Elephant, Yolo, Little Dragon, Lucifer… we’ve all come across strange sounding English names that Chinese people have chosen for themselves.
Clearly, cultural differences are at play here. In English, we (generally) separate proper nouns – names for people and things – and common nouns, the words we use to refer to inanimate objects and animals e.g. book, rabbit, thingamabob. There are some exceptions to this rule, especially when Gwenyth Paltrow or Kanye West comes to town. But generally, we’re pretty strict on what’s a person’s name, and what’s not.
In Chinese, however, these rules of thumb aren’t as strict. Every character carries meaning, and proper and common nouns intermingle merrily. Choosing a Chinese name that sounds good, and which you also like and can pronounce, can be a bit of a minefield, but it can also be lots of fun and a good learning opportunity.
Ready to get started? There are a few different ways you can pick your Chinese name:
Choosing a name that sounds similar to your own
This method – picking characters that sound like a transliteration of own name, or thereabouts – is probably one of the easiest means to settle on a Chinese name, but also one where you must exercise caution lest you want to sound like a misplaced menu item.
Let’s look at a case study, namely the path I took to find my China-side name.
While visiting the police station to register my temporary residence permit for the first time, the woman behind the desk told me she needed my name in Chinese. I panicked. Picking a new name for myself on the spot? Such a life-changing decision surely requires deep thought and hours of research?!
Having done a couple of days of self-study when I first arrived in China, I remembered that the word for Monday, 周一 zhōuyī, had reminded me of my name when I first heard it. And it’s as simple as that; my Chinese name was born.
I was lucky. The character 周 is a very common Chinese second name – so my name works, although it does sound a tad odd. I then found out there were two other words for ‘Monday’ in Chinese, so when spelling out my characters I can simply say “zhōuyī as in Monday” “星期一的周一/礼拜一的周一 xīngqí yī de zhōuyī/lǐbài yī de zhōuyī’” (lit. Monday’s Monday/Monday’s Monday).
Unless you’re a risk-fiend, we probably don’t recommend this on-the-spot method. In which case you could…
Go for the norm
There are many different Western names that already have a pretty widely accepted phonetic Chinese character translation, for example:
- Annie 安妮 ānnī
- Amy 艾美 ài měi
- Ella 艾拉 ài lā
- Lilly 莉莉 lìlì
- Nina 妮娜 nī na
- Alan 阿兰 ālán
- Chris 克里斯 kè lǐsī
- David 大卫 dà wèi
- Harry 哈利 hā lì
- Jack 杰克 jiékè
You can find out if your name has already been standardized by consulting online lists of common names like this one online.
Don’t like the characters? Find the phonetic translation too boring? Don’t actually have an equivalent at all? Don’t worry, you still have options…
Chose a common Chinese name
Some Western names simply don’t have a Chinese that comes close to the original. For instance, my dad, Simon, recently came to China and asked me to give him a Chinese name. However, the phonemes that make up ‘Simon’ don’t have any equivalent counterparts in Chinese. In an act of playfulness, I helped him settle on 秃子 tūzi, meaning ‘baldy.’ He happens to be bald, and in a stroke of luck, doesn’t understand Chinese.
Avoid my dad’s fate by starting with a common Chinese surname, and work from there. Remember, that in a Chinese name the surname (family name) is the first character.
Here are the top 10 Chinese family names (with the first three accounting for over 20 percent of the Chinese population). Take your pick:
- Wáng (王)
- Lǐ (李)
- Zhāng (张)
- Liú (刘)
- Chén (陈)
- Yáng (杨)
- Huáng (黄)
- Zhào (赵)
- Wú (吴)
- Zhōu (周)
Most Chinese names have two or three characters, with the first, as we mentioned before, being the family name, followed by the characters for the given name. We advise choosing a good, solid family name that will not stand out unduly in China, but feel free to get creative with your given name!
Don’t forget that when you add your given name, some character combinations can change the meaning entirely. For example with my name, 周 means ‘thoughtful, careful,’ and – means one. Together, they mean Monday.
Here are some tips as to how to settle on a robust family name.
Pick characters you already like
Do you have a favorite character? Or already have an idea of some characters that you can read and write that would be good for a name? Why not use them to your advantage and work them into your name.
You may like a certain character because it looks pretty, or because of the meaning, but for whatever reason you choose it, make sure that you check with a Chinese native beforehand for any hidden meanings it may have. Also, this may seem obvious but it’s worth saying outright – it’s important that you can read/write your own name. At least in pinyin.
Ask a Chinese teacher or friend
Whilst arguably the least fun method, this is probably the most popular and fool-proof way to pick your Chinese name. If you’re taking Chinese classes, you can ask your Chinese teacher to help or turn to Chinese friends or colleagues. The name they give you could either be based on your English name, something trendy or based upon your character and personality.
Riffing off your surname is a good place to start. Many English names are quite straightforward in meaning, such as Miller, Baker, King etc., but others have origins and meanings that may be more obscure and interesting, such as Higgins (from the Gaelic root Uiginn, ‘seafarer’); and Kennedy (Anglicisation of the Gaelic ceann and eidigh meaning “ugly head”). Not sure about yours? Ask a family member for advice, or research the meaning of your name online before bringing it to your Chinese friend as this will help them to choose an appropriate name that has even more depth of meaning and significance to you.
However you choose it, your Chinese name will stick with you throughout your time in China, so make sure it’s one you’re happy with (and can vaguely read/write), then – and this is important! – make sure to put it on your WeChat profile!
There, your status as a bonafide expat is complete.
Photos: smilingfacechinese.blogspot.com, Giphy