Unlocking the Art of Naming in Chinese: Tips and Traditions

October 24, 2023

1. Start with Your Last Name

If you wish to choose an original Chinese last name, it's best not to get too creative. There are only about 100 Chinese family names to consider, with 20-30 being the most common. Would you consider Dankworth, Macqoid, or Loughty as suitable choices for someone seeking an English last name? It's advisable to select a more common last name.

However, if you want to get creative, you can play around with your first name. Some less common Chinese last names have a poetic sound and deep historical roots. If your last name sounds similar to one of these less frequent ones, then go for it.

The answer could go both ways. Another classic rule for choosing a Chinese last name is finding one that sounds similar to your official last name.

Here are a few examples, but for a complete list of last name ideas, click here to download a translated list of English last names into Chinese:

- Lee = Li 李
- Wynn = Wang 王
- Lynn = Lin 林
- Smith = Shi 史/石
- Wilson/Williams = Wu 吴
- Miller = Mi 米
- Hall = Hao 郝
- Young = Yang 杨
- Morris = Mo 莫

You might wonder why you need a Chinese last name. Can't you stick with a first name? Yes, you can, but a Chinese last name is often seen as an essential and conventional part of a Chinese name. Without a last name, a Chinese name might not seem complete. If you only have a first name, it might sound more like a word than a name.

2. Choose the Length of Your Name

Most Chinese names fall into two-character or three-character categories.

Formula 1: Last Name (One character) + First Name (One character)

Formula 2: Last Name (One character) + First Name (Two characters)

Very occasionally, you might see a four-character name. This could be because the person has a compound surname (复姓), such as Ouyang (欧阳) or Sima (司马). These compound surnames are very rare. There are also over 56 diverse ethnic groups in China, and some people may not belong to the Han ethnicity.

Choosing between two or three characters is a common decision. Both formulas have been used for hundreds of years. However, in recent years, there's a growing trend of parents choosing three-character names. It's less likely that you'll share your name with someone else, and there's more room for creativity.

It seems like formula 2 is the winner, but there's a catch. No matter how you combine characters, there's a limit to auspicious meanings, and parents often think similarly. This has led to many children having indistinguishable names. Some parents are now giving their children four-character names.

Should you go with formula 1 then? If you choose only one character for your first name, you might meet someone who shares your name. However, it's not a big concern, as you're unlikely to encounter many people with the same name in your lifetime.

3. Get Creative and Abstract

Once your last name is set, you can have fun naming yourself or your child. In the English world, there's a limited selection of first names like Frank, Julia, Tom, and Mary. In the Chinese world, you have unlimited possibilities. There are no strict rules, but not all characters are suitable for names. Most Chinese parents choose characters with propitious meanings, wishes for the child's personality, or gender references.

Some examples include:

Good intention: Strong 强, Resilience 刚
Gender reference: Jade 玉 (usually female), Stone 石 (usually male)
Nature: Ocean 海, Sky 天
Good concept: Scholar 文, Peaceful 平

The general rule is to choose a character with a positive meaning, but feel free to get creative.

4. Put the Last Name and First Name Together

Remember the two formulas? The Chinese family name always comes first, so it's family name + first name. However, in English-speaking countries, the first name comes before the family name. There are exceptions for famous Chinese individuals who can keep the Chinese order of their names even in the Western world.

5. Always Use a Chinese Dictionary

It's recommended to use a Chinese dictionary. Consider using Pleco, which is widely regarded as the best Chinese dictionary.

6. Come up with a Few Name Ideas and Test Them Out

Share your name ideas with Chinese friends to gather opinions. Remember that Chinese people tend to be polite and encouraging. Say your name to yourself numerous times to see if you like it, and don't rush the naming process. A good name can withstand the test of time.

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