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Stamp for the name Zhang
In China, family names — usually one syllable — are written first and given names — usually a two syllable word, with one syllable being a generational name and the other being a given name — are written second. If Tommy Lee Jones had been born in China he would have been named Jones Tommy. Chinese don't have middle names. In the old days the syllables in the given name were separated by a dash — Mao Zedong, for example, used to be written Mao Tse-tung — but this is done less frequently today. With the girl's name Ho Lolien, Ho is the family name, Lo (meaning "fond of") is the generation name and lien (meaning "lotus") is the given name. Her brother might be named Ho Loyi ("fond of justice"). Chinese often address one another by using the family name first followed by an honorific such as teacher (“Laoshi”), Mr. (“Xiansheng”) or Miss (“Xiaojie”)

Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in ”CultureShock! China”: When writing in Chinese characters, whether traditional complex characters (as in Hong Kong) or simplified characters (as in the Mainland), family name is always first. When writing a Romanised version of the name using English letters, Westernised Chinese sometimes reverse order and put given name first ‘for the convenience of Western friends’. This can cause confusion, especially with two-character names.” [Source: ”CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “ Chinese names, when written without characters, are far more similar to one another than is the case in Western countries. Even when written with characters, almost all the one billion Han Chinese share about 500 surnames. Chinese personal names are either one or two syllables – never more (unless the person is ethnically non-Han). While some personal names are encountered frequently, there is far greater variety among personal names than is the case in the West. In America, for example, almost a quarter of the male population share the most common ten male names. That would never occur in China, where parents very often coin names for children that have never been used before (based on the meaning of the characters chosen). However, from the standpoint of Westerners, who encounter Chinese names in transcription, the similarities among personal names may appear very great. The two-syllable limit and the similarity among syllables in transcription tend to hide the true variety of personal names. In Chinese, the characters disambiguate personal names easily, but the homogeneity of names in transcription is a special headache for Western students of China. The most important rule in dealing with Chinese names is this: the surname precedes the personal name. For example, the Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Mao, who gave him the name Zedong. This order always holds in a Chinese context, although some Chinese, when abroad, may reverse the order to conform with non-Chinese norms. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University]

Traditionally Chinese have been given a name 100 days after birth. Many Chinese have several names. Choosing trendy English names is becoming increasing popular. Young professionals sometimes adopt English nicknames for work. Chinese their names to bring good luck. ngie Eagan Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: The changing of each year effects your fate depending on your sign. It is common for Chinese to see fortune tellers during a zodiac transition, or if they are having a run of bad luck. In addition to the use of jade, feng shui, and traditional remedies, another common piece of advice is to change your name.[Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]

Websites and Sources: Family Names ; / : First Names Female Names on a messy site ; Males on a messy site; Names and Meanings Links in this Website: CHINESE LANGUAGE ; WRITTEN CHINESE ; CHINESE LANGUAGE TYPEWRITERS AND TATTOOS ; CHINESE SAYINGS, PROVERBS, PUNS AND SLOGANS ; ENGLISH IN CHINA ;

Meaning of Chinese Names

Chinese names should ideally be comprised of two Chinese characters that harmonize with each other and have strokes that signify the feng shui elements wood, water, soil, metal and fire. “Tongngo” (“Eastern Hill”) is a good name because the strokes compliment each other and “tong” carries the wood element and “ngo” contains soil and these elements compliment each other. “Hoi-san” (“sea Mountain”) is not a good name because water is not allowed to come before soil.

Names like numbers are thought to affect a person’s fate. A name that is balanced, harmonious and complimentary is supposed to bring luck. A popular saying goes that a good name can turn a beggar into an emperor. In the old days people that shared the same name with emperor sometimes changed their names because they thought sharing the emperor’s name weakened his power. It is impolite to print someone's name upside down and one of the worst insults you can hurl at someone is Fuck Your Name.

According to AFP: “Unlike in English, where one draws from a lexicon of Josephs and Richards, a Chinese name can be created from any combination of two or three characters. And for many Chinese parents, making the right choice has become imperative as they seek to help their children stand out in the world's most populous country. [Source: AFP, April 11, 2017]

“Liu Qiang, a police officer in Henan province, and his wife wanted to use a modern naming method that still accounts for bazi - the traditional belief in a destiny determined by one's date of birth. Bazi, or eight characters, refers to the eight digits denoting the year, month, day and hour of birth. It is believed to determine the natural elements present in one's life, such as metal, wood, water, fire and earth.

“A name can compensate for the elements a child lacks. Liu's son lacked a wood element, so Qimingtong [a naming specialist, See Below] named him "Bailin", combining the characters for cypress tree and a mythical, dragon-like creature from Chinese folklore to create a name his parents hope will help him forge a unique identity.

Chinese Family Names

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Stamp for the name Wang
Chinese women usually keep their own family name after marriage and parents can give their child either their mother's or father's name. Married women are usually identified with the honorific “nushi”.

China may be the source of the first surnames. According to legend the legendary Chinese Yellow Emperor ordered people to adopt hereditary family names in 2852 B.C. Later the names were listed in the poem “Baijiaxing”—“Hundred Surnames” (there were actually 438 of them). Laobaixing, or old hundred names, is a colloquial term for the masses. The number of Chinese family names in use has tended to shrink as China’s population has grown, a winnowing of surnames that has occurred in many cultures over time.

