Things to Know

Chinese American surnames are American family names — American family names of Chinese origin. As in the case of other American family names, spelling is based on language and dialect pronunciation. The more common a family name is, the greater number of spelling variants exists for it because different letters of the English alphabet can be used to denote the same sound or pronunciation.

The surnames listed on this site were selected because there is a surname character that represents the actual Chinese family name. Due to the fact that the spoken Chinese language is divided into several regional divisions (see FAQ), there can be a great diversity in the pronouncing and spelling for the same family name. The Chinese written character primarily conveys meaning rather than pronunciation, so that it can be pronounced differently in different languages and still mean the same.

Since spoken Chinese is a tonal language (see FAQ), different family names that have the same or nearly similar pronunciation will have the same spelling, such as Li, which represents six different family names. Different surnames can even have the same spelling variants: two different family names are spelled Louie, Loy, and Lue.

Moreover, the spelling for a Chinese American surname may not represent an actual Chinese family name. New surnames arose for the second generation who were born to families that settled in mainland America and the Hawaiian Islands, mostly in the decades before 1940. These new surnames are mostly “patronymics” because they originated from the Chinese name of the father (see FAQ), These occurred due to the tendency of the early immigrants to write the family name first, according to Chinese tradition, when spelling the Chinese name in English.

Because of these particular features of Chinese American surnames, three separate lists of Chinese American surnames were compiled for this website, to help the non-­Chinese speaker better understand the underlying reasons behind the spelling of Chinese family names and the evolution of new surnames. The lists are:

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