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Nov 3, 2003

How many Chinese surnames are there?

It is human nature that inadvertently the question "how many Chinese surnames are there?" will be ask. It is a fair and legitimate question. With China conducting regular census one would expect this to be no more than a walk in the park. However, this is far from being the case.

The best known source for Chinese surnames is The Book of Hundred Family Surnames (ZZ家姡Z) which was compiled during the Northern Song has 438 surnames. Why was it titled hundred when its list is more than a hundred? With the old Chinese the word hundred was generally used to mean many not the actual number itself.

Dictionary of Modern Chinese (ZZ代漢ZZ辭ZZ) listed 930 or just slightly more than double the number in the Book of Hundred Surnames. Another Song publication, Surnames Explained (姡Z觡Z), collected 2,568 surnames or 8 times more than its better known counterpart. To muddy the water further, Key to Surnames, complied by Chen Sie-yuan (ZZ士ZZZ) during the Ming dynasty has 3,625 surnames.

Now LateLineNews (夡ZZZZZZZZ) reported that Chen Lipu (ZZ歷ZZZ), a Chinese surnames specialist, after 30 plus years had collect 15,142 Chinese surnames. His recent published Chinese Surnames Dictionary (中ZZZ氡ZZZZZ大辭ZZZ) is a collection of 10,129 surnames. Of this total over 8,000 are Han surnames and the balance belongs to the varies minorities living in China. This would be an interesting book to have since it would certainly would broaden any person's knowledge of Chinese words.

Of course this doesn't mean all these surnames are in use today. Or it is such a rarity that one may never encounter such a person. Of the 400-odd surnames in The Book of Hundred Family Surnames at least 76 are not in use and exist in the book only. An example of which is the surname Hung (紡Z) as in the colour red not Hung (洡Z) which means big. Just trying to remember when was the last time I encountered somebody with such as surname. Can anybody out there help?

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