Chinese names have its own conventions different from those of the West. A Chinese full name usually contains two or three Chinese characters, or less commonly four Chinese characters, and the family name always comes first, followed by the given name. The pattern goes like 'family name – given name'. Take the basketball player Yao Ming as an example, his family name is Yao, and his given name is Ming, so he should be addressed as 'Mr. Yao', instead of 'Mr. Ming'.
Some 24,000 family names were used in history, but only about 4,100 have been reserved and are still used nowadays, among which some 500 are the most common.
The three most popular family names are Li, Wang and Zhang, taking up about 23% (or 300 million) of the Chinese population. Some 20 other family names are also commonly seen, such as Liu, Chen, Yang, Huang, Gao, and Lin, to name just a few. Some Chinese people have compound names, using two Chinese characters, such as Ou Yang, Shang Guan, Si Ma, Dong Fang, and Wei Chi, among altogether 81 of them.
In China, married women usually retain their maiden name as their family name, rather than adopting their husband’s. Children usually inherit their father's family name. In Hong Kong, some married women add their husband’s family name in front of their full name, but they don't drop their maiden name altogether.
It is considered offensive to name a child after an older member of the family. Naming a child after a household figure, especially figures in mythology and classical novels is also seemed inappropriate.
Chinese given names contain one or two Chinese characters, and are written after the family name. Chinese people always attach great importance to the choice of given names, and often tend to convey their anticipation and good wishes for the child in their names. Some names express the parents’ good wishes, such as Fu (blessing), Jian (health) and Shou (longevity), while some names express the hope of virtue, such as Zhi (clever), Li (courteous) and Xin (reliable).
Form of Address
People are generally referred to by a title, such as Mr., Mrs., or Ms., which is relatively neutral and not likely to cause any offence. It is considered impolite to call an older person by his or her given name.
The occupation or work title of a person can be used as a form of address as a mark of respect. For example, given the prestigious position of teacher in traditional culture, a teacher are often addressed by his or her students and the students’ parents as Teacher, followed by the family name, such as Teacher Li, Teacher Wang.
I updated this article on August 2, 2013
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