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Li (surname 李)

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Title: Li (surname 李)  
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Subject: List of common Chinese surnames, Chinese surname, Laozi, Filipino name, China
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Li (surname 李)

The Chinese character for Li
Pronunciation Lǐ (Mandarin)
Lei (Cantonese)
Language(s) Chinese
Language(s) Old Chinese
Meaning Plum, plum tree
Other names
Variant(s) Lee, Lei, Lie
Derivative(s) Lee, Yi, Rhee (Korean)
Lý (Vietnamese)

Li (Chinese: ; pinyin: ) is the second most common surname in China, behind only Wang.[1] It is also one of the most common surnames in the world, shared by 93 million people in China,[1] and more than 100 million worldwide.[2] It is the fourth name listed in the Song dynasty classic text Hundred Family Surnames.[3] According to the Sixth National Population Census of the People's Republic of China, Li takes back the number one surname in China with a population of 95,300,000 (7.94%).[4]

The name is pronounced as "Lei" in Cantonese, but is often spelled as Lee in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and many other overseas Chinese communities. In Macau, it is also spelled as Lei. In Indonesia it is commonly spelled as Lie.[5]

The common Korean surname, Lee (also romanized as Yi, Ri, or Rhee), and the Vietnamese surname, , are both derived from Li and are historically written with the same Chinese character, 李.[6] The character also means "plum" or "plum tree".

According to tradition, the Li surname originated from the title Dali held by Gao Yao, a legendary minister of the Xia dynasty, and was originally written with the different character, 理. Laozi (Li Er), the founder of Taoism, was the first historical person known to have the surname and is regarded as the founding ancestor of the surname.

As the surname of the emperors of the Tang dynasty, Li was bestowed upon or adopted by numerous people, including many foreigners, during the period, and became one of the most common Chinese surnames.


  • Demographics and distribution 1
  • Origins 2
    • Legendary beginning 2.1
    • Laozi 2.2
    • Ba people 2.3
  • Tang dynasty 3
  • Other dynasties ruled by Li families 4
  • Adoption by non-Han Chinese peoples 5
  • Prominent clans 6
  • Historical distribution and migration 7
  • Notable people 8
  • References 9

Demographics and distribution

Li 李 is one of the most common surnames in China and the world, shared by more than 93 million people in China,[1] or about 7.4% of the Chinese population.[2] Worldwide, more than 100 million people bear the surname.[2] It was formerly thought to be the most common surname in China, but a 2013 analysis of the names of 1.33 billion Chinese citizens has concluded that Li is the second most common surname, behind Wang with 95 million people.[1] Li 李 is the most common surname for the Hakka people.[7]

Geographically, Li is the most common surname in North China and Southwest China. In provinces such as Henan, Hebei, Shandong, Shanxi, Jilin, Heilongjiang, and Yunnan, more than 8.8% of the local population are surnamed Li. Among all Chinese provinces, Henan has the largest number of Lis, accounting for 10.3% of the total.[2] Li is less common in southern and southeastern China. In Jiangxi, Zhejiang, Fujian, Hainan, as well as Taiwan, only 2.2 to 6.6% of the population share the surname.[2]


Laozi (Li Er), the first person known to be surnamed Li (李), is commonly worshipped as a god.

Legendary beginning

According to the ninth-century Tang dynasty text Yuanhe Xing Zuan, Li is a branch of the ancient ancestral name Ying (嬴) and descends from Emperor Zhuanxu, grandson of the mythical Yellow Emperor.[8] During the reign of Emperor Yao, Zhuanxu's descendant Gao Yao served as Dali (大理), or Minister of Law. During the Xia dynasty, Gao Yao's descendants adopted Li (理) as their surname, from the title Dali (meaning "great judge").[2][6]

It is uncertain how the character for Li changed from the original 理 to the current 李. According to popular folklore, at the end of the Shang dynasty, the minister Li Zheng (理征) was executed by King Zhou of Shang who was known for his cruelty. Li Zheng's son Li Lizhen (理利贞) escaped with his mother to the ruins of Yihou (伊侯之墟), where they survived by eating plums. In gratitude, Li Lizhen changed his surname to 李, a character that means "plum" and is a homophone of 理. Li Lizhen was said to have settled at Ku County (苦县), in modern Luyi County, Henan province, which is regarded as the original hometown of the Li surname.[2][6]


The first historical person known to have the surname is Li Er (李耳), better known as Laozi (fl. 6th century BC), the philosopher who founded Taoism. He was said to have been an eleventh-generation descendant of Li Lizhen. Laozi is widely revered as the founding ancestor of the Li surname.[2][6]

Ba people

Another early origin of Li is the non-Huaxia Ba people, who established the Ba state during the Zhou dynasty in modern western Hubei province and Chongqing municipality. In 316 BC, Ba was conquered by the state of Qin, which would eventually conquer all the warring states to establish the Qin dynasty. Many Ba people adopted Li as their surname, as it sounded similar to the Ba word for tiger, which was a totem for the Ba.[2] In 304 AD, the Ba leader Li Xiong (Emperor Wu) established Cheng Han, the first Li-surnamed dynasty in history.[2]

Tang dynasty

Li Yuan (Emperor Gaozu), founder of the Tang dynasty

The Tang dynasty Imperial family belonged to the northwest military aristocracy prevalent during the Sui dynasty[9][10] and claimed to be paternally descended from Laozi (whose personal name was Li Dan or Li Er),[11] the Han dynasty General Li Guang,[12][13] and Western Liang ruler Li Gao. This family was known as the Longxi Li lineage (隴西李氏). The Tang Emperors had Xianbei maternal ancestry,[14] from Emperor Gaozu of Tang's Xianbei mother Duchess Dugu.

