How Maps Unlock the Mysteries of Chinese Names

For instance, are people named “Tall” actually tall? This, and other questions, are examined through cartography. 

Recently, The Atlantic published a post about maps that I created via this website showing the geographic distribution of surnames in China.  While the maps were interesting, they also raised a few questions.  Why are some names prevalent in certain regions and not others?  And what do they tell us about the geographic diversity of China?

The previous post observed that China's most common family names were each concentrated in a particular part of the country, focusing on the three most common names in the country: Li, Wang, and Zhang.  But let's take it out a little bit further and look at the top 20 surnames in China, a group comprising over 700 million people.

Now, instead of considering which name is most common in each province (which would show a lot of Li, Wang, and Zhang), let's flip it around: for each of the top few dozen names, in which province do they predominate? The more common names here are presented in larger characters, and appear to dominate China's north.

Also worth noting: The surname Kong, or 孔, which belongs to descendants of Confucius, is prevalent in the sage's home province of Shandong.

Names are not the only way in which there is regional variation in China, of course. For instance, take height: Northern Chinese people, who for centuries have subsisted on a wheat-based diet, are typically taller than their southern compatriots, who have historically eaten more rice. Interestingly, the Chinese word for “tall,” written as 高, is the 15th most common surname in the country, used by 15 million people. So are people named “tall” actually concentrated in the northern part of the country? Let's take a look:

Looks like it. As the diagram on the bottom shows, the average height of people in northeastern Heilongjiang Province is more than six centimeters (about 2.5 inches) taller than the average in southwestern Guizhou.

In the previous post, Matt Schiavenza wondered if, as a result of internal migration within the country, China's distribution of surnames may look quite different for future generations.

However, a look at the data suggests that this change might be somewhat modest. As it turns out, the bulk of migrants residing in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou—China's three largest urban centers—come from provinces near to those cities, rather than from distant parts of the country.

Which just goes to show: Even with all the changes China has undergone in the past 35 years, geographic boundaries and regional differences still matter. As the Chinese saying goes, yi fang shuitu yang yi fang ren, “a certain piece of land and water will raise a certain type of person.”