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What’s in a Chinese Name?


刍议中国人的名字 – A brief introduction to Chinese Names

Over recent years in New Zealand, there has been an ongoing case between NZ Police and a Chinese business man.  The media have made much of the fact that he is known by a number of names: William Yan, as well as Bill Liu, Yang Liu and Yong Ming Yan. [ See Reference 1 and Reference 2.]

I knew that Chinese names can be complicated and that, apparently, the Chinese change their name, almost at will.  So I thought it would be interesting to do a bit of research into Chinese names.  This article is the result and I hope to show that Chinese names can indeed be complicated but at the same time very interesting.  It is in part based on Wikipedia articles.

The first and most important thing to note about Chinese names is:  

In Chinese names, the family name comes first, followed by the person’s given name.  The family name is usually one syllable and the given name is usually 2 syllables.

This is very important because in the West there is a tendency (especially amongst the media) to give a person’s given name first and the surname last. Doing this is at best being impolite, or, at worst, committing cultural disrespect!!

Fortunately this does not occur with the names of very important people – such as Xi Jinping, China’s Paramount Leader [General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, President of the People’s Republic of China, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission] – with Xi being his family name.

Having dealt with that ‘rule’, let’s look a little closer at Chinese names.  

Chinese Family Names (surnames)

It is fairly well known that the number of Chinese surnames is quite small.

This is true:

Although there are currently over 4,000 Chinese surnames (姓 xìng) in use in China, a mere hundred surnames make up over 85% of China’s 1.3 billion citizens.  [The colloquial expression for the “Chinese people” is the Bǎijiāxìng (百家姓) “Hundred Family Surnames“].  In fact, just the top three – Wang (王), Li (李), and Zhang (张 張) – cover more than 20% of the population [See Notes 1 and 2 below].

The great majority of Han [the Han ethnic group constitutes 92% of Mainland Chinese] family names comprise only one character, while the small number of compound surnames is mostly restricted to minority groups [see Note 2]. 

Chinese surnames arose from two separate prehistoric traditions: the xìng(姓) and the shì (氏). The original xìng were clans of royalty at the Shang court and the names always included the ‘woman’ radical 女 (perhaps suggesting a matriarchal society). The shì denoted fiefs, states and titles granted or recognized by the Shang court.  Apart from the Jiang (姜) and Yao (姚) families, the original xìng have almost disappeared but the terms ironically reversed their meaning.  Xìng is now used to describe the shìsurnames which replaced them, while shì is used to refer to maiden names.

The enormous modern clans sometime share ancestral halls with one another, but in fact each clan consists of many different lineages gathered under a single name. For example, the surname Ma (马 馬) includes descendants of the Warring States–era bureaucrat Zhao She, descendants of his subjects in his fief of Mafu and also Muslims from all over western China who chose it to honour Mohammed.  Nonetheless, however tenuous these bonds sometimes are, it is a minor taboo to marry someone with the same family name.

Chinese family names pass from father to children, though the marriage law explicitly states that a child may use either the surname of either parent or of the grandparents. (Note that mother’s mother usually has a third surname).  Adopted children usually take the same surname as their adopting ‘parents’. Women do not normally change their surnames upon marriage, except in places with more Western influence, such as Hong Kong.

It is also possible, though far less common, for a child to combine both parents’ surnames.  (In such cases only the leading character would be considered as the child’s name, and the other character becomes part of his or her given name).  In the older generations, it was also common for a married woman to add her husband’s surname to her own (as a prefix). This practice is now almost extinct in mainland China, but it survives in some Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan families. Usually women who consider themselves playing a significant role in the society are more willing to add their husbands’ surname in her name.

Chinese Given Names

Chinese given names are almost always made up of one or two characters and are written after the surname, e.g: Wei ( ) of the Zhang ( ) family is called ‘’Zhang Wei’ not ‘Wei Zhang’.  Despite the relatively small number of Chinese family names, given names can theoretically include any of the Chinese language’s 100,000 characters and contain almost any meaning.

Each character of a given name is chosen according to the wishes and desires of the parents. There is no standard set of Chinese given names.