Li was the imperial surname of the Tang dynasty, founded by Li Yuan in 618 AD. One of the most prosperous and influential dynasties in Chinese history, Tang was ruled by 20 emperors surnamed Li. The Tang emperors liberally granted the royal surname to favoured generals, officials, and their clans, such as Xu Shiji, Du Fuwei, and Guo Zihe. Many non-Chinese people under Tang's rule were also granted the Li surname, including the Eastern Tujue khan Ashina Simo (Li Simo), Mohe leaders Li Duozuo and Li Jinxing, Khitan leaders Li Guangbi and Li Jinzhong, and Goguryo general Li Zhengji. Many Tibetans, Uyghurs, Persians, and Jews were also granted or adopted the Li surname. The number of people surnamed Li skyrocketed during the Tang dynasty.[2][6]

Other dynasties ruled by Li families

During the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period following the fall of Tang in 907, the Shatuo general Li Keyong, who had been granted the Li surname, established the Jin State, precursor of the Later Tang. Li Bian (Xu Zhigao), the founder of the Southern Tang, also changed his surname to Li. The emperors of Later Tang and Southern Tang continued the Tang tradition of liberally bestowing the Li surname on their favoured people.[6]

Other Li-surnamed dynasties include Liang, Western Xia (Tangut Empire), and Shun. All told, there have been 64 Li-surnamed emperors in Chinese history, ruling all or part of China for 650 years.[6]

Adoption by non-Han Chinese peoples

Lý Thái Tổ, founder of the Vietnamese Lý dynasty

Influenced by Chinese culture, many non-Han Chinese peoples living in and near China have adopted Chinese-style names throughout history, and Li is one of the most common surnames adopted. Li has been used by the Bai people for more than 1,000 years, and is one of the top three surnames among the Bai. Li is the fifth of the twelve most common surnames of the Yao people, who adopted the name more than 800 years ago. Li also has history of 500 years among the Miao people. Among the 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities in China, 33 are known to use the Li surname.[6]

Li (spelled in modern Vietnamese) has been used in Vietnam for more than 2,000 years since the Han dynasty, when Northern Vietnam was ruled as a province of the Han Empire. In 544, Vietnam gained temporary independence from China when Lý Nam Đế founded the Early Lý dynasty. Lý Nam Đế (Li Nan Di), an ethnic Chinese, is often considered the first emperor of Vietnam. In 1009, Lý Thái Tổ established the Later Lý dynasty, which ruled Vietnam for more than 200 years.[6] In 1232, after usurping the Lý dynasty, Grand Preceptor Trần Thủ Độ forced the descendants of the Lý royal family to change their surname to Nguyễn.[15]

The Koreans began using Chinese surnames during the Tang dynasty, with Li (romanized as Lee, Yi, or Rhee in Korea) being one of the top four. In 1392, Yi Seong-gye established the Joseon dynasty, which ruled Korea for more than 500 years.[6]

Prominent clans

There are historically twelve prominent clans (junwang, 郡望) of Li, the most famous being those of the Longxi and Zhao commanderies. The Zhao clan, based in modern Hebei's Zhao County, traces its origin from Li Mu (died 229 BC), Lord Wu'an of the State of Zhao, who was one of the most famous generals of the Warring States period. The Zhao clan produced 17 prime ministers during the Tang dynasty.[16] In 2010, a group of nine large tombs of the Zhao clan were discovered in Zanhuang County, dating from the Northern Dynasties.[17]

The Zhao clan remained the most prominent branch of the Li until it was surpassed by the Longxi during the Tang dynasty. The Longxi clan is named after the Longxi Commandery in southern Gansu province. Li Chong (李崇), the first Qin governor of Longxi, is revered as its founder. The Han general Li Guang, famous for defeating the Xiongnu, came from Longxi. Centuries later, the Tang emperors traced their ancestry to the Longxi clan, making it the most prominent branch ever since.[16] The Longxi Li is considered one of the four great cultural traditions of Gansu province. Longxi County has built a museum for the Li clan, and hosted the Longxi Li cultural festival in 2012.[18]

There are 2,157 genealogy books of Li families known to be extant.[2]

Historical distribution and migration

"World Headquarter of the Lee's Family", Taipei, Taiwan

Having originated in what is now Henan province, the Lis had spread to Shanxi, Hebei, Shaanxi, Sichuan, and Hubei provinces by the end of the Warring States period. During the Qin dynasty, the Lis spread to Guangdong and Guangxi provinces, while Li Chong established the Longxi Li clan in Gansu.[2]

During the early Tang dynasty many Lis migrated to Fujian and Hainan provinces. After the mass adoption of the imperial Li surname during the Tang period, Li became the second most common surname during the subsequent Song dynasty, after Wang. There were approximately 5.6 million people with the surname, or 7.2% of the total population at the time, with large concentrations in the northern provinces of Hebei, Henan, and Shandong.[2]

The Mongol invasion of China in the 13th century caused widespread depopulation in northern China. Li, being overrepresented in the north, was hit especially hard. In the Ming dynasty following the Mongol Yuan dynasty, the Li-surnamed population had declined to 5.1 million, constituting 5.5% of the total population. It fell behind Zhang to become the third most common surname of the time. Many of the Lis had migrated to South China by this period.[2]

Notable people


  1. ^ a b c d
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ Ebrey, Walthall & Palais 2006, pp. 90–91.
  10. ^ Adshead 2004, pp. 40–41.
  11. ^ Latourette 1934, p. 191.
  12. ^ Drompp 2005, p. 126.
  13. ^ Mair & Steinhardt & Goldin 2005, p. 376.
  14. ^ Skaff 2012, p. 125.
  15. ^
  16. ^ a b
  17. ^
  18. ^
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