In Chinese, names are written quite differently to English and also have more in-depth meanings. In this cultural insights class, you will learn more about the culture and structure of Chinese names!
Structure of Chinese names
In Chinese, names have a very clear structure. Your surname is always written first and is typically one character long. This is then followed by a one or two character given name. Note that Chinese people do not have middle names, whereas westerners will often have one or two (or even more!) middle names between their given name and surname.
For example, a woman with the given name Xiaojing and surname Wang would be called Wang Xiaojing.
Another example is the common British name John Smith, which would be written as Smith John.
This focus on your surname symbolises China’s strong family culture, in which your family is always put before yourself as an individual.
Chinese given names have meaning
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!
Let’s have a look at some popular Chinese given names:
Almost all Chinese surnames are just one character long. Originally, many surnames came from the person’s occupation, but nowadays they are passed down from father to child.
Unlike in many western cultures, Chinese people do not change their surname to match their husband’s after marriage. Women in mainland China will keep their maiden name, whereas in Hong Kong they will typically add their husband’s surname to their own, creating a double-barrelled name.
Fun fact: Over 85% of Chinese people share the same 100 surnames – the most common of which are 李 (Lǐ) and 张 (Zhāng)!
How to design your own Chinese name
To create your own Chinese name, you have two options – either phonetically transliterate the sounds (e.g. Anna would become 安娜 – Ānnà) or choose a name with meaning (e.g. if your name is Holly, you could pick a popular Chinese name linked to flowers).
Care should be taken to ensure your Chinese name does not accidentally have negative or hilarious interpretations!
Check out our Chinese culture article about how to choose your Chinese name!