There are so few surnames and so many people with the same name that bureaucrats get people mixed up and police sometimes mistakenly arrest a person with the same name as the accused. Sharon Lafraniere wrote in New York Times, “The potential for mix-ups is vast. There are nearly enough Chinese named Zhang Wei to populate the city of Pittsburgh. Nicknames are liberally bestowed in classrooms and workplaces to tell people apart. Confronting three students named Liu Fang, for example, one middle-school teacher nicknamed them Big, Little and Middle. To address these problems the Chinese government wants to allow children to use a double surnames comprised of their mother’s and father’s surnames. A child whose father is named Zhu and whose mother is named Chou could be called Chouzhu or Zhuchou. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, April 20, 2009]

Some families have endured having names they despised for centuries. In the 10th century, according to legend, Emperor Shi Jiuntang became so angry with members of the Jing family because they shared a name similar to his he ordered their surname be changed to Gou, which means “humble” but has the same pronunciation as “dog.” Evee since then, for over a thousand years, the Gou clan has been object of endless jokes, sniggers and insults, such as strangers coming up to parents with a child and saying “You have such a cute child, shame her name is dog.” One member of the clan told the Los Angeles Times, “All you can do is laugh. But it always bothers you a bit inside.” In the mid 2000s members of the Gou clan were among the first too take advantages of new laws that made it easier to change their name, with entire villages of Guos changed their name to Jing. [Source: Los Angeles Times]

Common Chinese Family Names

There are relatively few family names in China. The 1.15 billion or so Han Chinese use fewer than 400 different family names with about 100 being widely used. By one count 87 percent of all Chinese share 129 family names. Common ones include Cho, Li, Wang, Wu, Chen, and Chang (also spelled Zhang). Bloodlines and clan connections are very important. It is very unusual for a Chinese person to change his or her name. By contrast, 70,000 surnames cover 90 percent of Americans.

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name chop mark
Dr. Eno wrote: “ Almost all the one billion Han Chinese share about 500 surnames. The most common surname in the world is the Chinese surname Zhang ’– approximately 100 million Chinese people share it, equivalent to about one-third of all Americans. (Compare that to Smith, the most common American surname, shared by about three million people.) Other very common Chinese surnames include Wang, Huang, Yang, Lin, Chen, Wu, Liu, Zhou, and Zhao. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University]

In the 2000s there were around 93 million people with the surname of Wang, 92 million with last of name of Li and 82 million Zhangs and more than 20 million each with the surname of Chen, Zhou and Lin. Ma, a Chinese character for horse, is the 13th most common family name in China, shared by nearly 17 million people. To refer to an unidentified person — the equivalent of just anybody in English — one Chinese saying can be loosely translated this way: some Zhang, some Li.

The surname Chang (now often spelled Zhang, but the same name) has always been extremely common in China; today only about fifteen countries in the world have more people than China has Changs. “Changs Dreaming” in the book “The Ghosts of Birds” by Eliot Weinberger, Perry Link writes, “recounts the dreams, collected from Chinese texts of different sorts and times over centuries, of eighteen unrelated people all surnamed Chang. There is self-satire in the conception of the piece. Surnames do not matter in the genesis of dreams, and to suggest even briefly that they do is sufficiently eccentric to remind us that the truth is the opposite: all of us humans dream. To find so many dreaming Changs is not, moreover, as odd as seems implied. [Source: Perry Link, professor at Princeton University, New York Review of Books, November 24, 2016; “The Ghosts of Birds” by Eliot Weinberger (New Directions, 2016)]

Han Family Names

"Strokes in the surnames" is a commonly used phrase in China. "Surname" here specially refers to the family name, namely the character denoting the name of each family. However, before the Qin and Han dynasties, surnames (Xing) and clan-names (Shi) were different, each representing different content and meaning. "Surname" originates date back to when the matriarchal clans were important to the Han. Surnames related to one’s matriarchal clan's name or other characteristics. Surname mainly played the role of "clarifying blood relationships. “ Men and a women with same surname could not marry each other. Clan-names become the branches derived from surnames. Until the patriarchal clan system became dominate, surnames and clan-names became the marks of different patriarchal clans or tribes. Originally only nobles had clan-names. After the Spring and Autumn Period and Warring States Period, surnames and clan-name gradually fused with each other. After the Qin and Han Dynasties, the surname and clan-name were combined, a state that has continued to today.[Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science Museums of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, ~]

How many Han Nationality surnames are there? The well-known book, "Surnames of a Hundred Families" (the Qing Dynasty edition) records 504 surnames altogether, of which 444 are single-word and 60 are double-word. However, the real number of surnames is far beyond that. As early as in the Eastern Han Dynasty,Ying Shao recorded about 500 surnames in the surname chapter of his book General Meaning of the Custom. In the clan chapter of General Records, the book of Song Zhengqiao, reports: "there are 32 kinds of people who have the surnames and are awarded the clan-names," approximately 1,745 surnames altogether. After a comprehensive study, Zhang of the Qing Dynasty concluded that there were 5,129 surnames altogether. Now there is still no accurate statistical number of surnames. According to the rough estimate, more than 3,000 ones are still being used. ~

