Certainly one of the most curious things about the Chinese language is the writing system, with complex characters that are fascinating, often mysterious and almost magical. If you are in some degree familiar with this language you’ll have heard this question quite often – how do you write my name in Chinese?
You will have realized though that the answer isn’t all that simple! Translating a name into Chinese presents a different challenges that make it hard to do it straight away.
First of all, the Chinese language doesn’t have an alphabet: with the exception of a few cases, each character corresponds to a syllable and not a letter/sound as in alphabetic languages. For this reason, in the majority of cases you can’t simply just “transcribe” your name using different graphic symbols, as you could do with Japanese Kana for example.
Moreover, some sounds, syllables and sound combinations don’t exist in Chinese, such as the “v” or doubles and combinations with consecutive consonants, and so the necessary syllable for writing your name may not exist. In this case you’re forced to use a syllable that “sounds like” the original but isn’t exactly equal since other than missing “sounds”, Chinese also has another bonus – tones.
Each syllable corresponds to a character, which can then be used to transliterate (or write with another alphabet) foreign names. In modern Chinese there’s a set of characters that are often used for transcribing foreign names (similar to the Japanese Katakana, which is an alphabet created just for this reason): in practice, it’s a list of characters that when arranged in a combination that feels “odd” to Chinese people, will immediately indicate that it’s a foreign term (an actual name or borrowed term).
Lastly, Chinese names are typically composed of two or three characters, rarely four. The last name comes before the first name and is made up of a single syllable/character (in a few cases two), while the first name can have one or two.
Therefore, even if you find all the corresponding syllables to the name and surname, you’ll realize that it will be too long to be a person’s name – and your Chinese friends will struggle to understand and read it. Also, each one of those characters doesn’t just represent a sound but also has a meaning in and of itself, which in even the best of cases will make no sense!
But then how do I get a Chinese name?
Before responding to this question, let’s first look at how “original” Chinese names are made. In the end, being able to choose your own name – which will have a new meaning, one you actually want to give it – it’s a rare occasion, so why not make the best of it and limit yourself to just any translation?
As mentioned above, Chinese names 姓名 (xìngmíng) are made of two parts. The first, the surname (姓, xìng), which could more accurately be translated as “family name”. In the majority of cases is formed by just one character while the most famous exceptions are 司马 (Símǎ) and 欧阳 (Ōuyáng), which are composed of two characters.
The ten most famous surnames in Chinese are 张 (Zhāng), 王 (Wáng), 李 (Lǐ), 刘 (Liú), 陈 (Chén) 杨 (Yáng), 黄 (Huáng), 赵 (Zhào), 吴 (Wú) and 周 (Zhōu): practically three quarters of the Chinese population (a billion people) have one of these surnames. However, the number of surnames is very limited: we’re talking about only some “100 surnames” 百姓 (Bǎi Xìng), which is also a way to indicate the Chinese people in general.
An easy to find book on surnames is the classic 百家姓 (Bǎijiāxìng) “the surnames of a hundred families”, a brief text that gathers a large number of surnames (actually way more than a hundred), explaining the origins and meanings, sometimes also citing famous people who have them.
Normally the surname comes before the first name, while we’re used to inverting that according to the situation (more or less formal, on documents and letters).
In general, in everyday life you use the full name (last name + name) to refer to someone. The last name, more than the first name, is often used when accompanied by titles like 先生 (xiānshēng) “Mister” or 女士 (nǚshì) “Missus”, or names connected to jobs such as 老师 (lǎoshī) “teacher” and the more prestigious 教授 (jiàoshòu) “professor” (who hasn’t met a Wáng lǎoshī in a Chinese book?).
Still, people who are closer to you can use prefixes such as 小 (xiǎo) and 老 (lǎo), literally “small” and “old”. The first denotes the greater age or experience of the speaker and a certain level of “protection” from them; for example, often my Chinese teacher or older friend called me 小秦 (xiǎo Qín), even if I asked them to use my actual name, 奥德 (Àodé).
