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What’s in a Chinese Name?

Surnames are usually inherited from the father and are monosyllabic, that is, they use one character. Given names usually have two syllables, and thus, two characters. For example, the founder of the Republic of China is Sun Zhongshan 孙中山. (Image: Brad T./Vision Times)
Surnames are usually inherited from the father and are monosyllabic, that is, they use one character. Given names usually have two syllables, and thus, two characters. For example, the founder of the Republic of China is Sun Zhongshan 孙中山. (Image: Brad T./Vision Times)

Every Chinese person’s name is made up of a surname 姓 and a given name 名. As an example, with the name Ai Wei Wei 艾未未, the surname 艾 (Ai) comes first, and the given name 未未 (Wei Wei) last.

Surnames are usually inherited from the father and are monosyllabic, that is, they use one character. Given names usually have two syllables, and thus, two characters. Although the character used in a surname has a meaning, it is mainly seen as an honor to the family of the father. On the other hand, the two characters used for given names often contain inner meanings.

The founder of the Republic of China, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, also known as Sun Zhongshan (孙中山). (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

The founder of the Republic of China, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, also known as Sun Zhongshan (孙中山). (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Chinese children’s given names are usually chosen by their parents, with the meaning being highly significant. While Western parents generally choose a common name, such as Mary or John, in China, the naming of a child is a creative process.

Traditionally, there are two considerations when creating a given name. First, a name often expresses the parent’s emotions and hopes for the child. Secondly, the given name signifies the virtues the parent’s want to see in the child as they grow and develop into an adult. These can refer to compassion, justice, honesty, learned, and trustworthiness.

The differences between boy’s and girl’s names

Virtues are somewhat different for boys and girls. Examples of boy’s names include 洪志 (Hong Zhi) grand wishes, 中正 (Zhong Zheng) righteous, 家辉 (Jia Hui) family bright, and 大勇 (Da Yong) big brave.

Girl’s names frequently refer to refinement and purity, and often take the names of flowers or jewels. For example, 秀莲 (Xiu Lian) lotus, 清涟 (Qing Lian) pure spring, 家璐 (Jia Lu) family jade, and 愛珠 (Ai Zhu) loving pearl.

Given names are often chosen so siblings share identical elements in their names. In other words, they share one common character in their two character names. For example, four brothers may have the names 培仁 (Pei Ren), 培义 (Pei Yi), 培礼 (Pei Li), and 培信 (Pei Xin). For sisters, the names may be 秀云 (Xiu Yun), 秀玲 (Xiu Ling), 秀兰 (Xiu Lan), and 秀楣 (Xiu Mei).

Different ways Westerners take on Chinese names

Westerners have been known to take Chinese names in different ways. One way is a syllable-by-syllable transliteration of sounds. An example would be 安娜.阿姆史特朗 for Anna Armstrong and 欧巴马 for Barack Obama.

syllable transliteration sounds Obama translates names into Chinese

Westerners have been known to take Chinese names in different ways. One way is a syllable-by-syllable transliteration of sounds. An example would be 欧巴马 for Barack Obama. (Image: Brad.T/Vision Times)

Another way is by the creation of a natural-sounding Chinese name according to the sound of the Western name. For example, Dwight David Eisenhower could be given the name 艾森豪 (Ai Sen Hao), where Ai is a common Chinese surname and Sen Hao translates into grand heroic.

A third way is to choose a Chinese surname based on the Western surname, but then combined with a meaningful given name. For example, J. K. Fairbank is given 费正清 (Fei Zheng Qing), where 费 is a surname and the given name 正清 means righteous purity.

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