Similar to the surnames, the "names (Ming Zi)"—which now refer to given names—had different meanings in ancient times, when people had both "Ming" and "Zi". On top of this people also had aliases. The So-called "Ming" name was actually a name that distinguished someone as a nobleman. In ancient times, people generally had two names, one of which was a name given at birth. For example, the infant name of CaoCao (Emperor of the Wei Kingdom in the Three Kingdoms (220-265)) was Ah Man. Liu Chan, the son of Liu Bei (Emperor of the Shu Kingdom) was called Adou. Another given name was given when a person grew up, This was called the formal name. Women generally only had an infant name. Before the Qin Dynasty, people generally had single-character names. Two-character names became more common place in the Qin and Han Dynasties, and accordingly the ways of giving names to people become much more varied. ~

"Zi" is another title derived from the meaning of "Ming" and functions as the explanation and supplement to the latter. “Zi" is not given to people until they are grown-ups, and indicates that they start receiving other people’s respect from that moment on. For example, Zhu Geliang became known as Kong Ming; Yue Fei became known as Peng Ju; Zhao Yun became known as Zi Long. Originally, giving "Zi" to a person was a privilege only enjoyed by nobles, but later the practice was expanded to intellectuals. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, the system started s to be generally spread among the common people. ~

"Hao" is another name for people, often associated with artists and intellectuals. Scholar-officials in imperial times, especially the writers, often had other names. For example, Li Bai was called Lotus Hermit, Du Fu was called Shaolingyelao, Wang Anshi was called Banshan, and Tang Bohu was called Liurujushi. Ming and Zi were given by others to express the individual's wishes.

Ming, Zi and alias were all people's names, which were given in different ways. Ancient people attached great importance to the social status and etiquette implied by the names and were very fastidious in their use. Ming was generally a name used among friends or equals, or by a person of high status addressing a person of low status. Zis and aliases were used for addressing others or high status. If people did not follow name rules, they were considered to be impolite. It it was perceived to be "greatly disrespectful" or an act of “rebellion" to address the emperors, one’s parents and seniors by their Ming. Such people were condemned; some even received severe punishment.

Names in 19th Century China

It was common in pre-modern China, for Chinese to have many names and different names at different stages of their life. The famous writer Lu Xun was born "Zhou Zhangshou". His courtesy name was "Yushan" but he later changed that to "Yucai". In 1898, before he went to the Jiangnan Naval Academy, he took the given name "Shuren" —which means "to be an educated man". He chose "Lu Xun" as his literary pseudonym when his fiction novel "A Madman's Diary" was first published, in 1918.

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”:““It is a highly convenient arrangement of Chinese family nomenclature, that the names of each member of the same generation (within certain defined degrees of cousinship) furnish a clue to his relationship to the rest. Thus, if a man’s surname is Wang, his family name (which can be either two characters or one) may be compounded with the character denoting Spring, in which case one brother might be called Wang Spring-Flowers, the next Wang Spring-Fragrance, a third Wang Spring-Fields, and so universally for that generation as far away among the cousins as the Spring influence penetrates. These family names are theoretically recorded in carefully kept registers, and must not be repeated in later generations, or only after the lapse of a due number of generations. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg; Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang,a village in Shandong.]

Memorials sometimes appear in the Peking Gazette from high officials asking permission to have a family name altered, since a repeated title has inadvertently been taken. This use of the same characters in Chinese family names has often been compared to the Anglo-Saxon habit of bestowing upon brothers names of which one syllable is constant, as Edward, Edwin, Edmund, Edgar, etc.

Besides the name, there is the “style,” often much more in use than any other designation, which may be bestowed upon the owner by a friend. It is common by a respectful familiarity to prefix to the first character of the style, the honourific “Old,” (Lao) making still another title. Thus supposing Mr. Wang Spring-Fragrance has the style of Illustrious Virtue, his common appellation may be Wang Old Illustrious, his other names being used as alternatives. The result of all this is that a single Chinese not infrequently appears to be three and sometimes four, since students have also their examination names, differing, strange to say, from any which they have hitherto borne. The confusion attending the addressing of Chinese letters in correspondence would be intolerable to an Occidental.

Villages and Names in 19th Century China

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “ Nearly all Chinese surnames serve as the designation of villages, as in other lands the names of families are attached to the settlements which they make. Sometimes two or more surnames are linked together to denote the village, as Chang-Wang Chuang, the village of the Chang and the Wang families. It often happens that in the changes, wrought by time, of the families for whom the place was named not a single representative remains. In such cases the name may be retained or it may be altered, though all recollection of the circumstances of the change may be lost. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“The most conspicuous object in a Chinese village is generally a temple, and this building often gives its name to the hamlet. Thus the wall surrounding a temple is covered with red plaster, and the village is dubbed Red Temple. In a few years the plaster falls off, but the name sticks. Temples are frequently associated with the families which were prominent in their construction, and the name of the village is very likely to be derived from this source, as Wang Chia Miao, the Temple of the Wang Family; the Hua Chia Ssŭ, the monastery of the Hua Family. If there happen to be two temples of a similar appearance, the village may get the title of Double Temple, and in general any peculiarity in edifices of this sort is likely to be stereotyped in the village name.

