Ultimate Guide to Chinese Names

Chinese names can be puzzling for those not familiar with Chinese language and culture. This article will provide you with the ultimate guide to Chinese names.

Read on to learn about Chinese surnames and discover how first names are picked, how to address others using diminutives and how to pick your own Chinese name!

various popular Chinese last names in Chinese characters and pinyin off-white text on red background

Chinese surnames

In Chinese language and culture, it’s common practice to start from big to small. For example, addresses will start from the country and move down to the house number, and names always start with the surname first. Therefore, someone named John Smith would be referred to as Smith John according to Chinese naming conventions.

Children usually inherit their father’s surnames, though it’s also legally possible for children to take on their mother’s maiden surname.

Although the 百家姓 (Bǎijiāxìng, a classical Chinese text created in the Song dynasty) lists over 400 official Chinese surnames, in today’s China, the top 10 surnames account for the majority of the population. This homogeneity is mainly due to the fact that the biggest ethnic group in China is the Han Chinese.

an ancient Chinese painting of a bridge, a traditional Chinese boat and buildings and trees

Although there are hundreds of Chinese surnames, most people have one of the 10 most popular names.

Here are the top 10 Chinese surnames and the total number of people with each name in Mainland China:

Top 10 surnames

SurnamePopulation
1. 李 (Lǐ) 7.94% (95,300,000)
2. 王 (Wáng)7.41% (88,900,000)
3. 张 (Zhāng)7.07% (84,800,000)
4. 刘 (Liú)5.38% (64,600,000)
5. 陈 (Chén)4.53% (54,400,000)
6. 杨 (Yáng)3.08% (37,000,000)
7. 赵 (Zhào)2.29% (27,500,000)
8. 黄 (Huáng)2.23% (26,800,000)
9. 周 (Zhōu)2.12% (25,400,000)
10. 吴 (Wú)2.05% (24,600,000)

COURTESY OF kknews.cc

As you can see, the surnames  Li (李) Wang (王) and Zhang (张) cover more than 20% of the population.

How are Chinese first names chosen?

A Chinese name, or 姓名 (xìngmíng), consists of a surname (姓 xìng) and a first name (名 míng). Chinese first names are usually made up of two characters, although single character first names also exist. The process of picking a name for a newborn is taken seriously and many different factors are considered:

Characters

Most parents choose Chinese characters with meanings that they hope their children will embody. Often, they also pick characters with connotations which are perceived as being either masculine or feminine. For boys, this usually means characters that denote strength and might, and for girls characters that convey beauty and elegance.

In more religious and traditional families, the Five Elements (五行 wǔxíng) and their association with each Chinese zodiac sign play a critical role in the characters chosen.

Based on his or her natal chart, a child may have too much or too little of an element, and so a character that represents the missing element is often chosen to create balance.

For example, a child might “lack fire” (缺火, quē huǒ) in his or her birth chart and so his or her name might include an (always auspicious) character that includes a fire radical such as 杰 (jié), 荧 (yíng), 炫 (xuàn) or 炜 (wěi).

A good name is critical to a person’s good fortune. In Chinese philosophy, the five elements play an integral role in the balance of life.

The following saying shows the relationships that are traditionally believed to exist among the five elements:

金克木,木克土,土克水,水克火,火克金。

Jīn kè mù, mù kè tǔ, tǔ kè shuǐ, shuǐ kè huǒ, huǒ kè jīn.

Metal overcomes wood, wood overcomes earth, earth overcomes water, water overcomes fire, fire overcomes metal.

a diagram explaining the five elements, often used in choosing Chinese names

Traditionally, the characters in Chinese names are chosen based on the elements that they represent.

Tonal harmony

As you may be aware by now, Chinese is a tonal language. Therefore, it’s very important to consider how the characters sound together, especially when combined with the surname.

Not only does the name need to have a pleasing sound, but due to the large number of Chinese homophones, wordplay can result in either auspicious or inauspicious meanings.

Naming taboos

It is inappropriate to name a child after a famous person. In ancient times, this meant not using the same name as the emperor, but in modern times, that could mean avoiding using names linked to celebrities or any other well-known people. Failure to respect this taboo comes across as extremely immodest, so it’s best to choose a nondescript name.

Most common first names

Originating from Taiwanese, the word “farmer’s market name” (菜市场名, càishìchǎng míng) is used to refer to a name that is so common that when called out in any farmer’s market, many heads would turn. Very much like the Johns and Karens of the English speaking world!

Here are the top first names for men and women according to the 2019 National Name Report:

First name (female)Pinyin
一诺Yīnuò
依诺Yīnuò
欣怡Xīnyí
梓涵Zǐhán
诗涵Shīhán
欣妍Xīnyán
雨桐Yǔtóng
佳怡Jiāyí
佳琪Jiāqí
梓萱Zǐxuān
First name (male)Pinyin
浩宇Hàoyǔ
浩然Hàorán
宇轩Yǔxuān
宇航Yǔháng
铭泽Míngzé
子墨Zimò
梓豪Zǐháo
子睿Ziruì
子轩Zixuān
梓睿Zǐruì

SOURCE: https://udn.com/news/story/7335/4300852

Maiden and married names

In traditional Chinese culture, women retain their original surnames after marriage and the idea of taking your husband’s name is almost non-existent.

