Chinese naming

Chinese name

Personal names in Chinese culture follow a number of conventions different from those of personal names in Western cultures. Most noticeably, a Chinese name is written with the family name (surname or last name) first and the given name next, therefore "John Smith" as a Chinese name would be "Smith John". For instance, the basketball player who is commonly called Yao Ming would be addressed as "Mr. Yao", not "Mr. Ming".

Some Chinese people who emigrate to, or do business with, Western countries sometimes adopt a Westernized name by simply reversing the "surname–given-name" order to "given-name–surname" ("Ming Yao", to follow the previous example), or with a Western first name together with their surname, which is then written in the usual Western order with the surname last ("Fred Yao"). Some Chinese people sometimes take a combined name. There are 3 variations: Western name, surname, and Chinese given name, in that order ("Fred Yao Ming"). Western name, Chinese given name, and surname ("Fred Ming Yao"). Or surname, Chinese given name, followed by Western name ("Yao Ming Fred"). The Western name, surname and then given name practice is most common in Hong Kong and Singapore.

Traditional naming schemes often followed a pattern of using generation names as part of a two-character given name. This is by no means the norm, however. An alternative tradition, stemming from a Han Dynasty law that forbade two-character given names, is to have a single character given name. Some contemporary given names do not follow either tradition, and may in some cases extend to three or more characters.

When generation names are used as part of a two-character given name, it is highly inappropriate and confusing to refer to someone by the first part of their given name only which will generally be their generation name. Instead, the entire given name should be used. This should be the case regardless of whether the surname is used. For instance, referring to Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as Hsien or Hsien Lee would be confusing as this could just as easily refer to his brother. However, this does commonly occur in Western societies where the first part of the given name is frequently mistakenly used as the first name when the given name is not hyphenated or adjoined.

Family names

A majority of countries in Eastern Asia adopted the Chinese naming system. Today, there are over 700 different Chinese family names, but as few as twenty cover a majority of Chinese people. The variety in Chinese names therefore depends greatly on given names rather than family names. The great majority of Chinese family names have only one character, but there are a few with two; see Chinese compound surname for more information.

Chinese family names are written first, something which often causes confusion among those from cultures where the family name usually comes last. Thus, the family name of Mao Zedong is Mao (毛), and his given name is Zedong (traditional: 澤東, simplified: 泽东).

Chinese women on the mainland usually retain their maiden names as their family name, rather than adopting their husband's. Children usually inherit the father's family name. However, there is the practice of married women taking on the husband's surname as part of their full-name.

Historically, it was considered taboo to marry someone with the same family name — even if there is no direct relationship between those concerned--though in recent decades this has no longer been frowned upon.

Given names

Generally speaking, Chinese given names have one or two characters, and are written after the family name. When a baby is born, parents often give him or her a "milk name" or "little name," such as Little Gem (小寶/ 小宝) or two characters that repeat (明明). The given name is then usually chosen later and is often chosen with consultation of the grandparents. In China, parents have a month before having to register the child. The parents may continue to use the nickname.

With a limited repertoire of family names, Chinese depend on using given names to introduce variety in naming. Almost any character with any meaning can be used. However, it is not considered appropriate to name a child after a famous figure and highly offensive after an older member among the family or even distant relatives.

Given names resonant of qualities which are perceived to be either masculine or feminine are frequently given, with males being linked with strength and firmness, and females with beauty and flowers. Females sometimes have names which repeat a character, for example Xiuxiu (秀秀) or Lili (麗麗, 丽丽). This is less common in males, although Yo-yo Ma (馬友友 Mǎ Yǒuyǒu, 马友友) is a well-known exception.

In some families, one of the two characters in the personal name is shared by all members of a generation and these generational names are worked out long in advance, historically in a generation poem (banci lian 班次聯 or paizi ge 派字歌 in Chinese) listing the names. Also, siblings' names are frequently related, for example, a boy may be named pine (松 Sōng, considered masculine) while his sister may be named plum (梅 Méi, considered feminine), both being primary elements of the traditional Chinese system of naturally symbolizing moral imperatives. Depending on region and family, female children may not be entered into the family tree, and thus will not be given a generation name. A frequent naming pattern for female offspring in this case could share the same last character in the given name while varying the first character (in place of the generation name). A well known example of such system can be found from the names of the main four sisters in the novel "A Dream of Red Mansions" 红楼梦, where they were named 元春(yuan chun),迎春(yin chun),探春(tan chun) and 惜春 (xi chun).

Chinese personal names also may reflect periods of history. For example, many Chinese born during the Cultural Revolution have "revolutionary names" such as strong country (強國, 强国) or eastern wind (東風, 东风). In Taiwan, it used to be common to incorporate one of the four characters of the name "Republic of China" (中華民國) into masculine names.

