Chinese name

Chinese name

Personal names in Chinese culture follow a number of conventions different from those of personal names in Western cultures. Most noticeably, a Chinese name is written with the family name first and the given name next, therefore "John-Paul Smith" as a Chinese name would be "Smith John-Paul". Chinese people commonly address each other with full names instead of given names (especially for names consisting of two characters in total). Family names are never used alone without any salutation. For instance, the basketball player Yao Ming should be formally addressed as "Mr. Yao", not "Mr. Ming", and informally addressed as "Yao Ming" instead of "Yao" or "Ming".

Some Chinese people who emigrate to, or do business with, Western countries sometimes adopt a Westernized name by simply reversing the "surname–given-name" order to "given-name–surname" ("Ming Yao", to follow the previous example), or with a Western first name together with their surname, which is then written in the usual Western order with the surname last ("Fred Yao"). Some Chinese people sometimes take a combined name. There are two main variations: Western name, surname, and Chinese given name, in that order ("Fred Yao Ming").

Traditional naming schemes often followed a pattern of using generation names as part of a two-character given name. This is by no means the norm, however. An alternative tradition, stemming from a Han Dynasty law that forbade two-character given names, is to have a single character given name. Some contemporary given names do not follow either tradition, and may in some cases extend to three or more characters.

When generation names are used as part of a two-character given name, it is highly inappropriate and confusing to refer to someone by the first part of their given name only, which will generally be their generation name. Instead, the entire given name should be used. This should be the case regardless of whether the surname is used. For instance, referring to Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as Hsien or Hsien Lee would be confusing as this could just as easily refer to his brother. However, this does commonly occur in Western societies where the first part of the given name is frequently mistakenly used as the first name when the given name is not hyphenated or adjoined.


Family names

A majority of countries in Eastern Asia adopted the Chinese naming system. Today, there are over 700 different Chinese family names, but as few as twenty cover a majority of Chinese people. The variety in Chinese names therefore depends greatly on given names rather than family names. The great majority of Chinese family names have only one character, but there are a few with two; see Chinese compound surname for more information.

Chinese family names are written first, something which often causes confusion among those from cultures where the family name usually comes last. Thus, the family name of Mao Zedong is Mao (毛), and his given name is Zedong (traditional: 澤東, simplified: 泽东).

Traditionally, Chinese women usually retain their maiden names as their family name, rather than adopting their husband's. Children usually inherit the father's family name. However, some married women add the husband's surname to their full-name (this is popular in Hong Kong but rare in Mainland China), but rarely do they drop the maiden name altogether.

Historically, it was considered taboo to marry someone with the same family name — even if there is no direct relationship between those concerned — though in recent decades this has no longer been frowned upon.

Given names

Generally speaking, Chinese given names have one or two characters, and are written after the family name. When a baby is born, parents often give him or her a "milk name" (奶名) or "little name" (小名), such as Little Precious (小寶 / 小宝) or two characters that repeat "Ming Ming" (明明). The given name is then usually chosen later and is often chosen with consultation of the grandparents. In China, parents have a month before having to register the child. The parents may continue to use the nickname.

With a limited repertoire of family names, Chinese depend on using given names to introduce variety in naming. Almost any character with any meaning can be used. However, it is not considered appropriate to name a child after a famous figure and highly offensive to name one after an older member among the family, or even distant relatives.

Given names resonant of qualities which are perceived to be either masculine or feminine are frequently given, with males being linked with strength and firmness, and females with beauty and flowers. Females sometimes have names which repeat a character, for example Xiuxiu (秀秀) or Lili (麗麗, 丽丽). This is less common in males, although Yo-Yo Ma (馬友友 Mǎ Yǒuyǒu, 马友友) is a well-known exception.

In some families, one of the two characters in the personal name is shared by all members of a generation and these generational names are worked out long in advance, historically in a generation poem (banci lian 班次聯 or paizi ge 派字歌 in Chinese) listing the names.[1] Also, siblings' names are frequently related, for example, a boy may be named pine (松 Sōng, considered masculine) while his sister may be named plum (梅 Méi, considered feminine), both being primary elements of the traditional Chinese system of naturally symbolizing moral imperatives. Depending on region and family, female children may not be entered into the family tree, and thus will not be given a generation name. A frequent naming pattern for female offspring in this case could share the same last character in the given name while varying the first character (in place of the generation name). A well known example of such system can be found from the names of the main four sisters in the novel A Dream of Red Mansions, where they were named 元春 (yuan chun), 迎春 (ying chun), 探春 (tan chun), and 惜春 (xi chun).