“The habit of using the names of families and temples to indicate the villages is a fertile source of confusion through the indefinite multiplication of the same name. There is no postal system in China compelling each post office to have a designation which shall not be confounded with others in the same province. Hence the more common names are so exceedingly common that they lose all value as distinctive designations. “Chang, Wang, Li, and Chao, ” are the four surnames which the Chinese regard as the most prevalent, the first two of them far out-distancing all their competitors. The number of places in a given district bearing the same, or similar names, is past all ascertaining; as, say eight or ten Wang Family villages, the Larger Wang Village, the Smaller Wang Village, the Front Wang Village, the Rear Wang Village, the Wang Village Under-the-bank, and so forth. Even with this complexity, distinction would be a much easier matter if the same name were always used, but anything which has a Wang about it is like to be called simply Wang Village, and only on inquiry is it to be learned which of all these Wangs is the one intended.

Chinese Given Names

Given names, or "book" names, usually consist of two characters. The "generation name" — the first character — links the name holder to others born in his or her generation. The other is a unique given name. In the old days three character names were common. These days may are made up only of two — reflecting a desire for a simpler life after the Cultural Revolution.

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name chop mark
Boys are generally given a name associated with virtue or strength. Girls often given names of flowers or things of beauty. The translations for common Chinese given names are "Yellow," "North" and "House." According to tradition, family elders select the generation names of the clan's future offspring. The generation name designates membership in a particular generation and reinforces clan identity. This helps build unity within the extended family and avoids duplicating names with other people with the same surname.”

This custom was disrupted by the Communists in the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s when names were dedicated to themes of that time such as Enge for “Cultural Revolution,” Jianjun for “Build the Army," Jiefeng for “Liberation,” Wei Dong for “Guarding Chairman Mao,” or the Chinese words for "Army" or "Red."

On chosing a name for her son, Xinran wrote in “ Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love“: “I bought four Chinese dictionaries and one English one to help me to choose a good name for him. Chinese is such a rich language, with over 18,000 discrete characters — not to mention the additional 26 English letters — and I wanted my son's name to have powerful energy and imagery in both languages. In Chinese, Pan Pan means hope and observation, expect” and wish. When you translate it into English, it means a figure that is half-human and half-god. That was how I saw my son. But when Pan Pan was about 18, at the Chinese embassy in London, the visa official asked Pan Pan: "Who gave you this uneducated name?"

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Chinese often call one another "big brother," "little sister," or "uncle" out of affection and respect even though they are not related. Calling someone Big Brother or Big Sister is a sign of respect. Up until the end of the 19th century, Chinese women were often called Daughter No. 1 or Daughter No. 2, etc. until they got married and became Wife No 1. or Wife No. 2.

Some kids have no name until they are in the forth grade of elementary school. Up until then they are known by names like “Little Brother” or “Little Four” after their birth order place in their family. Some people never lose their childhood name are called “Number Four” their entire lives.

Parents in Korea, China and Tibet sometimes give their children a name with the Chinese character for "dog" or "dirty" to scare off evil spirits that might harm them. Recently, one Chinese father tried register his child’s name as “*”. He thought the name was hip because of its common usage in e-mail and it has similar sound to ai ta (“love him”).

Choosing a Chinese Name

Cindy Chang wrote in the Los Angeles Times: My Chinese name” is “Shin-tzer (pronounced Sheen-dzuh). Shin — "heart." Tzer — literally, "a swamp." By extension, tzer means glossy, radiant, enriching. My name isn't full of flowers, fragrance or delicacy like most Chinese girls' names. My grandfather wanted me to have strength of character, not mere physical beauty. [Source: Cindy Chang, Los Angeles Times. September 11, 2013 \=/]

“Why am I not Tian-something? According to Chinese tradition, I would become part of my husband's family, not a Chang, after I married. Most Chinese names are one of a kind, a coupling of two words out of thousands of possibilities expressing the family's hopes for the child. I don't expect to ever meet another Shin-tzer. In China, unusual names are viewed as a sign of literary creativity, UCLA sociology professor Cameron Campbell said. Researching 18th and 19th century Chinese villages, Campbell traced lineages based on generational markers like the bei and tian in my family. During the Cultural Revolution, names containing one character were popular, sometimes with Communist connotations such as "Red." "Picking a rare character is kind of like a marker of learning," Campbell said, while in the United States, one-of-a-kind names are sometimes viewed as odd. \=/

“Traditionally, an elder such as a grandfather or a great-grandfather chooses the name. The pressure is off the parents, but they must live with the results. A friend of mine asked her father-in-law to come up with her daughter's Chinese name. He took a character from her name and one from her husband's name to form a strange amalgam with one hyper-masculine word and one hyper-feminine word. Other grandparents come up with hopelessly old-fashioned names, the Chinese equivalent of Doris or Mabel. Some families rely on fortune tellers to vet the names. I have a friend who changed his Chinese name in his 30s after one convinced his mother that his birth name was unlucky. \=/

“My father always told me Shin-tzer meant "Heart in a Swamp" without explaining the more poetic connotations. As a child, I cringed when anyone attempted to say it. Later, as I studied the language, the layers of meaning became clear to me. When I lived in Taiwan, people often complimented me on my name. My grandfather chose well. If my grandfather were still alive, he would name my brother's child. Without him, we scrambled. \=/

