One of the first things that might surprise you when you meet a Chinese native speaker for the first time is that the name they use to introduce themselves to you may not sound very Chinese at all! Perhaps you’ve met a Sam from Shanghai, or a Teresa from Taipei, or even a Henry from Hong Kong.
Of course, this Western name is not their given name at birth. Chinese speakers often choose a new name when they learn a different language (like English). They do so for a few different reasons: first foreigners have difficulty pronouncing Chinese names; second – some people feel Chinese names don’t sound right in other languages; third – choosing a new name for yourself in a new language is seriously fun.
What you might not realize is that this naming process should really go the other way around too! People who are learning Chinese deserve their own Chinese names, too!
Chinese names vs names in other languages
Chinese names differ because the the family surname is placed before the first name. It’s not difficult to guess why: Chinese people put great value in family. When greeting someone for the first time, it is always more polite to call them by their family name with “先生”(xiān shēng, sir) or “女士” (nǚ shì ,madam) attached after. It is disrespectful to call people older than you (especially your parents or relatives) by their first name in China!
Another difference between Chinese and English names is that Chinese names tend to be more unique. In England, it is quite normal to know several people called Tom, or Jessica, or Josh. However, the Chinese language has approximately 80,000 characters, and each Chinese name usually contains 2 or 3, occasionally 4 characters. This means there are a HUGE number of potential combinations. This means it is rare—but not impossible, since some names can become quite trendy during a certain period of time–for you to know more than three people with exactly the same Chinese name.
Chinese names are also interesting because parents use them to express their expectations and wishes for their children. It may be hard for non-Chinese speakers to understand why a person may want to call him or herself the name of a fruit, flower, or plant; but it is quite common in China, as people tend to associate those items with good qualities. For example, bamboo, or 竹 (zhú), is considered a symbol of integrity and tenacity. It therefore makes a lot of sense for Chinese people to use this word to name their kids!
The benefits of a Chinese name
Not all of your Chinese friends will pronounce your name in your native language correctly, or even remember it easily. Remember how difficult it was to remember actual Chinese names when you first started learning? It goes both ways, too. Having a Chinese name definitely makes your Chinese friends remember you better. It also means they are far more willing to talk to you as they see the effort you are making to study and fit in Chinese culture. A Chinese name will make it easier for you to introduce yourself to new Chinese friends or language partners as well.
Furthermore, Chinese people attach a lot of importance to their names. As mentioned, when Chinese parents name their children, they want to express their expectations and hopes through the name. When it comes to people from other countries who may also want a Chinese name, the name is a way to show what kind of person they want to be or what kind of thing they value most.
Therefore, having a Chinese name that expresses your personality is also a good way for others, especially your Chinese friends, to know more about you right from the start!
Ready to get started? Here’s our ultimate guide to choosing the perfect Chinese name!
Find the right surname
Chinese people usually have a surname containing one character, so this will be the best option for you. Two-character surnames are very rare: for example, 欧阳(ōu yáng), 慕容(mù róng), and 诸葛(zhū gě) are popular surnames of characters from Chinese novels. There is a piece of literature called 百家姓bǎi jiā xìng (A Hundred Family Surnames), in which you can find yourself a native Chinese surname. When picking a surname, the thing to focus on is how it sounds, as surnames don’t usually have much meaning attached to them.
Similar pronunciation isn’t everything
Pronunciation should be important but you should avoid a direct translation from your birth name. This means you have to avoid having an obvious foreigner name like Mary-玛 丽 (mǎ lì) or John-约翰(yuē hàn) – you don’t want that!
Think twice before naming yourself “Bruce Lee”
Avoid directly using the name of a celebrity or some famous movie/cartoon characters, even if you think your Chinese friends won’t know who you are. Imagine if you met a Chinese person called Michael Jackson or Britney Spears. In other words – no Jackie Chans or Bruce Lees, please!
Look to Chinese literary tradition
If you are an intermediate Chinese speaker, try to use the characters from Chinese poems or literature, and make sure it has a good meaning by looking this up in the dictionary, or asking a native speaker to check it for you. This is actually how a lot of Chinese parents choose names for their kids.
Avoid names that are too popular
Don’t name yourself with any frequently used Chinese names, even if they are easily remembered or with good meaning. You want to stand out, remember! For example, there are many who are named 王艳(wáng yàn) and 李明 (lǐ míng) and should be avoided. 王 and 李 themselves are “big” surnames in China, meaning that a lot of people are named Wang or Li. Though 艳(yàn, bright-colored) and 明(míng, explained below) are good words, too many Chinese people are using these kind of names at the moment, so it’s best to avoid them. Even though we have countless Chinese characters and combinations to offer, most Chinese people have met one or two “王艳”(wáng yàn) or “李明” (lǐ míng) in their lives. These kinds of names will not help you stand out!
Get help from your native friends
This is crucial! Ask native speakers for advice and let different people check it again and again before you decide on your new name. Make sure it doesn’t sound, look, or mean something bad, but also check that it looks and sounds native – you want to be proud of your new name!
Remember your backstory
Make sure you remember how to explain your name to others. One Chinese character may have more than 5 meanings, so it might not be obvious from the beginning. For example, 明(míng), which is frequently used in Chinese names, may be explained as “bright” , “clear”, “intelligent”, or even something else. Even if you show your Chinese name to Chinese people, without any explanation, they may not completely understand its meaning. To put it positively, having an explanation ready for your chosen Chinese name is a great conversation starter when meeting new people!
There! It’s as simple as that! Once you’ve found the perfect Chinese name, you’ll be able to use it whenever you are travelling in Chinese-speaking countries and when you chat with your Chinese friends. Having a Chinese name is a crucial part of your Chinese language journey!