Is your last name spelled Lau, Lieu, or Low? If so, there’s a good chance that the original Chinese surname of your ancestors is 刘, pronounced Liu in Mandarin. As of 2019, Liu is the fourth most common surname in China. If you’re a Liu, you share the same last name as nearly 70 million people – over the entire population of France, the United Kingdom, even Thailand!

In recent years, the most popular first name for Liu boys has been Wei 伟, meaning “awesome” or “powerful.” There are over a quarter million Liu Weis in China to date, and almost as many girls named Liu Yang 洋, meaning “ocean.”

What are the origins of Liu?

The surname Liu has many possible origins, such as the story of a Zhou dynasty official who was granted a fief named Liu in modern-day Henan province.

The most well-known story begins in what is now Hebei province, several hundred years before the Chinese would start eating rice and brewing tea leaves. According to legend, a descendant of the mythical Emperor Yao was born with 劉累 – the Chinese characters of his name, Liu Lei – tattooed onto the palms of his hands. A gifted “Keeper of Dragons,” Liu Lei trained the four royal dragons of Kong Jia, an ancient ruler of the Xia dynasty.

Another famous descendant, Liu Bang 劉邦, was born after his father saw a dragon hovering above his mother during a thunderstorm. Soon after Hannibal’s invasion of Italy across the Alps, Liu Bang rose from his peasant roots to become the founder and first ruler of the Han dynasty, the Golden Age of Ancient China. During his reign as Gaozu (“High Ancestor”), he popularized his surname by conferring Liu onto people as a sign of imperial favor.

Statue of Liu Azhi

Did you know?

The Yamato no Aya clan of Japan, reputed for its prowess in the arts of war, descends from Liu Azhi 刘阿知, the great-grandson of the Han emperor Ling. After the fall of the Han dynasty around 220 AD, Azhi moved to the Korean kingdom of Kudara with his son, then settled in Japan with a 2,000-strong company of astrologers, medicine men, artists, and experts in the latest steel making technology of Kudara. Their descendants would come to be known as formidable warriors and weapon makers.

Image: BKRBUDO

Liu

Alt Text: Chinese character for the surname Liu written in seal script, traditional Chinese, and simplified form
MeaningAxe, kill
Symbols卯 + 金 (“metal”) + 刂 (“knife”)
Legendary AncestorEmperor Yao
Founding AncestorLiu Lei 劉累, the Keeper of Dragons
World map highlighting regions where the surname Liu is most common
Global distribution map of Liu

Spelling Variations

By Dialect
CantoneseLau
HainaneseLau
HakkaLiu
HokkienLau
MandarinLiu
TeochewLau
By Country
FranceLicou
IndonesiaLau, Lauw, Lawang, Lawanto, Lauwis, Lauwita, Mulawarman
JamaicaLiu, Lue
KoreaRyu, Yu
Malaysia
Singapore
Lau, Law, Liao, Lieu, Liew, Liu, Low
MozambiqueLow
PeruLaos
SurinameLieuw
VietnamLưu

Who are famous Lius in modern history?

The Liu clan boasts countless emperors, entrepreneurs, and entertainers. There’s nothing that Lius can’t do! Some of the most prominent Lius in modern history include:

  • Liu Bang, founder of the Han dynasty
  • Andy Lau, Hong Kong acting powerhouse
  • Lucy Liu, Charlie’s Angels actress
  • Liu Qiangdong, founder of JD.com (“Jeff Bezos of China”)
  • Amber Liu and Henry Lau, K-pop superstars
  • Liu Yifei, Mulan actress
Lucy Liu in Charlie’s Angels

How do Liu families stay connected today?

Since 1997, thousands of Lius have reunited through the biennial World Liu Clan Conference. Organized by local clan associations, the gathering alternates between overseas and mainland Chinese locations, ever since the first session convened in Malaysia, and the second returned to China. During each gathering, descendants reconnect over many days of dinners, exchanging news and ideas for partnership between their corners of the world.

Descendants in the Malaysian Liu Clan Association take a photo with the Liu branch in Hainan, China
Liu descendants from Malaysia gather with another Liu branch in Hainan, China. Source: Malaysian Liu Clan Association.

Are you a Liu? Who were your ancestors?

You can find the stories of your ancestors in a Liu 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

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Chrislyn Choo

Chrislyn is a US-born artist with roots in China and Malaysia. When she's not documenting life stories, you can find her singing karaoke or drooling over family recipes.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Low

    Hi Chrislyn,

    I would like to share something with you, that might have some missing info here.

    Liu bang decendants are from nam ann, China. In Malaysia, there is this association for this clan. There is also a temple at Sentul, Kuala Lumpur for the clan’s benevolent… it is a long story.

    You can try google for “南安劉氏 Nam Ann Low”

    Only decendants with surname of Low and Hokkien clan are direct decendants of Liu bang, that is in Malaysia and Singapore as far as I know.

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