Choosing Names in 19th Century China

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”:“The names given to Chinese childrenare frequently suggested by whatever happens first to attract the father’s attention, such as Basket, Cart, etc. Each year of the cycle of twelve has an animal which “belongs to” it, as Dog, Cat, Chicken, Tiger, Horse or Monkey, and all these names are constantly employed. If when the child is born an old grandmother happens to be three score and ten, he is not improbably dubbed “Seventy.” Many have no other appellation than a numerical one such as Three, Five, or Six, to the hopeless confusion of an inquirer. If the child seems to be of a good constitution he may receive the title of Stone, or Solid. Should he be plump, he is likely to be styled Little Fat One; if dark coloured, Little Black One. Bad Temper, and Little Idiot are common, and if all the previous children have died, the last one may go by the name of Great Repairs. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“When the parents are peculiarly fearful lest an only boy should be made away with by malicious spirits, they often call him by a girl’s name in order to deceive the powers of evil, and thus beat them at their own game. Another plan with the same end in view is a nominal adoption into another family, where the children spend at least a portion of their time, the spirits being thus hopelessly perplexed as to which family really owns the child! Slave Girl, and Old Woman are names sometimes given to boys under these conditions. A man who had more girls than he desired, called one of them Enough Hawks (Kou Ying), while another little maid was outfitted with3 the happy title “Ought-to-have-been-a-Boy” (Kai Tzŭ). Girls are frequently named for birds, fruits, and flowers.

“All the preceding are “milk-names,” or “small names,” which strangers must be careful even should they know them, never to employ. No greater insult can be put upon an adult Chinese than to revile him in public by his “small name” — a by no means infrequent occurrence — which seems to convey the implication that the reviler knows all about his antecedents and holds them in supreme contempt.

Using a Fortuneteller to Chose a Chinese Name

Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In the shadow of Beijing's Lama Temple, I found the cramped office of Zhang Buyuan, a 75-year-old with a Confucius-style beard. Like Chuang, his services start at $50. Zhang looked at my birth date and hour, then consulted texts to see which of the five elements — wood, fire, earth, metal and water — I was supposedly weak or strong in. Next, using numerology, he determined the number of strokes my name should ideally have. I asked him about Wheat Golden Farmer. "Unlucky," he scoffed, counting the strokes of the first two characters. "They add to 19, which signals a short life." I wondered whether the folks at the Press Center had intentionally cursed me. But he was equally dismissive of my alternative. "Zhu Li? It's a lonely name. You will be without a partner. You need a good, fortunate name, like Da Shan."” [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, January 11, 2014]

“Zhang jotted down my birthday on a small notepad on his desktop, crowded with walnuts, cough drops, calligraphy brushes and a computer monitor. He flipped through books of characters handwritten in black ink. "Your personality is close to the soil. You're down-to-earth, loyal and honest. You don't like money in your life," he told me. Then, with no hint of irony, he added, "You should be an official, a politician." What I lacked, Zhang concluded, was fire. He suggested a name whose first two characters totaled 24 brush strokes; according to his texts, 24 meant fire. "Horse," he said, was good for the first character. That's 10 strokes, leaving 14 for the second character. How about Meng, he asked. It means "Dream." I laughed. Meng is one of the strongest political catchwords of the day, popularized by President Xi Jinping and his vague but appealing notion of "The Chinese Dream." The phrase is plastered on billboards across the nation.

“In the pre-communist era, names incorporating the characters for "fortune" (fu) and "wealth" (cai) were popular; after the 1949 revolution, more patriotic given names like Guoqing ("National Day") came into vogue. If I chose Meng in the Xi era, I asked, would it be like a Russian mother in the 1960s naming her kid Sputnik? "You can add a third character," he said. "How about this one? It means 'emperor' or 'husband.'" That would leave me as Ms. Horse Dreaming of Husband. "Do you want to meet my son?" Zhang asked, mischievously. "He's 48, divorced, a professor. He's tall too!" I thanked Zhang and left. "What are you going to do?" my co-workers asked. Unlucky or not, I said, I'm sticking with Ms. Horse Pearl Striving. It's already on the form, and it's better than Banana or Wheat Golden Farmer. And hey, if I enter myself in the Kentucky Derby, at least I won't have to change my name.”

Chinese Naming Companies

AFP reported: “In a one-room shop tucked inside a Beijing alley, a bearded 74-year-old fortuneteller in a crimson tunic offers what Chinese parents have sought for centuries: an auspicious name for their newborn. But business has been tough lately for Mao Shandong and others in his trade, as tech-savvy entrepreneurs have turned the ancient naming tradition into a lucrative online business. "We can't make a living these days," Mao lamented. [Source: AFP, April 11, 2017]

“"Parents care more and more about personal brand," said Zhang Ruxin, 37, the co-founder of Beijing-based naming service Qimingtong - which essentially means "Clear Naming". "They realize that the name will follow their child for their entire life, be judged by their employers and have an impact on their values."

“Qimingtong operates almost entirely online, with parents filling out web questionnaires and Zhang offering consultations through the popular messaging app WeChat. A quick web search reveals more than 100 such businesses in China, each promising names that will pave the way for future success. Zhang founded Qimingtong in late 2014 with her business partner, Chen Jun, after working for two decades as a newspaper reporter. The idea arose as she pursued her hobby: helping friends and colleagues name their children. Zhang and her employees also help name dozens of newborns every day for walk-ins. Rates range from 400 yuan ($58) to 10,000 yuan for a private consultation with Zhang.

