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Give yourself a good Chinese name!

Many people, whether learning Chinese or not, have given themselves a Chinese name. Some of the names are a phonetic translation of their original names, such as Jenny becomes 珍妮 (Zhēn nī), David becomes 大卫 (Dà wèi), while some have their names transformed completely. 

I have seen some great Chinese names, such as 高安德, 白碧梅, 莫林泽. These are marvellous names, authentic, resounding and unique, carrying sublime images. Only when comparing with their original names, the subtle connection between the Chinese names and their original names can be detected. 

If you are interested in giving yourself a great Chinese names, here’s some ideas for you to consider. 

Chinese family surnames

In a Chinese name, family surnames come first, followed by given names. Most family surnames contain one Chinese character, and given names one or two.

Most family surnames are inherited through the father’s family. Exceptions happen when a child is adopted by another family, or a family decides that a child takes the mother’s surname. Regardless, children don’t get to pick their surnames.

However, if you’re interested in getting a Chinese name, nothing will stop you from choosing a surname that speaks to you the most. The only thing you need to pay attention to is that you have a very small pool to choose from. 

In the early Song Dynasty (960 — 1279CE), a classic book, Hundred Family Surnames ( 百家姓), was composed and it included 411 common surnames. At the time, the population was estimated at about 90 million.

Today, 1.37 billion people in China share about 6,000 surnames, but 86% of them share the most common 100 surnames. My surname “Zhang”, the third largest, is used by around 85 million people. It is not surprising for me to meet some one who has the same surname. We’ll say, only half jokingly, that 我们五百年前是一家, we were one family five hundred years ago!

Although the pool is small, there are still excellent choices. For example, scholars name themselves after Confucius () or Mencius (), or people who love nature name themselves “woods” (). If you choose a surname that is outside of this common pool, your name will sound weird to a Chinese.

Chinese given names

Different from limited options for surnames, the choices for a given name are vast. You get to choose one from nearly 10,000 characters, or pick a unique combination of two characters out of 100 million possibilities. 

I have met so many people who have the same surname “Zhang”, but I have not yet met anyone who has the exact same given name as mine. Therefore, I can claim that my name is quite unique.

Given names are where wonderful meanings are embedded. Chinese parents always make great efforts to search for the best names for their children and hope they have a noble character, enjoy longevity, obtain great wealth, or become very intelligent.  

Below are some names of famous people. I’ll explain what their names mean.

  • Yang Ziqiong (杨紫琼)

Also known as “Michelle Yeoh”, the first Asian woman who took home an Oscar for a leading role in 2023. 

The surname is “Yeoh”, spelled according to its Hokkien pronunciation. Its variation in pinyin is “Yang”. (By the way, in case you don’t know, Hokkien is the oldest Chinese dialect)

The given name is a combination of “zi”, meaning “purple”, and “qiong”, meaning “fine jade, beautiful”. 

The colour purple is traditionally related to success and associated with high social status. Jade is also associated with strength and toughness. 

Successful, beautiful and as strong as jade. If that was what her parents wished for at her birth, they had their wish fulfilled.

  • Li Xiaolong (李小龙)

Also known as “Bruce Lee”, the famous martial artist and actor.

The surname is “Lee”, which is often seen in Hong Kong or overseas Chinese communities. Its variation in pinyin is “Li”. 

The given name is a combination of “xiao”, meaning “small”, and “long”, meaning “dragon”. 

“A small dragon”, young, powerful, energetic, full of potential and person of great achievement. That’s a great name and Bruce Lee certainly lived up to it. 

  • Zhou Dongyu (周冬雨)

A famous actress in China. 

The surname is “Zhou” and given name “Dongyu”. 

The given name is a combination of “dong”, meaning “winter”, and “yu”, meaning “rain”. 

Some fresh and crisp rain in a soft winter day, washing off all the dust and dirt. If a winter day is cold, it will be snowing, rather than raining. Therefore, a kind of warm feeling is embedded there, despite the character for “winter” is part of the name.

The tonal quality of Chinese names

When learning Chinese, I don’t encourage students to put too much effort in memorising tones. It is a high energy consumption activity and costs students opportunities for more communicative exercises. Following audio lessons and doing sufficient communicative exercises are the best way to get the tones right naturally and gradually. 

However, when it comes to Chinese names, tones become very important. Saying the names aloud and in the right tones brings out an intrinsic rhythm and melody that is really nice to hear.

To achieve this marvellous tonal quality, you must avoid pick characters that have the same tone. 

Let’s go back to the previous example and check out why these names also sound nice. 

  • Yang Ziqiong: Tones for these three characters are 2-3-2, up-down-up.
  • Li Xiaolong: Tones for these three characters are 3-3-2. But, there is a change of tone when two third tones are together, therefore, the real pronunciation is 2-3-2, up-down-up.
  • Zhou Dongyu: Tones for these three characters are 1-1-3, flat-flat-down.

All have a nice rhythmic structure in it. 

Therefore, when you’ve decided on your Chinese name, make sure it has this intrinsic tonal structure in it. Also, you should speak it out aloud many times and memorise the tones of each character, until you are absolutely fluent.

The imagery of Chines characters

Chinese characters are structured writing system. Each character has its strokes and components, arranged in a certain way. Thus, Chinese characters are wonderful imageries. 

Moreover, many different Chinese fonts have been created (some basic ones are introduced here: Beginner’s Guide to Six Common Chinese Fonts). Using these pre-designed computer fonts, you can create different feel and look for your name. 

Also, many people choose to engrave their names on a beautiful stone stamp, like one of these:

It is truly in the realm of art, that combines:

  • The appearance and colour of the stone
  • The arrangement of Chinese characters on the stone
  • The font of Chinese characters
  • The engraving technique

That’ll bring out every bit of the inner beauty of your Chinese name.

April Zhang

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