We begin this series on the origins of Chinese surnames with 李 (Li) – the biggest surname in China.
李 in Mandarin is Li, but in the Philippines, there are several spellings which all belong to this Chinese surname, such as Dy, Dee, and Lee – all pronounced as “di” in Hokkien.
The surname 李 in China has a long history of more than 3,100 years. The first Chinese that bore the 李 surname is 李利貞 (Li Lizhen, Mandarin), the son of a high government official during the reign of the last emperor Zhou (紂王) of Shang (商) Dynasty (17th century BC to 11th century BC).
The original surname of this first 李 was actually 理 (Li), which was named after a position in court 大理 (Dali) of their ancestor. 理 in Chinese means reason, governance or management. Literally, 大理 in Chinese means great manager, something like prime minister today.
The father of Li Lizhen is 理徵 (Li Zheng), the Dali of the last emperor Zhou in the Shang Dynasty. He was executed because he was vocal in criticizing and admonishing the tyrant Zhou. To avoid being wiped out by the tyrant Zhou (in ancient China, execution often involved all the family members), Li Lizhen and his mother fled for their lives, stayed in the mountain and forest and survived on fruits from a tree for more than two years. At that time, Li Lizhen was only eight years old.
To show their appreciation for the fruits of the tree that saved their lives, Li Lizhen changed his surname from 理 to 李 which sounds the same in Chinese.
李 actually is a combination of two Chinese characters 木 and 子. 木 means wood, which also connotes trees, and 子 means son or bearing. 木子 in effect means son of a tree or bearings of a tree i.e. fruits. In fact, 李 in Chinese means plum, a kind of fruit. So the Chinese surname 李 literally and historically really originated from fruit – son of a tree!
However, in the course of China’s long history, there were other branches of the 李 surname, most of them were cultural minorities who chose, borrowed or changed to this surname of Han nationality (漢 族), to which the majority of Chinese belong.
And for your information, there were 60 Chinese emperors, as well as 39 prime ministers in China’s history, who were of 李 surname. Among the famous Lis are Li Hong Zhang, Li Xien Nien, Li Peng, Li Deng Hui.
Let’s also not forget that famous Tang poet, Li Bai (李白). And the most popular Li alive today could be Li Lianjie (李連杰), otherwise known as Jet Li.
What a big name indeed! — First published in Tulay Fortnightly, Chinese-Filipino Digest 22, no. 8 (September 22-October 05, 2009): 5.