Is your last name spelled Lin, Lim, Ling or Lum? If so, there’s a good chance that the original Chinese surname of your ancestors is 林, pronounced Lin in Mandarin. 

Lin (林), meaning ‘forest’, is the 18th most common surname in China. Any communities worldwide in places like Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan and Singapore also share the same surname. 

The roots of the Lin family stretch far and wide. Most Lin descendants can trace their ancestry back to the bloodlines of government officials who lived and ruled during the Spring and Autumn Period (770 to 476 BC, or the first half of the Eastern Zhou period). 

What are the origins of Lin?

Many believe that the surname Lin originated under the reign of King Zhou (帝辛), who was the last king of the Shang dynasty of ancient China. King Zhou was known to be a draconian leader who ruled with an iron fist. He would often mete out severe punishments and enact troublesome laws. However, his uncle Prince Bi Gan (比干) was a man of morals and sought to persuade King Zhou to change his ways. In anger, the king ordered for the arrest of the prince. Upon hearing this, the Prince’s pregnant wife escaped into a nearby forest and conceived their child in secret. Shortly thereafter, King Zhou was overthrown by King Wu of the Zhou dynasty (周武王). To commemorate Prince Bi Gan’s bravery and loyal service, the new king officially conferred the surname ‘Lin’ on Prince Bi Gan’s newborn son — the first Lin ancestor.

Other historical accounts trace the origins of the Lin clan to King Ping of Zhou (周平王). King Ping’s grandson first went by his personal name Ji Lin (姬林), but he was later acknowledged as King Huan of Zhou (周桓王) after succeeding his grandfather. 

There is also evidence to suggest that the Lin clan (or its various branches) may have originated elsewhere. During the Northern and Southern Dynasties, Emperor Xiaowen ordered the Xianbei (鲜卑) Mongolian nomadic tribe to change their surnames to Lin. In addition, it is historically recorded that the Taiwanese Gaoshan (高山) tribe, one of the biggest groups that migrated from China to Taiwan, changed their surnames to Lin in tribute to the forests of their homeland.

Did you know?

The Chinese character for ‘wood’ is 木 (mu). Comprised of two 木 characters, the surname Lin (林) evokes the imagery of a pair of trees standing side by side — thus symbolizing ‘forest’!

Image: The Guardian


MeaningWoods, forest
Symbols木 (wood, tree)
Legendary AncestorKing Wen Wu Ding 文武丁of the Shang Dynasty
Founding AncestorLin Jian 林坚, the son of Prince Bi Gan
Global distribution map of Lin

Spelling Variations

By Dialect
CantoneseLem, Lum, Lam
HainaneseLam, Leem, Lewn, Liam, Lim, Lum, Lin
HakkaLim, Lam, Ling, Lin
HokkienLim, Lem, Leng, Lin, Ling, Lng
TeochewLim, Lean, Lin, Ling
By Country
United StatesLam, Lamb, Lamm, Land, Lem, Lemm, Liem, Lim, Limm, Lin, Ling, Linn, Lum, Lym, Lynn
Trinidad and TobagoNim
AustraliaAh Len, Leem
IndonesiaAlim, Salim, Limantoro, Lim, Liemena, Liemantika, Limianto, Liem, Mulialim, Limijanto, Limanto, Liman, Limawan, Halim, Limijati, Muslim, Haliman, Ruslim, Linus, Limiardi, Nursalim, Suharlim, Nastalim, Satyalim, Lemandjaja, Halimkusuma, Lemanjaya, Lesmana, Limantara, Linanto, Wono, Limandi, Lanandi, Limiardja, Lembata, Lamono, Laksono, Laksana, lamsano, Laksamanda, Talim, Lemandau, Limijanti, Talin, Limyadi, Limandau, Lumenta, Taslim, Baroleh, Limputra, Limansubronoto, Mursalim, Limarta
JamaicaLim, Lym
KoreaLim, Im, Rim
Ling, Lim, Lin, Lum, Lam
HawaiiAiko, Ban, Chan-lam, Loy, Lumho, Poy, Sing, Suey, Wei
PeruAsin, Asaulau, Lau
SurinameLim, Liem, Lam

Who are famous Lins in modern history?

From emperors, prime ministers, and generals, to intellectuals, film stars and pro ballers: there’s nothing that Lins can’t do. Some of the most prominent Lins in modern history include:

  • Jeremy Lin: Taiwanese-American professional basketball player for the Guangzhou Loong Lions of the Chinese Basketball Association
  • JJ Lin: Singaporean singer, songwriter, record producer and actor
  • Lin Biao: Chinese politician and Marshal of the People’s Republic of China who was pivotal in the Communist victory during the Chinese Civil War
  • Nora Lum: Known by her stage name Awkwafina, the American actress, rapper, and comedian has starred in Hollywood hits like Ocean’s 8, Crazy Rich Asians, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
  • Peggy Lam: Founding chairperson of the Hong Kong Federation of Women
Jeremy Lin, a Taiwanese-American professional basketball player for the Guangzhou Loong Lions of the Chinese Basketball Association.

How do Lin families stay connected today?

Lins around the world celebrate their ancestry through global and regional Lin clan associations, which organize gatherings, community activities and dinner events on a regular basis. Clan associations had their origins in China but were later reproduced overseas by migrant populations. These Lin clan associations thus play an important role in promoting cohesion and togetherness among overseas Chinese communities. 

Members of the Hainan Lin Clan Association of Singapore gather for a lively karaoke event. Source: Singapore Hanan Lin Clan Association.

Are you a Lin? Who were your ancestors?

You can find the stories of your ancestors in a Lin zupu, or family history book. Known as the Holy Grail of Chinese genealogy, a zupu records the names of your ancestors, their values, migration journeys, and more.

What do you know about your family history? Tell us in the comments!

Vintage photo of five Chinese immigrants posing in top hats and traditional shirts

Discover the names and stories of your Chinese ancestors!

If you are interested in uncovering your family history, we would love to be of assistance. Our global team of researchers has helped hundreds of families discover their Chinese roots. Learn more about our services or go ahead and get in touch!

With the global pandemic, My China Roots is offering virtual tours packaged with our research trips to your ancestral village. Check out a demo here!

Edgar Foo

As a senior in Peking University pursuing a degree in International Relations, Edgar believes that understanding the world begins with understanding oneself---your origins, your stories and your roots. Having experienced firsthand the richness of cultural diversity while growing up in Singapore, Edgar is passionate about telling stories while writing his own. He is also a long-time fan and collector of Tamagotchi toys; his army of digital pets grows ever stronger.

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