This is due to the influence of strong filial piety and patriarchal values in Chinese culture. Traditionally, women were identified by their fathers’ lineages. People today have the freedom to choose either parent’s last name, but it’s usually the father’s surname that’s passed on to the child.

a bride and groom in traditional red and gold dress during a traditional Chinese wedding ceremony

In China, women keep their maiden names after marriage.

Nicknames and terms of endearment

老 (Lǎo, old)

Generally speaking, 老 (lǎo) is only used for males. Most commonly, 老 (lǎo) is used as a colloquial prefix of respect. It can be used for someone with whom you are acquainted, usually of the same age as yourself. It can also be used for people who are older than you or who have a superior position.

However, keep in mind that although 老 (lǎo) is frequently used for people who are not young, addressing a person who is actually a lot older than you by adding 老 (lǎo) to their name is very impolite. Instead, you can call them 哥 (gē, older brother), 姐 (jiě, older sister), 阿姨 (āyí, aunt) or 叔叔 (shūshu, uncle).

小 (Xiǎo, little)

小 (xiǎo) can be used both for males and females. It’s usually a term of endearment and can also be used when addressing subordinates.

阿 (Ā, no distinct meaning)

This is usually prefixed to the last character of a person’s name to produce an affectionate or diminutive sounding form of address. It’s mainly used by speakers of the Hokkien, Hakka and Min dialects in southern China.

Example: Our friend 王宇航 (Wáng Yǔháng)

Let's say we have a person called 王宇航 (Wáng Yǔháng) who is around 30 years old. His friends might call him 老王 (Lǎo Wáng) while his boss might call him 小王 (Xiǎo Wáng). Those younger than him might call him 王哥 (Wáng Gē) and those a lot younger than him might refer to him as 王叔叔 (Wáng Shūshu).

In Chinese, there’s actually a joke about how you know you’re getting old when younger people start calling you 阿姨 (āyí) or 叔叔 (shūshu)!.

王宇航 (Wáng Yǔháng) might also have several nicknames. His grandparents might address him by repeating the last character of his first name:  航航 (Háng Háng), or if he’s from southern China, his older family members might call him 航 (Ā Háng).

There are no hard rules when it comes to nicknames as they’re naturally selected by family or friends during the course of one’s life. The nicknames a person receives tend to depend on his or her character and relationship to others.

a Chinese mother helping a toddler blow bubbles

Chinese children often have a cute nickname chosen by their family members.

Adaptation of English names

Many Chinese adopt English names for a variety of reasons, such as to help them achieve better integration in a foreign country or workplace, or simply because English names are easier for foreigners to pronounce and remember.

Usually, elementary or middle school English teachers provide English names for their students, but some students will also choose their own names.

Lost in translation

As already mentioned, Chinese names are chosen based on their sound and their positive meanings. However, when the same principles are applied to choosing English names, it sometimes results in the choice of what most English speakers would consider bizarre English names.

It’s not uncommon to meet Chinese people whose English names are Candy, Happy, Sunny, Star, or even something cute like Piggy. Often, these strange names are actually direct translations from their Chinese names.

The growing influence of Mandarin Chinese

There are more and more reasons to learn Chinese, especially when you consider China’s growing economic power. As more people around the globe start to gain familiarity with the Chinese language, many Chinese people are deciding to stick to their original names instead of adopting an English name.

This usually means using the Hanyu Pinyin system to transcribe their names (albeit without the tone marks). Since Chinese surnames come first while western surnames come last, many (but not all) Chinese people who keep their original Chinese names may still choose to reverse the order so that their surname comes last. Thus, our previously mentioned friend 王宇航 (Wáng Yǔháng) might choose to be referred to as Yuhang Wang in a foreign setting.

Choosing your Chinese name

After reading this article, you may be wondering how to pick your own Chinese name.

Even if you have a good level of Mandarin, it’s best to have a native speaker pick a name for you due to the number of cultural nuances involved. A perfect candidate would be your Chinese teacher.

If you don’t have a Chinese teacher, you can check out our online one-on-one Chinese classes and even schedule a free trial class.

a CLI student highlighting text in a Chinese textbook while her Chinese teacher looks on

It’s best to seek help from a native Chinese speaker when choosing your Chinese name.

When picking your name, your teacher should take into consideration your personality, date of birth and your name in your native language.

Choosing an appropriate Chinese name takes time and effort. If you need to introduce yourself on short notice and haven't yet had time to pick a Chinese name, you can always use the Chinese transliteration of your English name. Keep in mind, however, that it's always best to choose an authentic Chinese name for yourself rather than just using your name's Chinese equivalent.

Why should you adopt a Chinese name? Learning any language requires you to cultivate a genuine interest in the corresponding culture. It’s important to adopt a Chinese name as this demonstrates seriousness in learning the language and respect towards Chinese culture.

Choosing a Chinese name can also be fun and presents a great way for you to fully develop your new Chinese identity as you immerse yourself in this rich and beautiful language. So what are you waiting for? 取一个名字吧!

Chinese Name Vocabulary

ChinesePinyinEnglish
取名字qǔ míngzìto pick a name
好运hǎoyùngood luck
积极jījíauspicious
消极xiāojíunlucky
算命suànmìngto tell someone's fortune
五行wǔhángfive elements
wood
huǒfire
earth
jīnmetal
shuǐwater
五行 (火) 多wǔháng (huǒ) duōto have too much (fire) *can insert any element
五行缺 (火)wǔháng quē (huǒ)to lack (fire)
补救bǔjiùto remedy
生辰八字shēngchén bāzìnatal chart (based on Chinese calendar)

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