People from the rural areas may have "rural" names due to their uneducated parents, for example, large ox (大牛) and big pillar (大柱), though, these names are much less common today.

Also, some decades ago, due to the traditional Confucianism, when a family gives birth to a female baby, the parents may name her comes a little brother (來弟), invites a little brother (招弟) or hopes for a little brother (盼弟). Some other female names of this sort includes: 望弟 (hopes for a little brother), 牽弟 (brings along a little brother), 帶弟 (brings a little brother), 引弟 (attracts or leads along a little brother), 領弟 (receives a little brother), and even 也好 (it's all right, too (to have a girl first then a boy later)). The parents may feminize the character '弟' (younger brother) to '娣' with the same pronunciation, but different in meaning (it literally means "wife of a younger brother," but more recently it is used to transliterate the western female names). These names show the traditional sexism or male chauvinism in the older Chinese society where having a boy (who can inherit the family name and continue the family line, which is an honour to the ancestors) is better than having a girl (who can only be another family's daughter-in-law, carrying on the family name of others).

A recent trend has swept through greater China to let fortune tellers change people's names years after they have been given. These fortune tellers claim that the name leads to a better future in the child according to principles such as Five elements (五行 wǔ xíng).

Regional variations


Family names in Taiwan of the Han Chinese heritage are similar to those in southeast China, as most families maintain family trees that are traceable to their origins in places such as Fujian and Guangdong. Taiwanese aborigines have also adopted Chinese names in the process of assimilation (see also Taiwanese name). The popularity distribution of family names in Taiwan as a whole differs somewhat from the distribution of names among all Han Chinese, with the family name Chen (陳) particularly common (generally about 11%). Local variations also exist.

The top ten most frequent family names in Taiwan, ranking in China, and common romanizations.

Name Rank in Taiwan Rank in Mainland Pe̍h-ōe-jī Common romanizations
1 5 Tân Chen, Chan
2 16 Lîm Lin, Lam
3 8 N̂g Huang, Wong, Hwang
4 1 Li, Lee, Le
5 3 Tiuⁿ Zhang, Cheung, Chang, Teo, Teoh
6 2 Ông Wang, Wong
7 10 Ngô͘ Wu, Ng, Goh
8 4 Lâu Liu, Lau, Liou
9 32 Chhòa Cai, Choi, Tsai, Choy
10 6 Iûⁿ Yang, Yeung

Among the Taiwanese Presbyterian Christians, the family name 偕 (Kai in Taiwanese Pe̍h-ōe-jī) is of particular interest as an example of a Chinese-like surname with a non-Chinese root. According to the clan's tradition, the name was adopted to honor the Canadian missionary George Leslie Mackay, also known as Má-kai (馬偕). This family name is actually rarely seen even among Presbyterian Christians. Taiwanese Christians of other sects do not carry this tradition.

(See: Top 10 Taiwanese family names and Top family names in China (1988), List of common Chinese surnames)

Given names that consist of one character are much less common on Taiwan than in mainland China.

More common in the past when life was much more difficult, Taiwanese given names are sometimes unofficially re-assigned based on the recommendation of fortune-tellers, in order to ward off bad omens and evil spirits. For example, a sick boy may be renamed "Ti-sái" (豬屎), or "Hog Manure", to indicate to the evil spirits that he is not worth their trouble. Similarly, a girl from a poor family may have the name "Bóng-chhī" (罔市), or translated loosely, "Keeping (her) Only Reluctantly".

Nicknames (also known as "child names", gín-á-miâ, 囝仔名) derives from the practice common to Fujian of being constructed by attaching the prefix "A-" (阿) to the last syllable. Unlike the situation in Mainland China, this construction is used for Hakka names as well. Nicknames are often used by friends to refer to each other, but are rarely used in formal contexts. However, one major exception to this is Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁, Tân Chúi-píⁿ) who refers to himself as A-píⁿ--a (阿扁) in public, which appears endearing to his supporters. The use of nicknames in public contexts is however unusual, and very few other public figures (such as the singer A-mei) are known by their nicknames.

Examples of names of prominent Taiwanese born in Taiwan, mostly after World War II.

