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How to Choose a Chinese Name

Patrick Kim | October 19, 2016 | | 8 Comments
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In the West, we don’t think a lot about the origins or meaning of our names. By contrast, Chinese names have immediately recognizable meaning, and are thought to strongly influence a person's destiny. A good Chinese name is chosen for its sound, the visual appeal of its characters, various literal and metaphorical meanings, and sometimes even an astrological interpretation of its character components. The different approach to choosing names in China helps explain why Chinese people sometimes end up with English names like Apple, Cherry, Rain, or Mars (yes, these are real examples), or why it is common to be asked in China what your name means when most English names don’t have any worldly meaning. Choosing a Chinese name is an opportunity to reinvent yourself, but names should be chosen carefully, as they are an important part of making a good first impression.

Don’t Transliterate Your Name

The most common mistake most people make in choosing a Chinese name is to pick a direct transliteration of their name. While this works for celebrities, for instance with Kobe (科比 Kēbǐ), or Hilary Clinton (希拉里 克林顿, Xīlā lǐ Kèlíndùn), it doesn’t work for everyone. Part of the reason it doesn’t work for most people is that unlike Kobe or Clinton, most people aren’t famous, and the transliterated names of normal people can easily be mistaken for the name of a place or object. Since there are only about 400 syllables in the Chinese language, transliterated names don’t usually bear too much resemblance to the original name. Take for instance the transliterated version of the popular TV show Sherlock Holmes (link) – 夏特罗克 福尔摩斯 (Xiàtèluòkè Fú'ěrmósī). If I hear this or saw it in writing, I would have a hard time guessing what the heck it was. Chinese names are made up of only two or three syllables, making it especially difficult to fit an approximation of the sound of your original name into a typical Chinese name format. 

Choosing a Surname First

Last names are the most important part of a Chinese name, but choosing one is easy since there are only about 100 common Chinese last names. Choosing a common Chinese last name will ensure your Chinese name is readily identifiable as a personal name, as Chinese names are structured with the last name first. For example, if your last name is Johnson, the very common surname 张 (Zhāng) might suit you. Similarly, 孙 (Sūn) could also reflect the “son” in Johnson. Family names are very important in Chinese culture, owing to the long history of filial piety and association by kinship in China, and you can reflect some appreciation for this cultural aspect of Chinese names by choosing a last name that sounds similar your original last name. It is best to choose a common one so that your name is easy to digest for native speakers, so if you would like to get creative with your Chinese name, leave it for the given name. 

Finding the Right Balance for Your Given Name

Giving yourself a new name is an exciting opportunity for some self-invention, but choosing the right name means paying attention to the many cultural nuances that play into how a name is perceived. For non-native speakers, selecting the right characters out of thousands is bewildering, especially as each character can have multiple meanings. It is always a possibility to take someone else's given name and add it to a surname you have chosen, but this would be to sacrifice the opportunity to add some personal touch to your name. 

Instead, you might start by looking at the differences between characters used in male and female names. Next, download a dictionary app to search for characters that reflect your personality traits. For example, if you are a determined or hardworking person, 志 (zhì), meaning aspiration or willpower, is a solid choice for a given name. Also look into characters that reflect your cultural heritage. If you are of Swedish (瑞典 Ruìdiǎn) or Swiss (瑞士 Ruìshì) descent, for example, you might use the character 瑞 in your name, as it not only reflects where you are from, but it is also a common character for given names as it means lucky or propitious.

Finally, choose characters that coalesce well with the surname you’ve settled on. My last name Kim can be directly translated as 金 (Jīn) in Chinese, which I paired with 泽辉 (Zéhuī) for my given name. Together these characters mean “glorious shining gold.” While my name’s meaning might seem a little ostentatious, Chinese names operate by different standards, so don’t be afraid to try out names that would sound ridiculous in English. I have been told that my name is appealing not only for its sound, but also because it has a cohesive and positive meaning, and also speaks to my Korean side. Since Chinese names are complicated and evaluated on many different levels, it is a good idea to come up with several different options for names that appeal to you so that you have a better chance of choosing one that has the most appeal within the context of Chinese culture. 

Consult a Chinese Person Before Settling on A Name

Chinese parents and grandparents spend a lot of time deliberating during the name choosing process, as names are thought to strongly influence a child’s future. Some parents even go to a fortuneteller to make sure the earth, wood, fire, and water elements embedded in the characters of a name auspiciously combine by balancing each other out. While it is unlikely that your Chinese name will go under enough scrutiny to necessitate a fortuneteller, you should, however, consult at least two native Chinese speakers with several options of names to make sure they are not unlucky or unsavory in any way to your average Chinese audience.

When Mark Rowswell, a native Canadian fluent in Chinese, debuted on the CCTV New Years Gala in 1988, he rapidly climbed to fame as the most famous foreign celebrity on Chinese TV by the name of the character he played, 大山 (Dàshān). Rowswell’s very Chinese name carried well because he was the first foreigner to gain celebrity status on Chinese TV, a feat accomplished only by his mastery of crosstalk, a traditional performing art requiring Chinese language skills beyond those of your typical native speaker. Many foreigners, especially Canadians, opt for a name along the same lines as Rowswell's like 泰山, 高山, and so on. However, since Rowswell’s time, many foreigners have become fluent in Chinese and make appearances on Chinese TV. In my opinion, foreigners choosing overtly Chinese names like大山 has lost some of its appeal since the time when foreigners learning Chinese was a novelty (keep in mind also that Rowswell is more than just fluent in Chinese), and keeping some aspect of your original name or identity may play better to cultural nuances. In any case, a Chinese person will be able to tell you whether your name will help you make a good first impression or not. 

Related: Choosing A Brand Name in Chinese

Learn How to Introduce Your Name

Chinese people (not just foreigners who are having trouble mastering the tones) often have to explain which characters are in their name, just like how in the West we spell out our names when registering for something or consulting a customer service representative about an account. There are two ways of going about this: explaining the smaller character components, or describing the characters by association. The first way is usually more difficult for Chinese learners because it requires knowledge of characters components in addition to the characters themselves, such as identifying the 氵 radical in 洋 as “三点水.” The second method only requires you to know a compound character vocabulary word that includes the character you are trying to describe. The way I normally “spell out” my Chinese name is “金色的金,毛泽东的泽,光辉的辉,” which lets people know that the characters I use to write my name are also found in “gold,” Mao Zedong’s given name, and “glorious.” Being able to explain your name in Chinese is great for conversation, as the many layers of meaning in Chinese names leads to interesting discussions about how you got your name and what it means for you. 

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Patrick Kim

Patrick Kim

Patrick Kim is an editor at TutorMing. He has a B.A. in East Asian Studies from UCSB, and has worked in China for 3 years. His hobbies are soccer, being outdoors, and studying Chinese.

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