Give yourself a good Chinese name!

Many westerners, 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. 

Chinese family surnames

In Chinese, family surnames go before given names. Most Chinese family surnames contain one Chinese character, the rest are double-character surnames. 

The interesting fact is that the number of family surnames are very limited. In the early Song Dynasty (960-1279), A classic book, Hundred Family Surnames (百家姓), was first composed, included 411 common Chinese surnames. However, it is estimated that there were 90 million people in the Song Dynasty. That means, on average, around two hundred thousand people (0.24% of the population) had the same family surname.

But of course, the number of people are not evenly distributed among the family surnames. Some family surnames are weightier than others, claiming more descendants. For example my surname  (Zhāng), which is the third largest surname in China. I don’t know how many people had the name “Zhang” during the Song Dynasty, but I have got a rough idea of today’s number. It says here, that, around 85 million people who have the surname “Zhang”. That is 6.8% of Chinese population. 

It is not surprising for me to meet some one who has the same surname. We’ll say, half jokingly, that 我们五百年前是一家, we were one family five hundred years ago!

Chinese given names

Contrary to the limited Chinese family surnames, the pool of given names is vast, especially when people have two-character given names. There are around 3000-3500 commonly used Chinese characters. The possibility of a two-character given name is roughly 12,000,000. If we count the obscure Chinese characters, this number will be even bigger. 

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

The given names can be very meaningful, embedded with all sorts of wonderful meanings, best wishes, or traces of the era. Let’s use a couple of names from 2019 Forbes China Celebrity 100 to explain.

Take a look at this name, 黄渤, Huang Bo. The given name 渤 refers to the Bohai sea, meaning vast, huge, and extensive. 

This name, 周冬雨, Zhou Dongyu. The two Chinese character in the given name 冬雨 means “winter” and “rain” respectively. The interpretation can be 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 actually there in this Chinese name, despite the character for winter is part of the name.

The tonal quality of Chinese names

When teaching Chinese, I don’t encourage students to put too much effort in memorising tones. Memorising tones is a high energy consumption activity. Focusing too much on tones costs students opportunities for more communicative exercises. Sufficient communicative exercises are the best way for them to get the tones right gradually and naturally. 

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 can be really nice to hear. 

Everyone should memorise the tones of their Chinese names and practice saying their names out aloud many times until they 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 all by themselves. (Read more here: Strokes, components and radicals of Chinese characters)

Moreover, many different Chinese fonts have been created (some basic ones are introduced here: Beginner’s Guide to Six Common Chinese Fonts). Many of them are really in the realm of art. 

Writing down the same Chinese name in different fonts creates a different feel and look. How the characters are arranged also presents a unique appearance. Having a name engraved on a beautiful stone stamp is an extra step to totally bring out the inner beauty of the Chinese name. 

This is truly a form of art!

Chinese names in outer space

As an extension of people’s names, I’ve explained the meanings and cultural roots of some terrific names that are now in outer space, such as the name for the Moon rover 玉兔 (yùtù) and the name for the Mars rover 祝融 (zhùróng). 

Read about these names here: Chinese names in space.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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