  • One-character family name + two-character given name (mainstream)
    • 王永慶 = 王 + 永慶 (Wang Yung-ching, billionaire)
    • 陳長文 = 陳 + 長文 (lawyer)
    • 張榮發 = 張 + 榮發 (Chang Yung-fa, billionaire)
    • 林懷民 = 林 + 懷民 (Lin Hwai-min, dancer)
    • 古金水 = 古 + 金水 (aboriginal athlete who adopted Chinese name)
  • One-character family name + one-character given name (few)
  • Two-character family name + one- or two-character given name (even fewer)
    • 歐陽龍 = 歐陽 + 龍 (actor, local politician)
    • 司徒達賢 = 司徒 + 達賢 (first professor of business strategy in Taiwan)
  • Compound family name + one- or two-character given name (rare)
    • 鄭余鎮 = 鄭 ‧ 余 + 鎮 (former politician involved in a sex scandal)
    • 郭李建夫 = 郭 ‧ 李 + 建夫 (Kuo Lee Chien-Fu, retired professional baseball player)
  • Husband's family name + one-character family name + two-character given name (some women)


Among Chinese Americans, it is common practice to be referred to primarily by the Western name and to use the Chinese given name as a middle name; for instance, Soong would have "James Chu-yu Soong". In a more recent effort to combine Western names for those with native Chinese names, the Western name is placed directly in front of the Chinese name so that both the Chinese and Western names can be easily identified. The relative order of family name-given name is also preserved. Using this scheme, Soong Chu-yu would be James Soong Chu-yu.

In Malaysia and Singapore, it is equally acceptable for Western names to appear before or after the Chinese given name, thus Tan Keng Yam Tony may also be written as Tony Tan Keng Yam, and individuals are free to indicate their official names in either format on their identity cards. General usage tend to prefer placing the Western name first due to the popularity of referring to individuals simply as "Tony Tan" and dropping the given Chinese name entirely. For administrative purposes, however, government agencies tend to place the Western name behind so as to standardise namelists sorted by family names. In some cases, therefore, agencies may choose to include a comma behind the Chinese name to indicate such amendments made, for instance, "Tan Keng Yam, Tony".

The Hong Kong printed media tends to adopt a presentation style similar to American usage, for instance, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. On official records such as the Hong Kong Identity Cards, however, family names are always printed first, capitalised, and followed with a comma for all names, including non-Chinese names. Therefore the name would be printed as either TSANG, Yam Kuen Donald or TSANG, Donald Yam Kuen, according to the person's, or the person's parents' own preference at time of application. A non-Chinese name would be printed in the style of "BUSH, George Walker". Some people do not have the transliterations of their Chinese given names in their names in English record, such as Henry Lee or Peter Vincent Cheng. In Macau, ethnic Chinese individuals who have Portuguese given names may have their names written in the Portuguese name order, such as Carlos do Rosário Tchiang.

The use of a comma between a surname and given name is acceptable if the name is in isolation (such as part of an alphabetized list or on a field of a government document), but not as part of a sentence. For example, the sentence "My student Wang, Ming-Sheng graduated in 2006" would be wrong.


In mainland China, Han names are romanized in pinyin, usually without tone marks. Chinese from Mainland China are generally recognizable from the "x", "zh" and "q" that exist in Hanyu Pinyin orthography, and by the combination of the two syllables in a two character given name into one romanized word (e.g. Chen Xianglin).

In Taiwan, the vast majority of Taiwanese today romanize their names in Mandarin pronunciation using Wades-Giles or a similar system, which can be easily distinguished from the Hanyu Pinyin used for romanization in Mainland China and Singapore by the lack of the use of "q", "zh", and "x", by the use of "hs" and by the inclusion of hyphens. Unlike Mainland China, romanization of names in Taiwan is not standardized and one can often find idiosyncratic variants such as Lee or Soong, and others.

Chinese in southeast Asia, Hong Kong, Macau, and other old diaspora communities are likely to romanize in their own dialect, such as "吳" becomes Ng in languages such as Cantonese, while the same character would be Wu in Mandarin. In particular, Cantonese, Min Nan, Hakka are prevalent. Although not a Chinese dialect, ethnic Chinese in Vietnam romanize their names in Vietnamese pronunciation using quoc ngu, making them almost indistinguishable from Vietnamese names. In Singapore, individuals, or their parents, are free to choose to romanize their Chinese names in Mandarin, in any Chinese dialect, or in any other form as deemed fit. In general, however, the romanized name in dialect and in Mandarin (in pinyin) are both depicted on the person's NRIC, unless the bearer chooses to drop either of them. In Macau, Chinese names are usually transliterated based on Portuguese orthography.

