China is an ancient land with many cultures and a diverse history. Many Westerners might think that the only thing different about Chinese surnames is that the family name comes before the given name. Actually, it is a relatively new practice for commoners to be allowed any surname at all.
Rules regarding adopting a surname were stringent, bound by tradition, bureaucratic regulations and the privileges of birth. Back during the Warring States Period, around 500 B. C., only the emperor and privileged nobility could attach surnames (called "xing") to their given names. Additionally, sub-surnames (called "shi") designated seniority and importance among the aristocracy.
When commoners were eventually allowed to adopt family names, one could not take on just any name. Surnames used by the aristocracy were prohibited. Thus, many commoners called themselves by the town or fiefdom where they lived. Others took on the name of their profession, the name of a noteworthy ancestor or the name of their ethnic group. For example, the descendants of the historic figure Di of Ouyangting took the surname Ouyang in his honor.
Another historic figure, Yuan Taotu, chose as his surname the second syllable of his grandfather's name, Boyuan. In the 1980s, almost 500 distinct family names were in use in Beijing. Today, among the most commonplace are Li, Wang, Zhou, Zhang, Zhu and Zhao. Wang is shared by 9 percent of northern Chinese. Chen is prevalent in the former British enclave of Hong Kong, formerly Portuguese Macao and what was Japanese-occupied Formosa, today's Taiwan. Li is commonplace along the Yangtze River's major crossing points. Fong, which is only the 47th most commonplace on the mainland, is prevalent in San Francisco's Chinatown.
In a 1990 study, the 200 most frequent family names accounted for over 96 percent of all Chinese surnames. Thousands of family names are no longer in use. As in anywhere else in the world, surnames become extinct when a family has no child who passes along the family name. Today, most Chinese families use the father's birth surname and most Chinese brides take the family name of their new husband. However, the tradition of using Chinese surnames first and given names second has been influenced by the Western tradition of using surnames last. On the mainland, most Chinese continue the traditional sequence. However, Chinese living in the West not only use their surnames last, but frequently take nicknames that are more western -- such as Cheng Yu-chieh going by the name Jack Cheng whenever in the US.
Chinese names are romanized in China using Pinyin. However in other parts of the world such as Malaysia and Singapore, the methodology is less stringent. Many times the name is spelt as it is pronounced. Due to the number of dialects names like Lin and Mei (meaning beautiful) can end us a Lim, Lam, Lum etc and May, Meei, Bee etc.