Chinese personal names also may reflect periods of history. For example, many Chinese born after 1949 and during the Cultural Revolution have "revolutionary names" such as strong country (強國, 强国) or eastern wind (東風, 东风). In Taiwan, it used to be common to incorporate one of the four characters of the name "Republic of China" (中華民國) into masculine names.

People from the countryside may have names that reflect rural life, for example, large ox (大牛) and big pillar (大柱), but these names are becoming less common.

Also, some decades ago, due to the traditional Confucianism, when a family gives birth to a female baby, the parents may name her comes a little brother (來弟), invites a little brother (招弟) or hopes for a little brother (盼弟). Some other female names of this sort includes: 望弟 (hopes for a little brother), 牽弟 (brings along a little brother), 帶弟 (brings a little brother), 引弟 (attracts or leads along a little brother), 領弟 (receives a little brother), and even 也好 (it's all right, too (to have a girl first then a boy later)). The parents may feminize the character '弟' (younger brother) to '娣' with the same pronunciation, but different in meaning (it literally means "wife of a younger brother," but more recently it is used to transliterate western female names). These names show the traditional sexism or male chauvinism in the older Chinese society where having a boy (who can inherit the family name and continue the family line, which is an honour to the ancestors) is better than having a girl (who can only be another family's daughter-in-law, carrying on the family name of others).

A recent trend has swept through greater China to let fortune tellers change people's names years after they have been given. These fortune tellers claim that the name leads to a better future in the child according to principles such as Five elements (五行 wǔ xíng).

Regional variations


Family names in Taiwan of the Han Chinese heritage are similar to those in southeast China, as most families maintain family trees that are traceable to their origins in places such as Fujian and Guangdong. Taiwanese aborigines have also adopted Chinese names in the process of assimilation (see also Taiwanese name). The popularity distribution of family names in Taiwan as a whole differs somewhat from the distribution of names among all Han Chinese, with the family name Chen (陳) particularly common (generally about 11%). Local variations also exist.

The top ten most frequent family names in Taiwan, ranking in China, and common romanizations.

Name Rank in Taiwan Rank in Mainland China Pinyin Pe̍h-ōe-jī Common romanizations
陳/陈 1 5 Chén Tân Chen, Chan
2 16 Lín Lîm Lin, Lam
3 8 Huáng N̂g Huang, Wong, Hwang, Ung
4 1 Li, Lee, Le, Ly
張/张 5 3 Zhāng Tiuⁿ Zhang, Cheung, Chang, Teo, Teoh
6 2 Wáng Ông Wang, Wong
吳/吴 7 10 Ngô͘ Wu, Ng, Goh
劉/刘 8 4 Liú Lâu Liu, Lau, Liou
9 32 Cài Chhòa Cai, Choi, Tsai, Choy
楊/杨 10 6 Yáng Iûⁿ Yang, Yeung ,Yeo

Among the Taiwanese Presbyterian Christians, the family name 偕 (Kai in Taiwanese Pe̍h-ōe-jī) is of particular interest as an example of a Chinese-like surname with a non-Chinese root. According to the clan's tradition, the name was adopted to honor the Canadian missionary George Leslie Mackay, also known as Má-kai (馬偕). This family name is actually rarely seen even among Presbyterian Christians. Taiwanese Christians of other denominations do not carry this tradition.

(See: Top 10 Taiwanese family names and Top family names in China (1988), List of common Chinese surnames)

Given names that consist of one character are much less common on Taiwan than in mainland China.

More common in the past when life was much more difficult, Taiwanese given names are sometimes unofficially re-assigned based on the recommendation of fortune-tellers, in order to ward off bad omens and evil spirits. For example, a sick boy may be renamed "Ti-sái" (豬屎), or "Hog Manure", to indicate to the evil spirits that he is not worth their trouble. Similarly, a girl from a poor family may have the name "Bóng-chhī" (罔市), or translated loosely, "Keeping (her) Only Reluctantly".

Nicknames (also known as "child names", gín-á-miâ, 囝仔名) derives from the practice common to Fujian of being constructed by attaching the prefix "A-" (阿) to the last syllable. Unlike the situation in Mainland China, this construction is used for Hakka names as well. Nicknames are often used by friends to refer to each other, but are rarely used in formal contexts. However, one major exception to this is Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁, Tân Chúi-píⁿ) who refers to himself as A-píⁿ—a (阿扁) in public, which appears endearing to his supporters. The use of nicknames in public contexts is however unusual, and very few other public figures (such as the singer A-mei) are known by their nicknames.

