It’s All In a Name – Chinese Names

The main difference between the situation in China and Britain is that the Chinese have a massive number of first names but a small number of surnames whereas, in direct contrast, the British have a relatively small number of first names but a wide variety of surnames. The Chinese do not have middle names, whereas almost all British people do. The Chinese always put the family name first, whereas the British invariably put the family name last. Whereas many cultures easily decouple first and family names (typically using only the first name when one has assumed a certain familiarity), Chinese family and ‘first’ names are rarely decoupled, so that even good friends call each other by the full name.

Link: Chinese personal names click here

Usually (but not always), the ‘first’ name is two syllables long. Since every character in the Chinese language can be used as a first name, there is an almost endless choice, as there are literally tens of thousands of characters (or pictographs) in the Chinese language. It is not usually possible to tell the gender of a Chinese person simply from their name, since first names are not gender-specific.

Although there is a massive choice of first name in China, the most common character in Chinese first names is Wen, meaning ‘culture’ or ‘writing’. This name clearly reflects the ultimate values in modern Chinese society of culture and education. The second most common character in first names is Zhi, meaning ‘will, intention, emotions’.

Here is the order of frequency of the most common characters chosen for Chinese first names: Wen (culture, writing), Zhi (will, intention, emotions), Yi (cheerful), Ya (elegant), Ming (bright), Hui (smart, wise), Hong (great, wide).

Other popular characters include: An (‘peace’), Fu (‘luck’), Kong (‘intelligent’), Jing (‘classic’), Gao (‘high’), Shi (‘stone’), Wang (‘king’), Xing (‘lucky’), and Zhu (‘master’) for boys and Ai (‘love’), Chun (‘spring’), Hai (‘sea’), Fei (’empress’), Mei (‘beautiful’), Li (‘beauty’), Su (‘understated’), Xi (‘happiness’) and Yan (‘swallow’) for girls.

However, most Chinese first names have no meaning on their own (but multiple meanings when combined with other Chinese characters).

The old naming practice for boys is very different from that for girls and it follows a very traditional arrangement. For each of the most common family names (around 200), there is a set of perhaps 15-20 characters which are used in rotation generation by generation as the ‘root’ for naming boys in the family, usually providing a common first syllable but sometimes providing a common second syllable. So, the brothers of Mao Tse-tung were Tse-tan and Tse-min, while his sons from his second marriage were An-ying and An-ching. Similarly, in the book “Wild Swans” by Jung Chang [click here], the author’s three brothers were named Xiao-hong, Xiao-hei and Xiao-fang respectively. Other examples I have come across include Rong-sheng, Kai-sheng, Hu-sheng and Cheng-mao, Cheng-hang, Cheng-jiao.

Generally speaking, for girls, however, there is no such arrangement. Nevertheless, sometimes girls will also have the same name in one family – for example, Cai-hong, Lan-hong, Yue-hong.

Since the advent of the one child policy in China, this traditional naming practice has fallen into rapid decline.

The Chinese were among the first cultures to use hereditary surnames (around 2800BC). Indeed the custom was not adopted in Europe until the Venetian aristocracy made it popular around the 11th century AD. By contrast with the multitudinous choice of first names in China, for surnames there is a standard list of the “Hundred Names”, first compiled many years ago by order of the Emperor as the 100 most popular surnames (or last or family names) in the country at the time. School children used to memorize them, or at least the first few names from the list.

The top eight Chinese last names are: Zhao, Qian, Sun, Li, Zhou, Wu, Zhang. Wang. In fact, 270 million of China’s 1.3 billion population are named Li (meaning ‘plum’), Wang (meaning ‘head’ or ‘king’) or Zhang (meaning ‘long bow’), making up 7.9%, 7.4% and 7.1% of the total population respectively. Around 50% of all Chinese people have one of these eight Chinese family names and just 50 different family names are sufficient to name 90% of the population of China, that is, over a billion people.

Nearly always the family name in China is one-syllable long. The only common modern surnames that are two-syllables long are O-uyáng and Si-ma.

All Chinese surnames have meaning. So my friend Hua’s surname is Yee meaning ‘leaves’, while her husband Zhihao’s surname is Yong meaning ‘brave’.

Link: top 200 Chinese surnames click here

Although most Chinese simply have two names, historically and regionally there are many types of names that might be used for a Chinese male. Here are eleven types of names (but the first four are the most important):

  • xìng = surname or family name (specifically a paternal surname)
  • míng or míngzì = given name or first name

  • zì = ‘style’, ‘epithet’, or ‘marriage name’ taken at marriage or coming of age (marked by a ‘capping’ ceremony)

  • hào = ‘sobriquet’, usually assumed by the person later in life, although sometimes conferred by friends as a rather formal nickname

  • bimíng = ‘pen name’ used by a writer

  • biézì = ‘distinguishing appellation’ given by friends to each other

  • chuòhào = ‘nickname’

  • guanmíng = ‘official name’ assumed by someone in government work

  • rumíng = ‘milk name’ given by parents to young children

  • shumíng = ‘book name’ or xuémíng = ‘study name’ given by the teacher when the child enters school

  • shì = surname (apparently originally a maternal surname)

One final point about naming in China: many young people who learn English adopt English first names. They use these to help their American teachers and co-workers in joint ventures companies and when introducing themselves to foreigners. So, when I first met Zhihao and Hua, they introduced themselves as Alex and Cathy respectively. Personally I think that people should be willing to take the trouble to learn the proper names of friends or associates from other countries and not expect them to conform to some sort of Anglo-American hegemony.

© 2012 John Cooke Fraud Report

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