Chinese from diaspora communities in Malaysia and Singapore can also be identified by the inclusion of spaces in their first names, as well. (e.g. Tan Cheng Lock)

Alternative names

Chinese associated names for proeminant people,
example of Sun Yat-sen's names
1 Official name: Sūn Démíng (孫德明)
2 Milk name: Sun Dìxiàng (孫帝象)
3 School name: Sūn Wén (孫文)
4 Caricatural name: unknow
5 Courtesy names: Sūn Zàizhī (孫載之)
6 Pseudonym(s): 1. Sūn Rìxīn (孫日新)a
2. Sūn Yìxiān (孫逸仙, 1886)a
jap. Nakayama Shō (中山樵, 1897)
-Death, Honorary titles :
7 Posthume name: Gúofù (國父)
8 Temple name: noneb
9 Era name: nonec
Notes : a. both pronounce "Sun Yat-sen" in Cantonese ; b. only for Royalty and Emperors ; c. only for Royalty and Emperors' reigns.
Nicknames (小名) :Milk name and «Caricatural name» Nicknames are usually an alteration of the given name. There are two kinds of nicknames, one given by biologic parents to a baby, and one give by the family or a child's friends to another child (綽號/绸号 chuòhào). The first is a nice little nickname, to call a baby or children, often simply made by doubling one character of the official name (i.e. official name 德明 -> 明明 mingming), or even their first word. The second one is a caricatural name based on the person's physical attributes, speaking style (小胖 xǐaopang « small big », 小豬 xǐaozhu « small pig », 蒼蠅 cangying « fly » ). A nickname may consist of the prefix ā (阿) or the diminutive prefix xiǎo (小), followed by part of the given name (usually the last character or occasionally the surname -- but see Forms of address, below). The prefix ā (阿) is more commonly found in the southern regions of China than in the north where the prefix xiăo (小) is more common. Nicknames are rarely used in formal or semi-formal settings. One exception to this is Chen Shui-bian, who is commonly known as A-bian (阿扁) even by himself and in newspaper articles.School name (學名) The School name is the name that a child takes to go to school. Teachers and classmates had to call the child with this formal name. Friends prefer to use the official given name or the caricatural name.Courtesy names (字) and Pseudonyms (號) In former times, it was common for educated males to acquire courtesy names. The two most common forms were a (字), given upon reaching maturity, and a hào usually self-selected and often somewhat whimsical. Although this tradition has lapsed, authors' use of pen names is still a common phenomenon. For more information, see Chinese style name.Posthumous name (諡號) and Temple name (廟號) For prominent people, posthumous names have often been given, although this is uncommon now. Sun Yat-sen was given the posthumous name of Guófù (Father of the Nation), the name by which he is most frequently known in Taiwan. Emperors were also ascribed temple names and in certain situations, an Era name as well.Era name The era name can sometimes be use in ways which refer to the monarch himself, and not to the period.

Forms of address

Within families, adults are rarely referred to by their given names. Rather, the relationship is stressed, so each member is known by this connection. Thus, there is big sister, second sister, third sister and so on. These connections are also distinguished by what side of the family they are on. Generally speaking though, the family title is only used when the relative being called is older than caller. It is considered highly inappropriate and sometimes extremely offensive if a person from a younger generation calls someone from an older generation by his/her given name. Younger relatives are normally only called by their relational title in formal situations. Children can be called by their given name, or their parents may use their nickname.

When speaking of non-family social acquaintances, people are generally referred to by a title, for example Mother Li or Mrs. Zhu (朱太太, ). Personal names are used when referring to adult friends or to children, although, unlike in the west, referring to somebody by their full name (including surname) is common even among friends, especially if the person's full name is only two syllables. It is common to refer to a person as lăo (老, old) or xiăo (小, young) followed by their family name, thus Lăo Wáng (老王) or Xiăo Zhāng (小張, 小张). Xiăo is also frequently used as a diminutive, when it is typically paired with the second or only character in a person's name, rather than the surname. Note that because old people are well respected in Chinese society, lăo (old) does not carry disrespect, offense or any negative implications even if it's used to refer to an older woman. Despite this, it is advisable for non-Chinese to avoid calling a person xiăo-something or lăo-something unless they are so-called by other Chinese people and it is clear that the appellation is acceptable and widely used. Otherwise, the use of the person's full name, or alternatively, their surname followed by xiānshēng (mister) or nǚshì (madam) is relatively neutral and unlikely to cause offence.

Whereas titles in many cultures are commonly solely determined by gender and, in some cases, marital status, the occupation or even work title of a person can be used as a title as a sign of respect in common address in Chinese culture. Because of the prestigious position of a teacher in traditional culture, a teacher is invariably addressed as such by his or her students (e.g. ), and commonly by others as a mark of respect. By extension, a junior or less experienced member of a work place or profession would address a more senior member as "Teacher".

Similarly, engineers are often addressed as such, though often shortend to simply the first character of the word "engineer" -- . Should the person being addressed be the head of a company (or simply the middle manager of another company to whom you would like to show respect), one might equally address them by the title "zŏng" which means "general" or "overall", and is the first character of titles such as "Director General" or "General Manager" (e.g. ), or, if they are slightly lower down on the corporate food-chain but nonetheless a manager, by affixing Jīnglĭ (manager).


See also

Kinds of Chinese group-names:

External links

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