How to Choose a Meaningful Chinese Name

How to Choose a Meaningful Chinese Name
By Leon Long
China Expert

For names, some like Shakespeare’s Juliet believes “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. But Chinese believe that a name goes beyond identifying a person. It is a label that will be associated with and even define a person.

Most parents choose names based on the following principles: meaning, special significance, family connection, and/or sound. Chinese parents also consider these things when naming their baby boy or girl. But on top of that, Chinese parents have to consider the Chinese characters that make up the name.

It is not uncommon for an adult to change his or her name in the hope of good fortune or better health.

No matter if you want to adopt a Chinese name or not, I hope this article will help you to learn more about the Chinese name culture in China.

Introduction of Chinese Name

Like in most cultures, there are two parts for a Chinese name, the surname and given name, but unlike English, we put surname before the given name.

Chinese Name

Traditionally, Chinese people have at least two names, the ming (given name), given by the parents or grandparents at the time of birth. Another name is called zi (courtesy name), given at the age of 20 for males and 15 for females. It is a symbol of adulthood and marriage for the female. It could be given either by the parents or by a teacher. One also may adopt a courtesy name by himself. It is polite to call other people by his or her courtesy name rather than the given name. But the courtesy name custom was abolished during the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and is no longer done.

For a Chinese name, normally there are 2 to 6 characters, with the most common names having 2 or 3 characters. The family names are normally one character, but some family names may have two characters like Sima, Ouyang, and Shangguan. Traditionally, Chinese given names are structured by a two-character pattern. The first part is the generic name that is shared by all members of a generation, and the last character is given to the person. For example, Mao Zedong has two brothers: Mao Zemin and Mao Zetan. Ze is their generation name. The generation names are usually given by the forefathers, who chose them from a poem or found their own and put them in the genealogy for their descendants to use. For this reason, it is possible to know the relationships between the family relatives by just looking at their names.

Nowadays many young Chinese don’t have a generic name. The new trend is combining parents’ family names to create a new family name for their children. That’s why you can find many children with 4 characters in their name.

How do Chinese people name their kids?

For most Chinese, children’s names always include characters like beauty, hope, talent, or something similar. Parents put their wish for their kids in the name. Every name has its unique feature and special meaning.

Popular names often mirror the values of the era in which they were chosen. These days, besides naming traditions that have been passed down through generations, younger parents look to diverse sources for inspiration, from ancient literature to popular culture. Traditionally, ancient classic books like The Analects (论语) and The Shijing 诗经 or the "Book of Songs" are a great resource for Chinese names. International renowned mathematician Shing-Shen Chen (also spelled Chen Xingshen) adopted his name from The Analects. His name in Chinese is 陈省身 Chén Xǐng Shēn as in “吾日三省吾身:为人谋而不忠乎? 与朋友交而不信乎? 传不习乎?” "Every day I examine myself on three counts. In what I have undertaken on another's behalf, have I failed to do my best? In my dealings with my friends have I failed to be trustworthy in what I say? Have I passed on to others anything that I have not tried out myself?" (Translator: Din Cheuk Lau).

Many Chinese given names are to commemorate historical events. Boys born shortly after the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949 were often named 建国 (Jianguo), which means the founding of a nation. During the Korean War, many boys were named 援朝 (Yuanchao), or “assisting North Korea.” Boys born on the country’s National Day on Oct. 1 are often called 国庆 (Guoqing), the Chinese name for the celebration.

Some parents seek out fortune-tellers to help name their children. Taoists believe that depending on when someone was born, their body might lack one of the five elements — metal, wood, water, fire, or earth — which can affect their health. A fortune-teller can advise parents on how to select a name that corrects this deficiency, for example by using a character that incorporates one of the elements. Some will even offer counsel on how many strokes should be in each character of the child’s name.

Are there any taboos for Chinese names?

Unlike western culture, it is a big no for Chinese people to name their son or daughter using an ancestor’s name. Before 1911, we have a common practice called bihui (避讳) or name avoidance, the names of sovereigns, ancestors, parents, teachers, and even friends were all considered taboo, in other words, it was prohibited to speak them out loud or to record them in writing. Emperor Taizong of the Tang, his name Li Shimin (598-649 CE), the character “shi” was dropped in Guanshiyin, becoming Guanyin, widely known as the Goddess of Mercy. Whenever an emperor ascended the throne, there would be a wave of name changes across the empire, among those whose given names shared the same sacred characters as the new rulers. Various creative strategies were devised to avoid writing the characters that made up the emperor’s name, such as the number of strokes or using synonyms. The rules were applied throughout history; “name avoidance” caused a considerable amount of inconvenience to a lot of people. The custom fell out of use following the fall of the last imperial dynasty in 1911, but vestiges of it remain. While the names of modern-day presidents, premiers, and chief executives are no longer such a big deal, there are still many Chinese families who will not name their children using the characters found in the names of their parents, grandparents, or even uncles and aunts.

The most popular surnames in China

There are 5662 recorded surnames in China, but the top 10 most popular surnames accounted for 40% of the population, they are :

Rank Surname Pinyin Pronunciation Population(million) Percentage
1 Li lee 95.3 7.94%
2 Wang w-ah-ng 88.9 7.41%
3 Zhang dr-ah-ng 84.8 7.07%
4 Liu l-yo 64.6 5.38%
5 chee-en Chen 54.4 4.53%
6 Yang y-ah-ng/ Young 37 3.08%
7 Zhao chao 27.5 2.29%
8 Huang who-ah-ng 26.8 2.23%
9 Zhou chow 25.4 2.21%
10 Wu woo 24.6 2.05%

Resource: 2010 Population Census of the People's Republic of China. Complied by Population Census Office under the State Council, Department of Population and Employment Statistics, National Bureau of Statistics.

The top 5 names in China

If your family name is among the 10 most popular family names, then you adopt a single character as your first name. There are chances that many may bear the same name. Please find the most popular names in China.

  1. No.1 张伟 Zhang Wei, 299,025 of Chinese males bear this name, almost the same size as the population of Iceland.
  2. No.2 王伟 Wang Wei, 290,619 of Chinese males bear this name
  3. No.3 王芳 Wang Fang, 277,293 of Chinese females bear this name
  4. No.4 李伟 Li Wei, 269,453 of Chinese males bear this name
  5. No.5 李娜 Li Na, 258,581 of Chinese females bear this name

Top Chinese names for male

We listed some of the most popular first names for males below. You can consider them when you adopt Chinese names.

Beautiful Chinese names for females

Also some popular first names of females for your reference:

Best Chinese names adopted by foreigners

We have listed some examples of Chinese names adopted by foreigners. They all have a good understanding of Chinese culture, most of them are sinologists.

Free Online Chinese Name Generator

To adopt a Chinese name, the most reliable way is to ask a Chinese person to double- check it for you. If you want to find a name generator online, you can try the following two:

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