Examples of names of prominent Taiwanese born in Taiwan, mostly after World War II.

  • One-character family name + two-character given name (mainstream)
  • One-character family name + one-character given name (few)
  • Two-character family name + one- or two-character given name (even fewer)
    • 歐陽龍 = 歐陽 + 龍 (actor, local politician)
    • 司徒達賢 = 司徒 + 達賢 (first professor of business strategy in Taiwan)
  • Compound family name + one- or two-character given name (rare)
    • 鄭余鎮 = 鄭 ‧ 余 + 鎮 (former politician involved in a sex scandal)
    • 郭李建夫 = 郭 ‧ 李 + 建夫 (Kuo Lee Chien-Fu, retired professional baseball player)
  • Husband's family name + one-character family name + two-character given name (some women)


Among Chinese Americans, it is common practice to be referred to primarily by the Western name and to use the Chinese given name as a middle name; for instance, Soong would have "James Chu-yu Soong". In a more recent effort to combine Western names for those with native Chinese names, the Western name is placed directly in front of the Chinese name so that both the Chinese and Western names can be easily identified. The relative order of family name-given name is also preserved. Using this scheme, Soong Chu-yu would be James Soong Chu-yu.

In Malaysia and Singapore, it is equally acceptable for Western names to appear before or after the Chinese given name, thus Tan Keng Yam Tony may also be written as Tony Tan Keng Yam, and individuals are free to indicate their official names in either format on their identity cards. General usage tend to prefer placing the Western name first as this permits the Western and Chinese name order to be preserved simultaneously (ex. "Tony Tan" and "Tan Keng Yam" can be combined to "Tony Tan Keng Yam"). In addition, some individuals who use their western name more frequently may prefer to place it first. For administrative purposes, however, government agencies tend to place the Western name behind so as to standardise namelists sorted by family names. In some cases, therefore, agencies may choose to include a comma behind the Chinese name to indicate such amendments made, for instance, "Tan Keng Yam, Tony".

The Hong Kong printed media tends to adopt a presentation style similar to American usage, for instance, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. On official records such as the Hong Kong Identity Cards, however, family names are always printed first, capitalised, and followed with a comma for all names, including non-Chinese names. Therefore the name would be printed as either TSANG, Yam Kuen Donald or TSANG, Donald Yam Kuen, according to the person's, or the person's parents' own preference at time of application. A non-Chinese name would be printed in the style of "BUSH, George Walker". Some people do not have the transliterations of their Chinese given names in their names in English record, such as Henry Lee or Peter Vincent Cheng. In Macau, ethnic Chinese individuals who have Portuguese given names may have their names written in the Portuguese name order, such as Carlos do Rosário Tchiang.

The use of a comma between a surname and given name is acceptable if the name is in isolation (such as part of an alphabetized list or on a field of a government document), but not as part of a sentence. For example, the sentence "My student Wang, Ming-Sheng graduated in 2006" would be wrong.


In mainland China, Han names are romanized in pinyin, usually without tone marks. Chinese from Mainland China are generally recognizable from the "x", "zh" and "q" that exist in Hanyu Pinyin orthography, and by the combination of the two syllables in a two character given name into one romanized word (e.g. Chen Xianglin).

In Taiwan, the vast majority of Taiwanese today romanize their names in Mandarin pronunciation using Wade-Giles or a similar system, which can be easily distinguished from the Hanyu Pinyin used for romanization in Mainland China and Singapore by the lack of the use of "q", "zh", and "x", by the use of "hs" and by the inclusion of hyphens. Unlike Mainland China, romanization of names in Taiwan is not standardized and one can often find idiosyncratic variants such as Lee or Soong, and others.

Chinese in southeast Asia, Hong Kong, Macau, and other old diaspora communities are likely to romanize in their own dialect, such as "吳" becomes Ng in languages such as Cantonese, while the same character would be Wu in Mandarin. In particular, Cantonese, Min Nan, Hakka are prevalent. Although not a Chinese dialect, ethnic Chinese in Vietnam romanize their names in Vietnamese pronunciation using quoc ngu, making them almost indistinguishable from Vietnamese names. In Singapore, individuals, or their parents, are free to choose to romanize their Chinese names in Mandarin, in any Chinese dialect, or in any other form as deemed fit. In general, however, the romanized name in dialect and in Mandarin (in pinyin) are both depicted on the person's NRIC, unless the bearer chooses to drop either of them. In Macau, Chinese names are usually transliterated based on Portuguese orthography.

