A basic guide to Chinese names

Here are some basic facts about Chinese names, and helpful tips on how to pronounce them.

Chinese names are different from Western names. They start with the family name followed by the given name.

The family name usually has one syllable. All the top 100 Chinese family names have only one syllable and these surnames cover about 85 percent of mainly China’s citizens. 

The most common three family names in mainland China are Li (), Wang () and Zhang (), shared by more than 270 million people. In Taiwan, Chen is the most common surname, taking up 11.14 percent of Taiwan’s population, according to the 2016 census.

There are only about 400 different family names in China, among which 81 are compound names, such as Ouyang, Zhuge and Shangguan.

Surnames and given names

A common issue that English speakers face is the uncertainty over which part of a Chinese name is the family name and which is the given name.

In the early days of Chinese immigration to New Zealand, confusion over the given and family names resulted in subsequent generations of Chinese-New Zealanders having the ‘wrong’ surnames.

Today, it is common for Chinese people to fully capitalise their surnames on their business cards to prevent any confusion.

As a majority of Chinese surnames are one syllable, if you see a three-syllable Chinese name, for instance Wang Xiaoming, the two-syllable name Xiaoming is the given name, and the one-syllable name Wang is the family name.

When deciding on a given name, there are often a few traditional conventions that are followed. It is often the case that males of the same generation in a traditional family share the first character of their given names.

These generation names are worked out long in advance and cannot be changed – they are written in the history of the family, or a poem which expresses best wishes for the family.

Some given names represent the decade of a person was born. For example, Jianguo and Guoqing are two popular given names for people born in 1950s and 1960s. The first one means the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), while the latter means the anniversary of the establishment of PRC on 1 October.

Some parents give names to express their hopes for their children, such as Kang (healthy), Yong (brave), Mei (beautiful) and Ling (wise). 

In addition, children bear the fathers family name, and women do not change their surnames after marriage.

Chinese wedding

Chinese women do not take their husbands’ surnames after marriage. (Photo: 123RF)

How to address Chinese people

Chinese often address people in a certain way to express politeness and respect for others.

To greet a stranger, you would refer to them by their family name followed by xiansheng (Mr) or nvshi (Ms). For example, to greet a man surnamed Huang, you can say: “Huang xiansheng, ni hao (Hello, Mr Huang).”

Historically, xiaojie was used to address women in their 20s and 30s, but it is nowadays considered an offensive way to address women in mainland China.

Sometimes Chinese address people’s positions and job titles to show respect.

For example, if you meet a teacher with the surname Li, you may address him or her as Li laoshi (Teacher Li), or a GP with the surname Zhang, you may address him or her as Zhang yisheng (Doctor Zhang).

Friends address each other with their given names.

Pronunciation of Chinese names

There are a few romanisation systems in the Chinese-speaking world. 

Mainland China uses ‘pinyin’ (which literally means ‘spell out the sound’) as the official romanisation system for Mandarin Chinese, while Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan use other forms of romanisation.

Because of the different systems, Cantonese names, for instance, are pronounced differently from Mandarin Chinese even with the same characters.

Pinyin follows certain rules and conventions, and often there is not an equivalent translation or structure in English. 

English speakers often get confused when pronouncing Chinese names or pronouncing characters starting with the letters C, X, G, Q and Zh.

Mandarin Chinese has four main tones, and names with the same spelling can have different tones and different meanings.

Take a common given name Mei for example. When pronounced in the third tone, it means ‘beautiful’. When pronounced in the second tone, it means ‘plum blossom’. 

Non-Mandarin Chinese surnames

While Mandarin is the most commonly spoken language in China, more than 200 other languages exist in the Chinese-speaking world.

These languages can range from sounding quite similar to Mandarin, to being mutually unintelligible – while still sharing a written Chinese script.

For instance, the character 王 is pronounced Wang in Mandarin, Wong in Cantonese, Ong in Hokkien, and Heng in Teochew, among other Chinese languages.

In territories with a sizeable Chinese diaspora, such as Singapore and Malaysia, the way a family name is spelt can be a signifier of the region a person’s ancestors hail from.

For example, a person with the surname Wong is understood to have Cantonese heritage, meaning he or she is likely to have ancestral relations from Cantonese-speaking regions like China’s Guangdong province, or Hong Kong.

In places with a sizeable Chinese diaspora, such as Singapore (pictured) the way a family name is spelt can be a signifier of the region a person’s ancestors hail from. Photo by Hu Chen on Unsplash  

The meaning behind Chinese names

Some of the most common Chinese family names have a long history which is often tied to legends, historical figures, or royal families.   

As of 2021, the most common surname in China – and the world – was Wang. Represented by the simplified character 王,the name itself means ‘king’. Across Asia, the name can appear and sound different depending on the dialect: in Cantonese and Hakka, ‘Wang’ becomes ‘Wong’, while in Hokkien it’s spelled as ‘Ong’. 

Li (李) – ‘Lee’ or ‘Lei’ in Cantonese and Hakka – means plum or plum tree and the name is connected to the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD), a period when the surname rose in popularity. Emperors of the Tang dynasty used ‘Li’ and would bestow the name on others deemed worthy.  

Zhang is a name that can actually be found in many different languages – ‘Archer’ in English, for example. The character for Zhang 张 / (simplified/traditional) is composed of the symbols for ‘bow’ and ‘long’ and is said to have been given to the inventor of the bow and arrow, Hui, the grandson of the Yellow Emperor. Across dialects, both the pronunciation and spelling can vary: ‘Cheung’ or ‘Cheong’ in Cantonese, ‘Chong’ in Hakka, or ‘Teo’ or ‘Teoh’ in Hokkien.   

The surname Liu (刘 / ) originally meant ‘kill’ but is now used as a family name. There are several stories of how it originated as a surname, most of which go back to different figures from the Han Dynasty which existed more than 2000 years ago. Cantonese and Hokkien speakers pronounce the name as ‘Low’ or ‘Lau’, while Hakka speakers use ‘Liew’ or ‘Lew’. 

Chen (陈 / ) as a family name is traced back to an ancient kingdom called Chen, in modern-day Henan, when the ruling family adopted it as their surname. In Cantonese and Hakka, the surname is pronounced ‘Chan’ or ‘Chun’, while ‘Tan’ is used by Hokkien speakers. 

This article was updated in January 2022 to include information on the meaning behind common Chinese surnames.

– Asia Media Centre

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