Having lived in China for 13 years there are a few things that grind my gears, and one of them, (usually from an unsolicited sales call or e-mail) is when people keep referring to me as Johnson. It usually takes a fair bit of correction to have them refer to me as Gareth. The reason for this? In China, it goes surname – given name. But I will get into all that later!
Here’s my guide to how Chinese names work.
What is the order for Chinese names?
With Chinese (and Korean) the family name comes before the given name. In China, family is everything, this is what you will be passing down the generations. Family first.
Chinese characters represent syllables, and in general, almost all Chinese family names are one character, although there are the odd examples of 2, or 3 character family names. For example Chen (陈).
Next stop is the given name, and given names are a really really big deal in China. Parents will spend months agonizing over it and all kinds of superstitions, Chinese zodiac elements, and luck come into play.
Chinese given names have IMMENSE meaning, that is why when Chinese people ask me what my name (Gareth) means, and I say “nothing” they look so bemused. Simply picking a name because it sounds nice has no meaning in China.
Girls names often have connotations of beauty, invoking the rain, flowers, snow or pureness, whilst boy’s names tend to evoke bravery and power. In old China, it was not uncommon for kids to just be given a number, so if you are the 5th kid born you might be Wang Wu (5th wang), but this was more from a time when people just didn’t want daughters.
Generally speaking, Chinese given names tend to have two characters, so an example would be the footballer Sun Ji Hai 孙继海 , Sun being the family name and Ji Hai being the given name.
Do wives take their husband’s name after marriage in China?
Long story short is that they do not! China is one of the few countries in the world where women retain their maiden name, although all offspring do take the fathers name.
And interestingly whilst there are over 10, 000 different names in China, 85% of the country share the same 100 names.
The top ten most popular surnames are as follows:
• Wang (王) which means Emperor/King
• Li (李) from the philosopher Laozi
• Zhang (张)
• Liu (刘)
• Chen (陈)
• Yang (杨)
• Huang (黄)
• Zhao (赵)
• Wu (吴)
• Zhou (周)
So, if you want to pick your own Chinese name, first pick a family name, and then maybe get a Chinese friend to help find two characters with meaning. I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but I came about my Chinese name from a bar I used to drink in, and it is Xiǎo pàng long or 小胖龙.
Little Fat Dragon, or as I like to be called in English The Street Food Guy.