Chinese from diaspora communities in Malaysia and Singapore can also be identified by the inclusion of spaces in their first names. (e.g. Tan Cheng Lock)

Alternative names


Chinese associated names for prominent people,
example of Sun Yat-sen's names
1 Official name: Sūn Démíng (孫德明)
2 Milk name: Sūn Dìxiàng (孫帝象)
3 School name: Sūn Wén (孫文)
4 Caricatural name: unknown
5 Courtesy names: Sūn Zàizhī (孫載之)
6 Pseudonym(s): 1. Sūn Rìxīn (孫日新)a
2. Sūn Yìxiān (孫逸仙, 1886)a
jap. Nakayama Shō (中山樵, 1897)
-Death, Honorary titles :
7 Posthume name: Guófù (國父)
8 Temple name: noneb
9 Era name: nonec
Notes : a. both pronounce "Sun Yat-sen" in Cantonese ;

b. only for Royalty and Emperors ; c. only for Royalty and Emperors' reigns.

Nicknames (小名) :Milk name and «Caricatural name»

Nicknames are usually an alteration of the given name. There are two kinds of nicknames; one given by biological parents to a baby, and one given by the family or a child's friends to another child (綽號/绸号 chuòhào). The first is a nickname to call a baby or child, often made simply by doubling one character of the official name (i.e. official name 德明 -> 明明 mingming), or even their first word. The second one is a caricatural name based on the person's physical attributes, speaking style (小胖 xǐaopang « little fatty », 小豬 xǐaozhu « littlepig », 蒼蠅 cangying « fly » ). A nickname may consist of the prefix ā (阿) or the diminutive prefix xiǎo (小), followed by part of the given name (usually the last character or occasionally the surname—but see Forms of address, below). The prefix ā (阿) is more commonly found in the southern regions of China than in the north where the prefix xiăo (小) is more common. Nicknames are rarely used in formal or semi-formal settings. One exception to this is Chen Shui-bian, who is commonly known as A-bian (阿扁) even by himself and in newspaper articles.

School name (學名)

The School name is the name that a child takes to go to school. Teachers and classmates had to call the child with this formal name. Friends prefer to use the official given name or the caricatural name. Note that Binomial nomenclature also called "學名" in Chinese, so sometimes called "訓名(Xùnmíng)" to separate them.

Western name

Urban or well-educated Chinese commonly receive a Western-style name (such as "Jackie" or "Steve") in school or select one for themselves.[6] These names may be used even in Chinese-language conversations (in business settings).[6] On Mainland China white-collar workers began to use Western names after Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms because their Western interlocutors could not properly pronounce their Chinese names.[6] The practice has since spread to the general population for various reasons. Western names may be perceived as more egalitarian, because their use does not involve issues of social hierarchy. They are also easier to type in English-language texts, which predominate in business technology, and may also be perceived as patriotic due to their association with economic progress.[6]


Courtesy names (字) and Pseudonyms (號)

In former times, it was common for educated males to acquire courtesy names. The two most common forms were a (字), given upon reaching maturity, and a hào (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ), usually self-selected and often somewhat whimsical. Although this tradition has lapsed, authors' use of pen names is still a common phenomenon. For more information, see Chinese style name.

Posthumous name (諡號) and Temple name (廟號)

For prominent people, posthumous names (simplified Chinese: 谥号; traditional Chinese: 諡號; pinyin: shìhào) have often been given, although this is uncommon now. Sun Yat-sen was given the posthumous name of Guófù (simplified Chinese: 国父; traditional Chinese: 國父, Father of the Nation), the name by which he is most frequently known in Taiwan. Emperors were also ascribed temple names (simplified Chinese: 庙号; traditional Chinese: 廟號; pinyin: miàohào), and in certain situations, an Era name as well.

Era name (年號)

The era name can sometimes be used in ways which refer to the monarch himself, and not to the period. In Ming and Qing Dynasty, emperors generally used only one era name during their reign, and it is customary to refer to Ming and Qing emperors by their era names. So the name Kangxi (康熙), for instance, usually refers to the Kangxi Emperor (康熙帝), not the period of the years from 1662 to 1722. Instead, this period is usually called the reign of Emperor Kangxi (康熙年間).

