, part of the father’s Chinese name became the surname for his children. The Chinese called it a “turned-around name” because the last word of the father’s full name usually became the surname for his children.
This type of family name is called a patronym or patronymic surname, a common source from which surnames arose in most countries. Four types of patronyms occurred for the second generation and have been handed down to 5th and later generations of Chinese and partial-Chinese Americans. These types are listed in detail in the book Chinese American Names: Tradition and Transition. And the explanation is also given in the Listing of Chinese American Patronyms.
16. What do you mean when you say that “Chinese is a tonal language” and why is that important to understanding Chinese American surnames?
Every variety of spoken Chinese (e.g., Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, etc.) uses the tonal system (or musical accent) for pronouncing the word correctly. This helps to differentiate the meaning of spoken words when used in context with other words. The same word sound spoken in two different tones means two different words; a beginning non-native Chinese speaker using the wrong tone can inadvertently create an odd or amusing sentence due to the error in tone usage.
17. How can I find out the meaning behind my surname character?
Almost all Chinese family names are also common words with different definitions, which can be found in a Chinese-English dictionary. However, a Chinese speaker may say that a family name doesn’t have any meaning. The late Dr. Yuen Ren Chao, a renowned linguist, wrote in a letter to me: “Even if the character happens to be a common word with meaning, in the context in which it is used as a surname, one usually disregards the meaning except when intentionally making a pun of it.”
18. What if my family’s surname is listed on your website, but the Chinese character you show does not match what our family uses?
The explanation would have to be found in your family history. The correct surname character would be in the Chinese name of the ancestor who started family life in the United States.
19. I'd like to learn more about Chinese American surnames! Where can I buy your book, “Chinese American Names: Tradition and Transition”?
It can be ordered through any retail bookstore, such as Barnes & Noble or Books, Inc. Or you can buy it from an online bookstore, such as Amazon.com. Sometimes used copies are available at a lower price from an online bookstore. Click here to see it on Amazon
© Emma Woo Louie 2015-2020 All rights reserved