Cao is romanized as Ts'ao in Wade-Giles, although the apostrophe is often omitted in practice. It is romanized Cho, Tso, and Chaw in Cantonese; Chou, Chô, and Chháu in Min Nan; and Chau, Chow in Teochew.
In the United States, the romanization Cao is a fairly common surname, ranked 7,425th during the 1990 census but 2,986th during the year 2000 census. It is one of the few Chinese surnames whose pinyin transcription is already more common than other variants. The Wade transcription Tsao was only ranked 16,306th during the 1990 census and 12,580th during the year 2000 one. The Cantonese transcription is actually becoming less common, falling from 7,638th place to 9,925th. The Korean name Cho is more common still than Cao, befitting its frequency in Korea itself, where it makes up about 2% of the South Korean population: see Cho (Korean name).
Cáo's former pronunciations have been reconstructed as *N-tsˤu in Old Chinese and Dzaw in Middle Chinese. It originated from the Zhou-era Duchy of Cao founded by Ji Zhenduo. He was later claimed to have descended from the Yellow Emperor via the Zhuanxu Emperor and – in some accounts – via the Shun Emperor as well. It was the origin of the modern Cāo and Zhu families.
Cao can also serve as the romanization for the Chinese surnames Cāo (操) and Cǎo (草) as well; however, they are not nearly so common. They were both unlisted among the Hundred Family Surnames and do not appear among any list of the current popular surnames.
Cāo was likely *tsʰˤawʔ in Old Chinese and TshawX in Middle Chinese; its original meaning was "grasp". It originated from the given name of one of Cao Cao's descendants after the establishment of Cao Wei. Its modern use as a curse word depends on a recent homophone and is unrelated to the surname.
Cǎo was likely *tsʰˤuʔ in Old Chinese, but had become a homophonous TshawX by Middle Chinese; its meaning is still "grass" and similar plants.
List of people with the surname
- Cao Teng, Eunuch of the Han Dynasty, Cao Cao's grandfather
- Cao Song, Official of the Han Dynasty, Cao Cao's father
- Cao Cao (155-220), Warlord and Chancellor of The Han dynasty, laid the foundation of Cao Wei
- Consort Duan (Cao), concubine of the Jiajing Emperor during the Ming dynasty, executed for conspiracy in a plot to assassinate him
- Cao Fang (232-274), third emperor of the state of Cao Wei in the Three Kingdoms period
- Cao Mao, Fourth emperor of the state of Cao Wei in the Three Kingdoms period
- Cao Huan, Fifth and last emperor of the state of Cao Wei in the Three Kingdoms period
- Cao Hong (d. 232), Cao Cao's cousin, general of Cao Wei
- Cao Pi (187-226), Cao Cao's son, ended the Han Dynasty and founded the state of Cao Wei in the Three Kingdoms period, ruled as the first emperor of Wei
- Cao Ren (168-223), Cao Cao's cousin, general of Cao Wei
- Cao Rui (205-239), Cao Pi's son, ruled as the second emperor of Cao Wei
- Cao Shen (d. 190), Han Dynasty chancellor
- Cao Shuang (d. 249), Cao Zhen's son, regent of Cao Wei during Cao Fang's reign, later lost power to Sima Yi
- Cao Xiu (d. 228), a distant nephew of Cao Cao, general of Cao Wei
- Cao Zhang (d. 223), Cao Cao's son, served as a general under his father
- Cao Zhen (d. 231), a distant nephew of Cao Cao, general of Cao Wei
- Cao Zhi (192-232), Cao Cao's son, a famous poet
- Empress Cao Jie, Cao Cao's daughter, last Empress of the Han dynasty
- Cao Guojiu, or royal uncle Cao, Song dynasty royalty immortalized as one of the Eight Immortals in Chinese mythology
- Cao Bin, Military general of the Song dynasty
- Cao Xueqin (1715 or 1724—1763 or 1764), author of the Chinese classic novel Dream of the Red Chamber
- Cao Kun (1862-1938), a military leader in the Zhili clique during the Warlord Era
- Cao Yu (1910-1996), the pen name of Wan Jiabao, an important playwright in modern China
- Huai-Dong Cao (b. 1959), mathematician and managing editor of the Journal of Differential Geometry
- Cao Gangchuan (b. 1935), former Chinese Minister of Defence
- Chin-hui Tsao (b. 1981), Major League Baseball pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers
- Peter Tsao (1933–2005), Hong Kong civil servant
- Tsao Chieh (1953–1996), Singaporean composer and engineer
- Tsao Chun-yang (b. 1976), Taiwanese baseball player for the Uni-President Lions
- Miguel Tsao, Taiwanese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs
- Cho Tat-wah (1915–2007), Hong Kong actor
- Mandy Cho (b. 1982), Hong Kong entertainer
- Raymond Cho (b. 1936), Hong Kong politician
- Raymond Cho (b. 1964), Hong Kong actor
- Gary Chaw, Malaysian Chinese singer-songwriter based in Taiwan
- Cao Yupeng (Chinese snooker player)
- Cao Lu (b. 1987), Chinese singer, actress & former member of the K Pop girl group Fiestar
- Tsao Chi-hung, Minister of Council of Agriculture of the Republic of China (2016–2017)
- US Census Bureau. Op. cit. Public Broadcasting Service. "How Popular Is Your Last Name?" Accessed 6 Apr 2012.
- Baxter, Wm. H. & Sagart, Laurent. "Baxter–Sagart Old Chinese Reconstruction". Archived from the original on September 27, 2013. (1.93 MB). 2011. Accessed 11 October 2011.
- Goodman, Howard L. Ts'ao P'i Transcendent: the Political Culture of Dynasty-Founding in China at the End of the Han, p. 70. Psychology Press (1998). ISBN 0966630009. Accessed 1 Apr 2012.
- House Of Chinn. "History of Chen". 2012. Accessed 11 Apr 2012.
- This account was disputed by Chiang Chi, who claimed it was the Tian (田) who descended from Shun and not the Cao.
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