Have you ever accidentally sent an email with something similar to “Dear Mr. Taylor Smith…” only to discover afterwards that the recipient was female? We certainly have. Ambiguous names always mess us up.
In English, it’s usually pretty easy to differentiate boy names from girl names. Of course, you have the occasional unisex name (we’re looking at you, Blake Lively) but for the most part, it’s hard to mix up the Kevins from the Angelicas.
It’s a little trickier in Chinese.
First, some background on Chinese names: All Chinese names start with the family name, or surname, first. The most common ones are “张 (zhāng)” “王 (wáng)” “李 (lǐ)“ “刘 (liú)” “陈 (chén)” “杨 (yáng) “黄 (huáng)” and “赵 (zhào.)" This list of surnames is sometimes known as “The Big 8.”
The given name follows that, and is usually one or two characters long. An example of a full Chinese name would be “王阳." (Surname: "王," Given name: "阳.")
Since one usually cannot change their surname, the following rules only refer to the given name.
Related: How To Choose A Chinese Name
Girl names will often have “flower” radicals (艹) in the characters such as “蓉, 薇, 苗.” Other tell-tale signs are the radical for “female” (女) in characters, such as “娜, 婉, 婷.” The radical for “jade” (王) such as in“瑞, 琪, 瑶,” is also commonly used.
Other common characters in Chinese girl names:
梦 mèng, “dream.”
夏 xià, “summer.”
雪 xuě, “snow.”
丽 lì, “beautiful.”
安 ān, “safe.”
Boy names will often have the “tree” radical (木) in the characters such as “楠, 杨, 桢.” The “man” (亻) radical is also very common, such as in “伊, 佳，伟.” The "metal" radical (钅) is also common, as in "钯, 钣, 钡."
Other common characters in Chinese boy names:
力 lì, “power.”
雄 xióng, “male.”
宏 hóng, “grand.”
子 zǐ, “son.”
成 chéng, “succeed.”
王力宏, a famous Chinese pop singer, has the both the character “力” for power and “宏” for grand.
However, just like in English names, there are some boys that have more feminine characters in their names and vice-versa, especially in more modern households. Many people are gradually straying away from the tradition style of names.
What happens when you come across a gender-ambiguous name? Well, luckily for you, gender pronouns in Chinese all sound exactly the same, so you will never have any confusion of when to use “him” or “her.” (Read more here.)
And there are plenty of gender-neutral honorifics and titles to use, especially in the workplace. Check out the ones below.
“总 zǒng ” (short for “总经理”) refers to “president” or “manager.” A person with the name “王阳” might be referred to as simply, “王总.” This can be used when addressing someone more senior than you are.
“同事 tóng shì” refers to “co-worker.” “王阳” would become “王同事.” Can be used to refer to those at the same position as you, or less senior than you.
“同志 tóng zhì” refers to “comrade.” “王阳” would become “王同志.” This is a more colloquial way to refer to co-workers, but usually not used for those more senior than you. Be careful when using this term, however, as millenials sometimes use this to describe someone that is LGBT.
“老师 lǎo shī” refers to "teacher." “王阳” would become “王老师.” This title isn’t just used with teacher-student relationships, it can also be used to refer to people with a higher education degree.
However, the two most commonly used titles are gender-specific ones, “先生 xiān shēng” (Mr.) and “女士 nǚ shì” (Ms.)
When in doubt, it’s always safer to go with “先生” (Sir.) Historically, this term was also used to refer to women scholars or women of the intelligentsia, so females who are accidentally referred to as “先生” will rarely take offense.
We hope that post was useful! Do you or any of your friends have a gender-ambiguous Chinese name? Let us know in the comments!