“Chinese looking to move abroad or work for international companies may also seek help choosing an English name. At Lindsay Jernigan's first job in Shanghai, she worked alongside Apple, Yoyo and Eleven. While her company was filled with "really smart, driven" professionals, Jernigan, a 27-year-old United States citizen, feared their names would hurt their prospects in English-speaking workplaces. Two years ago she founded, which charges 248 yuan for a 30-minute consultation via WeChat.

“Some clients request English names that still adhere to bazi, forcing Jernigan to get creative. If someone wants a water element, she may suggest "Brook", "Morgan" (a water sprite in Welsh), or "Lindsay", which means "Linden trees by the water". "Of course you can just get lists of names online, but we're the only ones who truly understand the Chinese mentality," Jernigan said. "Naming is a way of self-expression. The demand is definitely here."

“Not everyone shares her optimism. Mao said he is ready to abandon his fortunetelling business, even as he scorns his rivals in the naming industry. "All those websites, they're the scams," he said. "They don't truly understand Chinese tradition."

Choosing the Chinese Name for a Son Based on a Poem

On choosing the right Chinese name for her sister’s son, Cindy Chang wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “One thing was certain — his name would contain the word shi, or "world," which can also mean "generation." We are on the sixth word of a couplet— “Hu guang xuan bei dou” (Light from the lake reflects the Big Dipper, literally, North Dipper) and “Shi dai le yong xi” (Generations delight at the Golden Age)— that my family has used to name its sons for generations, probably part of a larger poem lost during the Cultural Revolution. [Source: Cindy Chang, Los Angeles Times. September 11, 2013 \=/]

“ My great-great-grandfather was named Hu-zao. My great-grandfather was Guang-xin and my grandfather was Xuan-yao. My father is Bei-dwo — (Northern Bell) and my uncle is Bei-jiann — (Northern Key). Thus forming Hu guang xuan bei dou. But my grandfather didn't think dou was a good word for a name, so he substituted tian, which means "sky" or "heavens." My brother and male cousins all have tian in their names. My brother is Tian-shu (Heavenly Axis). \=/

“A few years ago, my uncle made a list of shi names for us to choose from. My cousin had two sons, my brother had a son and my other cousin had a son. There were only a handful of names left on the list: Shi-zhong (World Arbitrator). Shi-pei (Admired by the World). My aunt in Taiwan offered some more suggestions and my parents followed with a few of their own. World Leader-in-Waiting. World Nobleman. World Standout. \=/

“Boys' names are often master of the universe. But there are also prim and proper names, extolling Confucian virtues like filial piety. World Scholar. World Benevolence. I like the oddball ones like my dad's Northern Bell. Shi-shen (Extending the World). Shi-ren (Shouldering the World).” \=/

Modern Names and Nicknames

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In recent years there has been a trend by parents to give their children unique given names to give them some sense individuality in world dominated by so many people and so few family names. But this too has become a trend in itself with thousands of parents naming their children after the Olympic mascots or famous athletes such as basketball player Yao Ming and hurdler Liu Xiang.

Parents who gave birth to children around the time of the Olympics named their newborns after the Olympic Games—“Aoyun” or “Aoyun Hui,” Olympics or Olympic Games in Chinese — or one of the Olympic mascots. Other Olympic-inspired named included “Aobao” (“Olympic Treasure”), “Duoduo (“Many, Many” as in many, many medals). A joke that was circulating around during the Olympics went: “The day will come when the whole town responds when you call to the name “Aoyun!”

Some parents named their children Chang’e after China lunar orbiter, launched in 2007. In the late 2000s, some parents applied to their baby named @ but their request was turned down.

Many Chinese who come in contact with foreigners like to be called by their Internet names. Jonathan Franzen wrote in The New Yorker that he traveled with some Chinese birdwatchers who asked to be called Stinky and Shadow. Stinky was an attractive young woman. When asked if she really wanted to be called Stinky she said yes.

Unique Names in China

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a chop is used instead
of signature In China
That can cause no end of confusion when people with the same last name get together, especially if they also share the same given name, as many Chinese do. To get around this problem of so many common surname parents often try to give their children unique given names.

Describing the case of Ma Cheng, Sharon Lafraniere of the New York Times wrote: “Ma Cheng’s book-loving grandfather came up with an elegant solution to this common problem. Twenty-six years ago, when his granddaughter was born, he combed through his library of Chinese dictionaries and lighted upon a character pronounced cheng. Cheng, which means galloping steeds, looks just like the character for horse, except that it is condensed and written three times in a row. The character is so rare that once people see it, Miss Ma said, they tend to remember both her and her name. That is one reason she likes it so much. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, April 20, 2009]

Government officials suggest that names have gotten out of hand, with too many parents picking the most obscure characters they can find or even making up characters, like linguistic fashion accessories. But many Chinese couples take pride in searching the rich archives of classical Chinese to find a distinctive, pleasing name, partly to help their children stand out in a society with strikingly few surnames.

