“Old Hundred Names” (nao bai xing) is an idiomatic Chinese expression that refers to ordinary people or common people. The phrase takes its meaning from the fact that there are just a few common surnames in China, and a large percentage of the population have those names.
Historical evidence indicates that China was once a matrilineal society, meaning that the family line was passed down by the mother rather than the father. The Chinese word for surname contains two components: a radical meaning “female” and a radical meaning “birth”. So, it is probable that children carried their mothers’ names in ancient China.
Modern surnames evolved out of the nobility system in place for thousands of years during the Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasties (2140 – 256 B.C.). There were actually two sets of names: xing (surnames) and shi (clan names). Xing originated as surnames of the royal families, while clan names came from regions or noble titles. Some noblemen could have both xing and shi.
Though hundreds of surnames actually exist in China, they are not evenly distributed among the population. In other words, a high percent of Chinese people have just a few surnames. Many of them were lost throughout history, especially after the formation of the People’s Republic, when the Chinese language was simplified. At that time, some names were merged together and changed.
Every few years, a new study is published listing the most common surnames in China for that year. Usually, these studies examine the 100 most common surnames, going back to the expression “Old Hundred Names”. It is generally accepted that the three most common surnames in Mainland China are “Li”, “Wang” and “Zhang”. Other common names include Zhao, Chen, Yang, Wu, Liu, Huang and Zhou.
Surnames also tend to be geographically cloistered. So, the most common names in Guangdong Province, in the south, are different from the most common names in Beijing. For instance, Chen is a very common surname in Hong Kong, while Wang is typical in northern areas of the country.
The Chinese diaspora around the world has created some trouble with romanized forms of surnames. Since many people migrated before the Pinyin system was developed, their surnames were simply spelled by local English-speakers wherever they moved. So, the Mainland Chinese name Chen became Tan in Malaysia and Singapore and Chan in Hong Kong. Similarly, Wang is sometimes seen as Wong, Zhang becomes Cheung and Guan could be Kuang or Kwan.