Chinese names:

Almost 100% of Chinese names are made up of either 2 or 3 characters/syllables. The first one is the surname (姓) and the rest is the given name (名,or 名字)。In our text above, both persons have single character given names (东 and 宁), but given names consisting of two characters are just as common. Lĭ (李)and Zhāng (张) are both very common surnames in China.

In extreme cases, a surname can consist of two characters (=two syllables), but it is very rare. A good example for this is the famous Sīmă (司马) family, that became significant in the Hàn dynasty and played a very important role in the Chinese history for centuries. Some members of the Sīmă family had a four character name, but the general practice is that they try to keep the length of names within 3 syllables. If you see a name that consists of 4 or more Chinese characters, the person is most likely a foreigner.

Got a Chinese name yet?

It is common practice to give Chinese names to foreigners. The main reason for this is that most Chinese people can only pronounce the roughly 400 syllables that are present in their language. There are two ways of giving Chinese names to foreigners. One is phonetical (eg: Mike might become Mài Kè). In this case, there is no way to ensure that the name stays within 3 syllables. Some Spanish or Russian names, for example, might become as long as 8-10 syllables if they are translated phonetically. These names sound very “unchinese”, and in this case it is probably a better idea to get a whole Chinese name, like our British friend Lĭ Dōng in the text above did. The best solution is to get a name that sounds Chinese, but phonetically also resembles the person’s original name. East Asians and some Southeast Asians need not be given a Chinese name as their own name probably came from Chinese characters, and they have the exact corresponding syllables in Chinese.

Same thing goes the other way round too. Many young Chinese people like to introduce themselves as “Cindy” or “Frank”, which seems to contradict with the main reason for giving Chinese names to foreigners, but let this be their problem.

Recommend this article

moreChinese Culture