Chinese names have conventions that differ from those of the West. In this article Chinese name conventions, name frequencies, pronunciation, titles, famous Chinese names, and English names that Chinese people adopt are covered briefly.
A Chinese full name usually consists of two or three Chinese characters, or far less commonly four Chinese characters.
The family name always comes first, followed by the 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 continued and are still used nowadays, among which some 500 are the most common.
The three most popular family names are Li (李 Lǐ), Wang (王 Wáng) and Zhang (张 Zhāng), and these three are used by about 22% (or 300 million) of the Chinese population. These are easily the three most popular names in the world.
Name frequencies: The top ten names are used by 40 percent of the population: Zhang (张 Zhāng /jung/), Wang (王 Wáng /wung/), Li (李 Lǐ /lee/), Zhao (兆 zhào /jaoww/), Chen (陈 Chén /chnn/), Yang (杨 Yáng /yang/), Wu (吴 Wú /woo/), Liu (刘 Liú /lyoh/), Huang (黄 Huáng /hwung/), and Zhou (周 Zhōu /joh/).
Some 35 other family names are used by 30 percent of the population, such as Gao (高 Gāo) and Lin (林 Lín). So, about 45 names are used by about 70 percent of the population, and the hundreds of other Chinese names are used by the remaining 30 percent.
Compound names: Some Chinese people have compound family names that use two Chinese characters such as Ou Yang, Shang Guan, Si Ma, Dong Fang, and Wei Chi. There are altogether 81 of them, but these are far less common than one-character family names.
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.
Chinese given names contain one or two Chinese characters, and they are written after the family name. Chinese people always attach great importance to the choice of given names, and they often tend to convey hopes 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). Other names express the hope of a virtue or gift such as Zhi (clever), Li (courteous) and Xin (reliable).
Naming children: 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 deemed inappropriate.
Here is how to pronounce names of some of China's most famous people:
To pronounce other Chinese names, see our pinyin pronunciation guide.
Gender titles: People are generally referred to by a title such as Mr. (先生, Xiānsheng), Ms. (女士, Nǚshì), or Miss (小姐, Xiǎojie). These are relatively neutral and are not likely to cause any offence. Mrs. is translated as Furen (夫人, Fūrén) or (太太, Tàitai), but the second word implies an older married woman, and it might be offensive to use in reference to a younger women.
These titles come after the person's surname such as Wang Xiansheng (Mister Wang, 王先生). 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 or as a mark of respect. For example, given the prestigious position of teachers in traditional culture, a teacher is often addressed by his or her students and the students’ parents as Teacher following the family name such as "Teacher Li" (Li Laoshi) or "Teacher Wang" (Wang Lǎoshī, 王老师).
Transliteration is basically done by using China's limited range of syllables (and certain preferred associated characters) to roughly represent a foreign name, roughly one character per consonant sound with a • [bullet] in between names. They often sound quite different from the original English.
Naming ourselves: When people want to write their English names in Chinese characters, they have two options. The first is to use Chinese characters to try to closely approximate the English sounds (see above). The second way is to use Chinese characters that convey an idea or describe a person's characteristics.
It is important to have several Chinese, preferably educated Chinese, help you with choosing a good name. Otherwise, your name may have meanings and connotations you wouldn't desire. Your name shouldn't be that of a famous person for example, and if you want the respect of locals, it is important to choose a name that is like a real Chinese person's name to show that you respect their culture.
Family names: Choosing a one or two syllable family name is fairly easy since the available choices are limited. Of the available hundreds of choices, try to choose one that sounds like your last name and has a meaning you like. It is probably best to choose a single character for your name. See how foreigners with the same name as yours translate their names. Using translation software or search engines might help to find a good name.
First names: Your first name should be represented by one or two characters. You'll have a much greater range of choices to choose from, but let Chinese help you choose a good name.
Usually not transliterated: The English names Chinese people take are not usually a translation of the meaning of their Chinese name (though it could be such as Flying Snow (飞雪, Fēixuě), the fictional character in Hero), but the names often have a semblance of the pronunciation.
Realizing that Chinese is difficult to pronounce, using an English name is done for convenience and to save face. This is especially done in business so as not to make associates feel embarrassed, and to promote communication.
Many young Chinese give themselves English names while in English class in primary school or college, or are given names by their teachers. Others take a name for working in business or on the job. Sometimes the names they choose seem awkward, or simply bad, to English speakers. They may seem old fashioned, like Ada; or funny, like Apple; or ill-considered, like Sodom.
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