Traditional and modern culture in China

Chinese Names

名字: míng zi

In today’s Chinese language and culture class, we will learn more about the culture behind Chinese names as well as how to create your own Chinese name!

Culture of Chinese names

Whereas western names are often chosen based on parents’ preferences or after a relative, in China there is a complex process for choosing a baby’s name. A child’s name should convey the parents’ hopes and good wishes for their future, while also considering factors such as their time or place of birth, parents’ names and zodiac sign. Many parents even hire a fortune teller to choose the most auspicious name for their child!

Differences between western and Chinese names

As well as the meaning of the name, there are also several other significant differences between western and Chinese names. 

Firstly, in Chinese the surname is always written before someone’s given name. For example, a woman with the given name Xiaojing and surname Wang would be called Wang Xiaojing. This symbolises China’s strong family culture, in which your family is always put before yourself as an individual.

Secondly, the number of characters in a Chinese name is generally more limited. Western names often consist of a first name, one or two middle names, and a surname. In contrast, Chinese names only have a given name and surname. The surname is just one character long, whereas the given name is usually one or two characters – giving a name of total length two or three characters.

Finally, in western culture we often change our surname after marriage, either to match the husband’s surname or to create a double-barrelled name. In mainland China, women do not change their name after marriage; whereas in Hong Kong it is common to add the husband’s surname as a second last name. 

Creating your own Chinese name

Phonetically translate your name

The most popular way most foreigners create a Chinese name is simply to translate the sounds of your name into Chinese. For example, the name Amy may be translated to 爱米 (àimǐ), which has an almost identical pronunciation. Similarly, Anna could be written as 安娜 (ānnà). 

However, care must be taken to check the meaning of your transliterated name – for example 爱米 àimǐ literally translates as “love rice” which may be considered rather strange as a name! A more common version of Amy is 艾美 ài měi which means “beautiful”. 

Choose a name with meaning

An alternative approach is to consider more carefully the meaning of your new Chinese name. Some western names (e.g. Holly, Jasmine, etc) already have an associated meaning, which could be a great basis for designing a Chinese name.

You could also consider your future goals, personality, interests or appearance to choose suitable characters for your Chinese name. Looking at popular Chinese names online can give you a guide as to which are considered more authentic.

Chinese Surnames

Chinese surnames are generally just one character long and always written before your given name. Originally, many surnames came from the person’s occupation, but nowadays they are passed down from father to child. Interestingly, over 85% of Chinese people share the same 100 surnames – the most common of which are 李 (Lǐ) and 张 (Zhāng).

To choose your Chinese surname, it is generally best to pick one of these common family names. You could select one based on its meaning, similarity to your western surname, or simply which is easier to write!

Vocabulary

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