Forms of address

Within families, it is often considered inappropriate or even offensive to use the given names of relatives who are senior to the speaker. Instead, it is more customary to identify each family member by abstract hierarchical connections: among siblings, gender and birth order (big sister, second sister, and so on); for the extended family, the manner of relationship (by birth or marriage; from the maternal or paternal side).

The hierarchical titles of junior relatives are seldom used except in formal situations, or as indirect reference when speaking to family members who are even younger than the person in question. Children can be called by their given names, or their parents may use their nicknames.

When speaking of non-family social acquaintances, people are generally referred to by a title, for example Mother Li (simplified Chinese: 李妈妈; traditional Chinese: 李媽媽; pinyin: lĭ māma) or Mrs. Zhu (朱太太, pinyin: zhū tàitai). Personal names are used when referring to adult friends or to children, although, unlike in the west, referring to somebody by their full name (including surname) is common even among friends, especially if the person's full name is only two syllables. It is common to refer to a person as lăo (老, old) or xiăo (小, young) followed by their family name, thus Lăo Wáng (老王) or Xiăo Zhāng (小張, 小张). Xiăo is also frequently used as a diminutive, when it is typically paired with the second or only character in a person's name, rather than the surname. Note that because old people are well respected in Chinese society, lăo (old) does not carry disrespect, offense or any negative implications even if it's used to refer to an older woman. Despite this, it is advisable for non-Chinese to avoid calling a person xiăo-something or lăo-something unless they are so-called by other Chinese people and it is clear that the appellation is acceptable and widely used. Otherwise, the use of the person's full name, or alternatively, their surname followed by xiānshēng (Chinese: 先生, mister) or nǚshì (Chinese: 女士, madam) is relatively neutral and unlikely to cause offense.

Whereas titles in many cultures are commonly solely determined by gender and, in some cases, marital status, the occupation or even work title of a person can be used as a title as a sign of respect in common address in Chinese culture. Because of the prestigious position of a teacher in traditional culture, a teacher is invariably addressed as such by his or her students (e.g. Chinese: 李老師; pinyin: Lǐ Lǎoshī; literally "Teacher Li"), and commonly by others as a mark of respect. By extension, a junior or less experienced member of a work place or profession would address a more senior member as "Teacher".

Similarly, engineers are often addressed as such, though often shortened to simply the first character of the word "engineer" -- Chinese: ; pinyin: Gōng. Should the person being addressed be the head of a company (or simply the middle manager of another company to whom you would like to show respect), one might equally address them by the title "zŏng" (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ), which means "general" or "overall", and is the first character of titles such as "Director General" or "General Manager" (e.g. simplified Chinese: 李总; traditional Chinese: 李總; pinyin: Lĭ zŏng), or, if they are slightly lower down on the corporate food-chain but nonetheless a manager, by affixing Jīnglĭ (simplified Chinese: 经理; traditional Chinese: 經理, manager).

Chinese names in English

Chinese people, except for those traveling or living outside of China, rarely reverse their names to the western naming order (given name, then family name). Western publications usually preserve the Chinese naming order, with the family name first, followed by the given name. Beginning in the early 1980s, in regards to people from Mainland China,[7] western publications began using the Hanyu Pinyin romanization system instead of earlier romanization systems; this resulted from the normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China in 1979. The usual presentation of Chinese names in English differs from the usual presentations of modern Japanese names, since modern Japanese names are usually reversed to fit the western order in English. Edith Terry, author of How Asia Got Rich, said that "it was one of the ironies of the late twentieth century that Japan remained stranded in the formal devices underlining its historical quest for equality with the West, while China set its own terms, in language as in big-power politics."[8]

See also

Kinds of Chinese group-names
Kinds of personal-names
Other links


  1. ^ Michener, James A.. "IV: From the starving village". Hawaii. Fawcett Crest Book. New York: Ballantine Books. pp. 480–485. ISBN 0-449-21335-8. 
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b c d Hsu, Huan (April 27, 2009). "The Name's Du Xiao Hua, But Call Me Steve: What's up with Chinese people having English names?". Slate. Retrieved 2009-04-28. 
  7. ^ Terry, Edith. How Asia Got Rich: Japan, China and the Asian Miracle. M.E. Sharpe, 2002. 632. Retrieved from Google Books on August 7, 2011. ISBN 076560356X, 9780765603562.
  8. ^ Terry, Edith. How Asia Got Rich: Japan, China and the Asian Miracle. M.E. Sharpe, 2002. 633. Retrieved from Google Books on August 7, 2011. ISBN 076560356X, 9780765603562.

External links

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