It is considered disrespectful in China to name a child after an older relative, and bad practice and disadvantageous for the child’s fortune to copy the names of celebrities or famous historical figures. During the Chinese Empire, when others bore the same name as the emperor, they could be gravely punished for not changing their name upon his ascension.  Similarly, it is quite rare to see Chinese children bear the same name as their fathers – if so, examples typically include small differences, such as the former Premier Li Peng‘s son, who is named Li Xiaopeng.

Since the Three Kingdoms era, it was often the custom for each family member(or all male members) of the same generation to have the same first syllable of the given name  and these generation names are worked out long in advance. Together, these generation names may be taken from a poem about the hope or history of the family.

Sixteen, thirty-two, or more generation names would be worked out in advance to form a generation poem.  For example, the one selected in 1737 for the family of Mao Zedong reads [it is written in traditional characters—at that time, simplified characters. had not been conceived]:

 ()Stand tall display unstintingly before gentlemen,

()。  Study method will expand the borders of our fortune.

(),  Ancestral favours bequeath kindness through the ages,

。 Descendants forever obliged for their prosperity.

This scheme was in its fourteenth generation when Mao rejected it for the naming of his own children, preferring to give his sons the generational name An (, “Lofty”, “Proud”) instead of ‘Yuan (远)‘ as prescribed by the Mao generational poem.  The tradition of generation names has largely disappeared since 1949. 

Children are frequently given gender-related names, with boys being given ‘masculine’ names implying strength or courage while girls receive ‘feminine’ names concerning beauty or flowers.  Since repeated characters are considered diminutives in Chinese, many girls also receive names including a pair of a character or two characters with identical pronunciation.

The famous American-chinese cellist Yo Yo Ma is an exception to this feminine rule: the meaning of Yo-Yo (or You-you) =‘very friendly’ .

It is also common to split modern Chinese words – which now consist of two characters of similar meaning both to each other and the full word – among a pair of children, for example: Jiankang (健康, ‘healthy’) appearing in two children’s names as –jian (健 “hale”) and –kang (康, “healthy”).

Chinese personal names can reflect periods of history. For example, many Chinese born during the Cultural Revolution have ‘revolutionary names’ such as Qiangguo (强国 強國‘Strong Country’ or ‘Strengthening the Country’) or Dongfeng (东风 東風‘Eastern Wind’).  In Taiwan, it was formerly common to incorporate one of the four characters of the name ‘Republic of China’ (中华民国 中華民國Zhōnghuá Mínguó) into masculine names.  Patriotic names remain common but are becoming less popular – 960,000 Chinese are currently named Jianguo (建国 建國, ‘Building the Country’) but only a few thousand more are now being added each year.

Within families, adults rarely refer to each other by personal names. Adult relatives and children referring to adults generally use a family title such as ‘Big Sister’, ‘Second Sister’, ‘Third Sister’ and so on. It is considered rude for a child to refer to parents by their given name, and this taboo is extended to all adult relatives.

When speaking of non-family social acquaintances, people are generally referred to by a title. For example, ‘Mister Zhang’, ‘Mother Li’ or ‘Chu’s Wife’. The personal names of adult friends or children are spoken completely; if the given name is two characters long, it is almost never truncated. Other friendly ways to refer to friends is to call them ‘Old’ ( Lǎo) or ‘Little’ (xiǎo) with their surname.

Many people have a non-Chinese name (typically English) in addition to their Chinese names.   The Taiwanese politician Soong Chu-yu is known as ‘James Soong’.  In Hong Kong, it is common to list the names all together, beginning with the English given name, moving on to the Chinese surname, and then ending with the Chinese given name – for example, Alex Fong Chung-SunAmerican-born and other overseas Chinese are referred to primarily by their non-Chinese name, the Chinese name being relegated to alternate or middle name status.  Recent immigrants, however, often use their Chinese name as their legal name and adopt a non-Chinese name for casual use only.

Proper use of pinyin romanization means treating a Chinese given name as a single word with no space between the letters of the two characters: for example, the common name 王秀英 is properly rendered either with its tone marks as Wáng Xiùyīng or without as Wang Xiuying, but should not be written as Wang Xiu Ying, Wang XiuYing, Wangxiuying, &c.  The earlier Wade-Giles system accomplished the same effect by hyphenating the given name between the characters: for example, the same name would be written as Wang Hsiù-Yīng. However, many Chinese do not follow these rules, romanizing their names with a space between each. This can cause non–Chinese-speakers to incorrectly take the names as divisible.