Wang Daliang, a linguistics scholar with the China Youth University for Political Science, said picking rare characters for given names only compounded the problem and inconvenienced everyone. Using obscure names to avoid duplication of names or to be unique is not good, he wrote in an e-mail response to questions.

Government Pressure to Change Unique Names in China

For millions Chinese parents, their desire to give their children a spark of individuality is colliding head-on with the Chinese bureaucracy’s desire for order. Seeking to modernize its vast database on China’s 1.3 billion citizens, the government’s Public Security Bureau has been replacing the handwritten identity card that every Chinese must carry with a computer-readable one, complete with color photos and embedded microchips. The new cards are harder to forge and can be scanned at places like airports where security is a priority. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, April 20, 2009]

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The bureau’s computers, however, are programed to read only 32,252 of the roughly 55,000 Chinese characters, according to a 2006 government report. The result is that at least some of the 60 million other Chinese with obscure characters in their names cannot get new cards — unless they change their names to something more common. Moreover, the situation is about to get worse or, in the government’s view, better. Since at least 2003, China has been working on a standardized list of characters for people to use in everyday life, including when naming children. That list would include more than 8,000 characters. Although that is far fewer than the database now supposedly includes, the official said it was more than enough to convey any concept in any field. About 3,500 characters are in everyday use.

Within the scheme there is no place for obscure names. A government linguistics official told Xinhua, — Now a lot of people are perplexed by their names, he said. The computer cannot even recognize them and people cannot read them. This has become an obstacle in communication.” But Professor Zhou Youyong, dean of Southeast University’s law school, said the government should tread carefully in issuing any new regulation. The right to name children is a basic right of citizens, he said.

Miss Ma said that while her given name was unusual, bank employees, passport control clerks and ticket agents had always managed to deal with it, usually by writing it by hand. But when she tried to renew her identity card last August, she said, Beijing public security officials turned her down flat. Your name is so troublesome and problematic, she recalled an official telling her. Just change it. There were no such regulations when I was born, so I should be entitled to keep my name for my whole life, she said. If she changes her name to get an identity card, she noted, it will be wrong on all of her other documents, like her passport and university diploma.

Using the time-honored Chinese method of backdoor connections, Miss Ma was able to get a temporary card in January. She must renew it every three months but considers that a small sacrifice for keeping her name.

Zhao C., a 23-year-old college student, gave up the fight for his. His father, a lawyer, chose the letter C from the English alphabet, saying it was simple, memorable and stood for China. When he could not get a new identity card in 2006, Zhao C. sued. But security officials convinced him that it would cost millions of dollars to alter the database, his father said, so he dropped the suit in February.

The new rules were originally supposed to be issued by 2005. As of April, 2009, 70 revisions later, they have yet to be put in place.

Western Names in Chinese

Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In China, the names of foreign movie stars and politicians are typically rendered in Mandarin with direct transliterations — Bill Clinton, for instance, is written with characters that sound like Bi-er Ke-lin-dun and have no real meaning. Sports heroes earn nicknames — NBA player Carmelo Anthony is Tian Gua, or "Sweet Melon." But many expats working here adopt shorter names following traditional Chinese form: One character for the family name, and one or two others for the given name. Mark Rowswell, a TV star from Canada who speaks fluent Mandarin, goes by Da Shan, meaning simply "Big Mountain." [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, January 11, 2014]

On getting her Chinese name, Makinen wrote: “Ms. Wheat Golden Farmer. Was that really the new me? When I was offered the chance to move to Beijing, I was excited about picking a Chinese name. After all, how often does one get to select a new identity? I wasn't planning on anything as grand, but I imagined perusing my Chinese dictionary over pots of tea, looking for the perfect combo of characters that would connect to the sound of my English name yet convey some essence of myself, perchance a bit of mystique.

“The cadres at the Foreign Ministry's International Press Center, though, had another idea. When I began my application for a press card, part of the process for receiving a working journalist visa, I found I had already been assigned a name. It was Mai Jinnong, a very loose adaptation of my Finnish surname, Makinen. The characters' meaning? "Wheat Golden Farmer." "It sounds rural," one of my Chinese office colleagues commented, giggling. Opined another, cautiously, "That sounds like a man's name."

“Further research revealed that Makinen already had an officially designated (though equally unappealing) Chinese equivalent. According to the state-run New China News Agency's 800-plus-page style manual on transliterations, I should be Ma Jinen, three characters meaning "Horse Basic Tender."..I didn't have the luxury of engaging a consultant, so a co-worker and I quickly searched online again. I wanted the "ma" sound for my family name, and two other characters approximating the sound of Julie. But the standard rendering of Julie, written with characters meaning "Medicinal Herb" and "Jasmine," was ruled out after another co-worker remarked, "That sounds like a plant."

“We filed the form with Ma ("Horse") as my family name. For my given name, we settled on Zhu Li, meaning something like "Pearl Striving." I felt like a dazed mother who goes into unexpected early labor and scribbles "Banana" on the birth certificate in the delivery room. As I recounted the episode to a Chinese friend, she frowned. "You should go see a fortuneteller," she said. "In China, parents often do this for new babies. Don't leave it to chance."

