Li (surname 李)
The Chinese character for Li
|Derivative(s)||Lee, Yi, Rhee (Korean)
Lǐ is the pinyin romanization of the Chinese surname written 李 in Chinese character. It is one of the most common surnames in China and the world, shared by more than 93 million people in China, and more than 100 million worldwide. It is the second most common surname in China, behind Wang with 95 million people.
The name is pronounced Lei in Cantonese, and often spelled Lee in Hong Kong and many overseas Chinese communities. In Indonesia, it is spelled Lie due to Dutch influence. Li is the fourth name listed in the Song Dynasty classic Hundred Family Surnames.
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, or about 7.4% of the Chinese population. Worldwide, more than 100 million people bear the surname. 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. Li 李 is the most common surname for the Hakka people.
Geographically, Li is the most common surname in northern and southwestern 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 Li's, accounting for 10.3% of the total. 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.
According to the ninth-century Tang Dynasty text Yuanhe Xing Zuan (元和姓纂), Li is a branch of the ancient ancestral name Ying (嬴) and descends from Emperor Zhuanxu, grandson of the mythical Yellow Emperor. 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").
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 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.
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.
The 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. In 304 AD, the Ba leader Li Xiong (Emperor Wu) established Cheng Han, the first ever Li-surnamed dynasty.
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 (zh). 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 (zh), 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.
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 Dynasty. 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.
Adoption by non-Han Chinese peoples
Influenced by Chinese culture, many non-Han Chinese peoples living in and near China adopted Chinese-style names over the 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 groups in China, 33 are known to use the Li surname.
Li (spelled Lý 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. 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.
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.
There are historically twelve prominent clans (junwang 郡望) of Li, the most famous being those of Longxi and Zhao Jun. The Zhao Jun Li clan, based in modern Zhao County, Hebei, 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 Jun Li clan produced 17 prime ministers during the Tang Dynasty. In 2010, a group of nine large tombs of the Zhao Jun Li clan were discovered in Zanhuang County, dating from the Northern Dynasties.
The Zhao Jun Li clan remained the most prominent branch of Li until it was surpassed by the Longxi during the Tang Dynasty. The Longxi clan is named after the Qin Dynasty commandery, around modern Longxi County, Gansu. Li Chong (李崇), the first Qin governor of Longxi, is revered as its founder. The Han Dynasty 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. 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.
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