Chinese Surnames / li(李)


Top 10 Major Chinese Surnames – Li (1)

More than 20,000 surnames have appeared over the course of Chinese history. However, current surveys estimate merely 4,000-plus surnames. Presently, there are ten major surnames that are used by the highest number of Chinese people in China and around the world. These ten major surnames are the most representative Chinese surnames each of which owns a population of more than 20 million people. They account for approximately 40% of the total Chinese population. In China, these ten major surnames are distributed differently in concentration so that Zhang, Wang, Li, Zhao, and Liu are most commonly seen in the North. while Chen, Huang, Yang,  Zhou, and Wu are commonly seen in the South. The ten major surnames are Li, Wang, Zhang, Liu, Chen, Yang, Zhao, Huang, Zhou, and Wu.


The surname Li ranks the first among Chinese surnames in terms of population.

Originating in Henan, the surname of Li began to migrate to different places as its population increased.In the Western Han Dynasty, Li had migrated to Shandong, Jiangxi and other areas.During the Tang Dynasty when Li became the imperial surname, the population with the surname of Li was distributed nationwide. In the final years of the Northern Song Dynasty, when the army of Jin in the north invaded the Central Plains, the Li’s clansman in the north, driven by wars, moved one after another to the south of the Yangtze River. This migration was the largest in history with the most population relocated. At the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, the surname of Li composed the majority of the population during the Great Migration of the Great Pagoda Tree of Hongtong in Shanxi, where they moved and spread to Hebei, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, and other provinces. Nowadays, Li can be found all over China. with the most of them inhabiting In Henan, Shandong, and Sichuan.

Origin of Li

There are two main origins for the surname of Li. The first one is derived from the surname of Ying, and the other is either a conferred surname or a changed surname.

Originating from the surname of Ying: As the descendant of Yellow Emperor, Zhuanxu was the leader of the Dongyi Tribe. During the reign of Emperor Yao, the clan of Zhuanxu divided into eight branches, among which was a tribe with its leader named Gao Yao holding the official position of chief magistrate, Dali (an officer in charge of punishments and imprisonments). Due to his success in assisting Yu the Great to solve the flooding problems of the Yellow River. Bo Yi Gao Yao’s son, was bestowed with the surname of Ying, and his descendants were hereditarily entitled to the post of Dali. His descendants later began to use their ancestors’ official title, Li, as their surname. In the final years of the Shang Dynasty, Minister Li Zheng was killed due to his blatant remonstrations against the fatuous and incompetent King Zhou of Shang. In order to avoid the coming persecution, his son, Li Lizhen, had to flee. During his flee, Li Lizhen had to rely on plums (Li Zi in Chinese) to quench his hunger and thirst, In order to express his gratitude to that plums, he changed the character of his surname to that of the fruit, both pronounced Li.

Conferred or changed surname: Li Yuan, the founding emperor of the Dynasty, ushered in the nearly 300-year-long reign of the Li’s dynasty. During this period. the tradition of conferring the imperial surname prevailed. Those conferred with the imperial surname included not only Han generals who had accomplished military achievements but also tribal leaders of ethnic minorities. For example, during the reign of Emperor Suzong of Tang, General Dong Qin was conferred with the name of Li Zhongchen due to his military achievements, and Tuoba Chici, leader of the Xianbei Tribe, was given the imperial surname when he was paying his tributes to the Tang Dynasty, his converted name is Li Chici.

Surnames of ethnic minorities such as the Zhuang, Miao, Yao, Bai, Yi, Tujia and other tribes were also gradually converted to Han surnames during the process of their integration with the Han culture. Some of them changed to Li.

Famous Personages Surnamed Li

Li Er, courtesy name Boyang, was born in the State of Chu during the Spring and Autumn Period (770 B.C.-476B.C.). In the Spring and Autumn Period(770 B.C.-476 B.C.), people respectfully referred to knowledgeable people as Zi. As a learned individual, Li Er was also honored as Lao Zi. Lao Zi was a great thinker, philosopher, and founder of Taoism in ancient China. He was also the writer of the book Dao De Jing. In Dao De Jing, Lao Zi proposed a simple dialectic and advocated governance by non-interference, an idea to conform to natural changes without assertive intervention so the world would eventually fall into orderly control.

As a well-known poetess in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), Li Qingzhao(1084-c.1151), with the title name of Yi’an, was praised as the Top-One Talented Woman of the World. Raised in a scholarly family, she later married Zhao Mingcheng and worked together with her husband on collecting and organizing works of epigraphy, seal cutting and calligraphy. However, due to the invasion of the Jin army in the Central Plains and the continuous wars, a forming point occurred in Li qingzhao’s life when her family drifted from place to place and her husband died of illness en route, driving her into bitter hardship. As a result of this, her poetry could be divided into the early and late stages. Most of her poems from the early stage described a relaxed and comfortable life of love coupled with natural scenery. such as A Cutoff Twig of Plum: Red Lotus and Incense Residue with a Jade Bamboo Mat in an Autumn Day. Most of her later poems contained themes of lamentation about life experiences, homesickness, and nostalgia for the past, such as Slow in SoundSearch and Search. Her signature poems Include Slow in SoundA Cutoff Twig of Plum, Song like a Dream, Drunk Under the Shade of Flowers, Spring in Wuling andSummer Quatrains.

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