Western Name for a Chinese-American Girl

Cindy Chang wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “I have never liked my English name. My parents didn't know that Cindy was short for Cynthia. Or that Cindy Brady was the Cindy of the moment. They were only a few years removed from Taiwan. They chose it because it sounded like my Chinese name, Shin-tzer (pronounced Sheen-dzuh). Hear the resemblance? Neither do I. Shin — "heart." Tzer — literally, "a swamp." By extension, tzer means glossy, radiant, enriching. My name isn't full of flowers, fragrance or delicacy like most Chinese girls' names. My grandfather wanted me to have strength of character, not mere physical beauty. "Cindy" seems colorless by comparison. It's just a couple syllables that sound good together. [Source: Cindy Chang, Los Angeles Times. September 11, 2013 \=/]

“I grew up speaking English and eating with a fork. My family didn't even celebrate Chinese New Year. Yet the Changs are ultra-traditional about names, down to our use of an ancient naming poem, a rare practice even in China and Taiwan. When the language and the customs are gone, this is the shred that endures: a name...Most American-born Chinese don't use their Chinese names. Only a handful of my relatives call me Shin-tzer. I write it on my business cards when I introduce myself to Chinese people, but they too call me Cindy. \=/

Choosing a Name in a Chinese-Korean-American Family

Cindy Chang wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “It was March, and my brother and his wife were expecting their second boy. The emails began to fly as we conferred about the baby's Chinese name. There was a bicultural complication. My brother's wife is Korean, so the name had to sound good in Korean too. One thing was certain — his name would contain the word shi, or "world," which can also mean "generation." Although Chinese and Korean names are written with the same characters, pronunciations can be just different enough to cause trouble. Some words that crop up in Chinese names sound strange to Korean ears. [Source: Cindy Chang, Los Angeles Times. September 11, 2013 \=/]

“By Chang family tradition, not only must every name contain shi, but the second word must belong to the same family of words. For my brother's generation, it is wood — trees, fruits and wood objects. "Plum." "Pine." For my father's generation, it is gold, encompassing metals and metal objects. "Bell." "Key." For the current crop of male Changs, it is words that describe human characteristics or actions. "Believer." "Scholar." "Benevolence." My older nephew, Christian, is named Shi-jun in Chinese, Sae-joon in Korean — "World No. 1 Talented, Smart, Handsome Man." \=/

“Boys' names are often master of the universe. But there are also prim and proper names, extolling Confucian virtues like filial piety. World Scholar. World Benevolence. I like the oddball ones like my dad's Northern Bell. Shi-shen (Extending the World). Shi-ren (Shouldering the World). These would be my selections from the list we submitted to the Korean side of the family. But squaring the demands of two cultures proved to be complicated. \=/

“Word came back from our Korean relatives. The only name that worked for them was Shi-zhong (World Arbitrator,) which in Korean sounds almost the same as his brother's name. Sae-joon and Sae-joong. It would be like naming your sons John and Jonathan. We were at a bicultural impasse. By July, the baby was almost here and we had still gotten nowhere. \=/

“My dad made a last-minute submission: Shi-xia (pronounced Shr-shya). According to the Far East Chinese-English Dictionary, xia is a chivalrous person, a Robin Hood who is "adept in martial arts and dedicated to helping the poor and the weak; one who fights rather than submits to injustice." The Korean relatives weren't familiar with the word xia, pronounced hyup in Korean. But they didn't rule out Sae-hyup. My dad made the final call. Julian Shi-xia Chang was born in New Jersey on Aug. 4, weighing 8 pounds, 8 ounces. Probably, not many people will address him by his Chinese name, Shi-xia. My parents live on the other side of the country, so his only chance at a second language will be Korean, not Chinese. Still, this half-Chinese, half-Korean, third-generation American kid is starting life with a proper Chinese name.” \=/

Western Company Names in Chinese

Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Picking an appealing Chinese name is important, both for individuals and overseas corporations. Coca-Cola's Mandarin name, Kekou Kele, links closely to its English source and loosely translates as "Tasty and Fun"; it's widely regarded as a great combination of sound and significance. Microsoft, in contrast, has been derided in China for its rather literal moniker, Wei Ruan, with the unfortunate meaning "Slightly Soft." [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, January 11, 2014]

“Vladimir Djurovic, president of the Shanghai-based brand consultancy Labbrand, which has worked with more than 100 foreign firms, including Marvel, to select Chinese names for their companies and products, said that arriving at a proper name is a multi-step process that typically takes his team four to 12 weeks. It involves sorting through hundreds of possible character combinations, screening them to see whether they can be trademarked and testing them in multiple dialogues. "If you take 10 names that sound good in Mandarin, three of them will have serious problems in Cantonese," he said.

“Tesla Motors, the California electric car company, recently found itself in a Chinese name thicket when it opened its first mainland showroom in Beijing. Tesila, the common transliteration for Nikola Tesla's name, has been registered by a local businessman who has refused to give up the trademark. So far, the company has yet to choose a standalone Chinese name. Andy Chuang, a native of Taiwan with a background in psychology, runs a Fresno-based company called Good Characters that helps individuals choose names, with packages starting at $50. "Working with businesses is more profitable," he said, "but I enjoy working with individuals more because they are the end customer and they care about their own name."

Image Sources: Name stamps, Hundred most common names in China; Symbols, What's Your Sign com. , Wikipedia, Wiki Commons,

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

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