In regions where fortune-telling is popular, many parents may name their children on the advice of literomancers. The advice is often given based on the number of strokes of the names or the perceived elemental value of the characters in relation to the child’s birth time and personal elemental value; rarely on the sound of the name as there is no system of fortune-telling based on character pronunciations. In jurisdictions where it is possible, people may also choose to change their legal given name, or their children’s names, in order to bring good luck.

Other names

I mentioned at the outset that some Chinese have a number of names and so apparently change their name at will.

Here are a few of the possibilities:

  • Milk Name – Traditionally, babies were named a hundred days after their birth.  Modern naming laws in the People’s Republic of China grant the parents a month before requiring the baby to be registered. Upon birth, the parents often use a ‘milk name’ (乳名rǔmíng) or ‘small name’ (小名, xiǎomíng) — typically employing diminutives like xiǎo (, ‘little’) or doubled characters — before a formal name is settled upon, often in consultation with the grandparents. The milk name may be abandoned but is often continued as a familial nickname. A superstitious custom sometimes attached to the milk name is to select a disgusting name, in order to ward off evil spirits who might wish to harm the child!
  • Nickname–  Nicknames (s 绰号t 綽號 chuòhào, or 外号 外號wàihào) are acquired in China in much the same way they are in other countries. Not everyone has one. Most that do received theirs in childhood or adolescence from family or friends.

    Common Chinese nicknames are those based on a person’s physical attributes, speaking style, or behaviour. Names involving animals are common, although those animals may be associated with different attributes than they are in English: for example, Chinese cows are strong, not stupid; foxes are devious, not clever; pigs are ugly, lazy, stupid, or content, but not dirty.  Similarly, nicknames that might seem especially insulting in English — such as “Little Fatty” (小胖) — are more acceptable in Chinese.  One especially common method of creating nicknames is prefixing Ā- () or Xiǎo () to the surname or the second character of the given name. Ā- is more common in southern China and abroad, while Xiǎo is common throughout China. Both Ā- and Xiǎo are distinguished from Lǎo (, “old”, but showing affectionate respect for an elder, either familial or neighbour, for example).

    Nicknames are rarely used in formal or semi-formal settings, although a famous exception is A-bian (Chen Shui-bian, a well-known Taiwanese politician).

  • Western name – English is taught throughout China’s secondary schools and the English language section is a required component of the Gaokao, China’s college entrance examination. Many Chinese teenagers thus acquire English names, which they may keep and use as nicknames even in Chinese-language contexts. Chinese may adopt English names for a variety of reasons, including foreigners’ difficulties with Chinese tonesand the modern Chinese tendency to regard foreign names as modern or egalitarian.  The freedom associated with choosing a Chinese given name sometimes leads to choosing English names which seem bizarre to native English speakers.  Names such as Chlorophyll, Candy, Devil or Whale are not uncommon, and even some ‘sensible’ English names chosen by Chinese are rarely used by native English speakers.

    In Hong Kong, because of its one and a half century British rule, many Hong Kong people will choose English names as early as attending English classes in kindergarten, or even have their English alias embedded in official documentation. English aliases are widely used at schools and at work.  Similarly in Singapore, which shares a similar historical development to that of Hong Kong, it is very common for Singaporeans to address each other by an English alias. An English alias can be accepted as part of the name in official documentation, but this is optional.

    It is also becoming more popular for parents to give their child a middle name in between their given name and family name, as in many Western traditions

  • School name – The school name (s 学名,t 學名, xuémíng) was a separate formal name used by the child while they were at school.
    As scientific names for genus and species is also called xuémíngin Chinese, the school name is also sometimes now given as the xùnmíng (训名,訓名) to avoid confusion.
  • Courtesy name – Upon maturity, it was common for educated males to acquire a courtesy name (字, or 表字, biǎozì) either from one’s parents, a teacher, or self-selection. The name commonly mirrored the meaning of one’s given name or displayed his birth order within his family.

    The practice was a consequence of admonitions in the Book of Rites that among adults it is disrespectful to be addressed by one’s given name by others within the same generation. The true given name was reserved for the use of one’s elders, while the courtesy name was employed by peers on formal occasions and in writing. The practice was decried by the May Fourth Movement and has been largely abandoned.

