Chinese Culture

Naming

Most Chinese people follow Chinese naming conventions. However, there may be some variation to these customs among those dealing in international or English-speaking contexts (see below).

 

Chinese Naming Conventions

  • Chinese naming conventions arrange names as follows: [FAMILY NAME] [given name]. For example, ZHANG Chen (male) and WANG Xiu (female).
  • The family name (or ‘surname’) is inherited from one’s parents and shared with other members of the individual’s . It always comes before the given name and is usually a single syllable/Chinese character.
  • The given name (or ‘personal name’) is chosen at birth as the individual’s personal identifier. It may contain one or two syllables/Chinese characters. 
  • Given names with two syllables/Chinese characters may be written together, hyphenated or divided into two. For example, 小平 could be written Xiaoping, Xiao-Ping or Xiao Ping. However, it is advisable to write both words as a single unit (e.g. Xiaoping) to clearly indicate that it is one name.
  • There are no spaces between a person’s family name and given name when written in Chinese characters, e.g. 张晨 (ZHANG Chen).
  • Many Chinese characters can be used as both family names and given/personal names. Therefore, it is common practice to write family names in capitals to avoid confusion.1
  • Chinese names are traditionally patrilineal, whereby children are given their father’s family name at birth. 
  • Women do not change their legal names at marriage. However, some may choose to place their husband’s family name before their full name. For example, if WANG Xiu married ZHANG Chen, she may be known as ZHANG WANG Xiu.

 

Romanisation

  • Be aware that Chinese names written in the Roman alphabet have all been transcribed from original Chinese characters. There are many different ways to represent these characters in English, which can result in the same Chinese name being written with many different spelling variations. For example, LIU may also be spelt LIOU, LAU and LIEW.
  • Spellings can also vary between Mandarin and Cantonese, for example WANG is often transcribed as WONG in Cantonese.
  • The transcription system widely used in the People’s Republic of China is called the Hanyu Pinyin system.

 

Westernising Chinese Names

  • Many Chinese people use a ‘westernised’ version of their original Chinese name to adapt to international and English-speaking contexts.
  • It is common for people to adopt a Western personal name to use in international and English-speaking contexts. For example, ZHANG Chen may be known as “James”.
  • People may also change the arrangement of their names to suit English-Western naming conventions. For example, ZHANG Chen may be known as James ZHANG or Chen ZHANG.
  • Some people may keep their original given name as a middle name, but essentially adopt a new name and format it in the Western way: [Western given name] [Chinese given name] [family name]. For example, ZHANG Chen may be known as James Chen ZHANG.
  • Most people will revert to using their original Chinese name whenever speaking or writing in Chinese. The family name always comes first in the Chinese language.

 

Names

  • It is common belief that a good name brings luck, and an unfit name may bring bad luck. Therefore, Chinese parents generally prefer names that embody goodwill, prosperousness or seem auspicious.2
  • In some cases, parents may consult a fortune teller to find the luckiest name for a child may be chosen in accordance with their birth date and time.
  • Many Chinese given names symbolise an aspiration, e.g. Kang (healthy), Yong (brave), Mei (beautiful) and Ling (wise). 
  • Names may also reflect the decade a person was born. For example, Jianguo represents the date of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and is a popular given name for people born in the 1950s-60s.3
  • Given names may be chosen so that their meaning is complemented by the family name. For example, parents with the family name LIU (meaning ‘willow tree’) might name their child ‘Qing’ (green). Therefore, the child’s name is LIU Qing (green willow tree).4
  • Many Chinese parents will avoid giving their children names that have a similar pronunciation to a word with negative or unflattering connotations. For example, one may avoid calling a child ‘Shù’ (tree), as it sounds similar to ‘Shǔ’ (rat).5
  • While many Chinese characters have a gender-specific meaning, it may be hard to assume a person’s gender from their name alone once translated into the Roman alphabet.
  • It is not customary or appropriate to name a child after their elder or family member.6
  • In some families, siblings may share the same character in their personal name – known as a generation name. For example, two siblings may be called WANG Qingzhao and WANG Qingxi, in which case ‘Qing’ is the generation name.
  • The most common family names in mainland China are WANG (王), LI (李), ZHANG (张), LIU (刘), CHEN (陈), with over 300 million people having one of these five names.

 

Addressing Others

  • People generally address one another by their full name. It is uncommon to address someone by their given/personal name alone. 
  • Family members, in-laws and couples may refer to one another by their personal/given name. However, it is generally seen as awkward or disrespectful to address a normal friend or acquaintance this way.
  • People may use titles if wishing to convey respect, e.g. ‘Xiansheng’ (Mr), ‘Nüshi’ (Mrs/Ms), ‘Xiaojie’ (Miss). This is common practice amongst strangers and in professional/formal settings.
  • The family name comes before the title in Chinese: [family name] [title]. For example, WANG Xiansheng (Mr. Wang).
  • It is common to use a person’s title based on their occupation, e.g. Jiaoshou (Professor), Laoshi (Teacher), Laoban (Boss).
  • People may address close friends and relatives by their social status or relationship to one another, e.g. ‘big sister’, ‘second brother’. Such terms often indicate closeness and endearment.
  • For example, someone may refer to friends around the same age or younger than themselves as ‘Xiao’ (small), e.g. Xiao WANG. A person from an older generation may be called ‘Lao’ (old) – e.g. Lao WANG.
  • Be aware many Chinese people have several names that they may use interchangeably to identify themselves across different circumstances. For example, they may have a social name, married name, business name, school name or a Westernised name (see above). 

 

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1 United Kingdom Government, 2006
2 X, 2012
3 Asia Media Centre, 2018
4 He, 1989
5 He, 1989
6 Wei, 2015

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