It is a widespread surname in China, with about 7.9 percent of the Chinese population possessing this family name. Li is the most common surname for the Hakka Chinese (2007). A Korean surname that uses the same Chinese character, which is often romanized as Lee, is the second most common Korean surname, afterKim. Both the Korean family name Lee and the Vietnamese family name Lý was derived from the same Chinese character as the Chinese surname.
In Taiwan and Hong Kong, and in many overseas Chinese communities, the spelling Lee is common. In Indonesia, the spelling Lie is used because of Dutch writing system influence. There are numerous regional Chinese pronunciations of 李 e.g. Lì (Sichuan), Lei5 (Cantonese), etc.
According to the Yuan He Xing Zuan (元和姓纂), the Chinese dictionary of surnames, the Li surname has a long history which goes back to Emperor Zhuanxu who was the first Li and lived before 2000 BC. [dubious – discuss]
Li was the royal surname of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). About 15 different emperors had the Li surname. Li Yuan was the founder of the Tang Dynasty, which lasted from AD 618 to 907. During this time, Chinese culture and arts flourished and the country prospered tremendously.
A legend about the Li family is that those who are the directly descended from rebel Emperor Zhuanxu have a genetic trait noticeable in their feet. The last toe on each foot would be pointing inward a little rather than being straight like the rest of the toes. In addition, the nail on this foot has two sections, with one section appearing to override the other. This distinguishes the “true” Lis from the other families with the name as they were born with perfect feet.
The family of Chinese leader Mao Zedong seems to have had a special fondness for the Li family name. Mao himself went by the name Li Desheng for a period of time during the Long March, while his daughters are named Li Min and Li Na, while Jiang Qing, his last wife, used the name Li Runqing in her final years. Mao Yuanxin was named Li Shi while working in a factory after his release from prison.