  • Pseudonyms – Pseudonyms or aliases ( s,t hào) or pen names (s 笔名t 筆名 bǐmíng) were self-selected alternative courtesy names, most commonly three or four characters long. They may have originated from too many people having the same courtesy name. Some—but by no means most—authors continue to employ stylized pen names. A notable example is the exile and dissident poet Zhao Zhenkai, whose pen name is “Bei Dao” (, . “North Island”).
  • Unusual Names– Because the small number of Chinese surnames leads to confusion in social environments, and because some Chinese parents want to provide individuality for their children, some Chinese have received unusual given names. As of April 2009, about 60 million Chinese people have unusual characters in their names. A 2006 report by the Chinese public security bureau stated that of about 55,000 Chinese characters used in the People’s Republic of China, only 32,232 of those are supported by the ministry’s computers. The PRC government has asked individuals with unusual names to change them so they can get new computer-readable public identity cards, and the diversity prevents them from receiving new identity cards if they do not change their names.  Beginning in at least 2003, the PRC government has been writing a list of standardized characters for everyday usage in life, which would be the pool of characters to select from when a child is given his or her name. Originally the limits were to go in place in 2005. In April 2009, the list had been revised 70 times, and it still has not been put into effect.
    Wang Daliang, a  linguistics scholar at China Youth University for Political Sciences, said that “Using obscure names to avoid duplication of names or to be unique is not good. Now a lot of people are perplexed by their names. The computer cannot even recognise them and people cannot read them. This has become an obstacle in communication.” Zhou Youyong, the dean of the Southeast University law school, argued that the ability to choose the name of one’s children is a fundamental right, so the PRC government should be careful when making new naming laws.

While the vast majority of Han Chinese names consist of two or three characters, there are some Han Chinese with longer names, up to 15 characters. In addition, transliteration of ethnic languages into Chinese characters often results in long names.

For completeness (and you will be relieved that I leave you to find out more about this…!), Chinese Emperors had up to 5 names including Posthumous NameTemple Name and Era Name!

If, like me, you are bemused by all this plethora of names, perhaps an example might help!  Sun Yat-sen in fact had eight Chinese names, so please refer to the Wikipedia article for an explanation.

Returning to the Chinese business man involved in legal proceedings in New Zealand and labelled as ‘suspect’ by virtue of his having “a number of names”, in view of the above, I hope that you might find this fact no longer unusual and certainly not suspect!

By the way, his name ‘Yong Ming Yan’ [or more strictly, ‘Yong Mingyan’] was given by his adoptive parents. 

I acknowledge all the help that Gao Rong [Managing Director of China (Fujian) Stones, Inc.] has given me in preparing this article.

Duncan France

When preparing this article I asked a Chinese friend, Gao Rong, several questions about Chinese names. For a pdf of the questions and Gao Rong’s answers, click HERE

Note 1: Geographic distribution of Chinese family names: 

Surnames are not evenly distributed throughout China’s geography.
In northern China, Wang (王) is the most common surname, being shared by 9.9% of the population. Next are Li (李), Zhang (张/張) and Liu (刘/劉). 

In the south, Chen (陈/陳) is the most common, being shared by 10.6% of the population. Next are Li (李), Huang (黄), Lin (林) and Zhang (张/張).

Around the major crossing points of the Yangtze River, the most common surname is Li (李), taking up 7.7%, followed by Wang (王), Zhang (张/張), Chen (陈/陳) and Liu (刘/劉).

A 1987 study showed over 450 family names in common use in Beijing, but there were fewer than 300 family names in Fujian.   [From Wikipedia].

Note 2:  Most commonly occurring Chinese family names have only one character; however, about twenty double-character family names have survived into modern times. These include:  Sima (simp. , ,), Zhuge (simp. , ), Ouyang (simp. ,), occasionally romanized as O’Young, suggesting an Irish origin to English-speakers, and Situ (or Sito ). Sima, Zhuge, and Ouyang also happen to be the surnames of four extremely famous pre-modern Chinese historical figures. There are family names with three or more characters, but those are not ethnically Han Chinese. For example, Aixinjueluo (, ) also romanised from the Manchu language as Aisin Gioro), was the family name of the Manchu royal family of the Qing dynasty. [from Wikipedia].

Note 3:   Also see: Wikipedia’s list of most common Chinese surnames  and Wikipedia article on Chinese compound surnames