In China we then use 老 (lǎo) for companions that have been around for a while, those that are more “expert”: “old” doesn’t so much indicate advanced age (with the “negative” connotation we perceive in it), but more often that the one speaking is younger, less experienced and needs help from the person that they refer to by the name 老 (lǎo).
First names (名, míng) are normally formed by one or two syllables (and therefore have only one or two characters) and virtually any of the thousands of existing characters could be a person’s name.
But how are names chosen? In the West there are words that serve as “proper names”: they have been standardized for centuries based on the Saints of the Christian tradition, literature, culture. They’re also often names belonging to family, such as those belonging to grandparents, and in a certain sense have been “inherited” by them.
There are various origins: such as Latin for example, Greek or Germanic. Often though the meanings of the names are no longer understandable without specifically researching their origins: they have become in fact just proper names.
In choosing names for their children, the Chinese stick to various customs. First of all, parents, when choosing a name, make sure it has a positive meaning or auspice for the baby.
To give a few examples, names containing the characters 福 (fú) “blessing”, 富 (fù) “abundance”, 财 (cái) “wealth”, 贵 (guì) “precious”, wish the young ones a prosperous and rich life; names with the characters 康 (kāng) “health”, 寿 (shòu) “longevity”, 健 (jiàn) “health”, 松 (sōng) “relaxation” instead have to do with health and longevity.
Names containing 栋 (dòng) “pole (indicating when something is full)”, 杰 (jié) “extraordinary”, 俊 (jùn) “talented”, 才 (cái) “talent” refer instead to excellence in ability in a given field.
Lastly, 忠 (zhōng) “faithfulness”, 德 (dé) “virtue”, 仁 (rén) “benevolence”, 孝 (xiào) “brotherly compassion”, classic Confucian virtues, can be chosen as characters to be used in a name.
There are also names that are typically masculine or feminine. Words like 鹏 (péng) “roc (a mythical bird)”, 虎 (hǔ) “tiger”, 雷 (léi) “thunder”, 海 (hǎi) “sea”, 山 (shān) “mountain”, 铁 (tiě) “iron” are typical male names, with meanings suggesting strength, firmness of character and power.
There are also feminine names like 花 (huā) “flower”, 丽 (lí) “beautiful”, 凤 (fèng) “phoenix”, 英 (yīng) “hero”, 芳 (fāng) “scent”, connected to beauty, grace, kindness.
Other names originate from a specific aspect of the person’s birth: 京生 (Jīngshēng), “born in Beijing”, underscores the place where the child was born (most likely not the same place where the family lives, which is why it deserves to be remembered); 震生 (Zhènshēng) “born with the earthquake”, evokes a natural phenomenon that took place the day of their birth. 国庆 (Guóqìng) “national day”, instead says that they were born on the day of the Chinese national holiday 国庆节 (Guóqìngjié), October 1st.
Besides the meaning, even the musicality of the name’s pronunciation (often with an alternative reading) and esthetic beauty of the character can be factors taken into consideration when making a choice. Quite often archaic and classic characters are used, taken from poems or ancient texts, especially when parents are fans of traditional culture.
Contrary to Western tradition, it is considered a bad omen to give the child an ancestor’s name, especially those close on the timeline (fathers, grandparents and great grandparents); nevertheless, brothers often have a common character in their name. In addition, the name of emperors and divinities were considered taboo in ancient times and are still rarely used, like the names of famous people.
Lastly, names that might sound like homophones of other words (given the abundance of characters that are pronounced the same way or very similar) it could be a bad idea: a great example I heard from my Chinese teacher is the story of a young girl called 杨玉 (Yáng Yù), literally meaning “jade”, but sadly sounding identical to 洋芋 (yángyù) “potato”. The poor thing, incidentally, was a little chubby and had to change her name.
To sum it up: a positive and auspicious meaning or something which reminds of an extraordinary event that happened at birth; avoiding names of close relatives or famous people and homonyms; the beauty of the characters and harmony of sound between the name and surname are the main criteria for the Chinese when naming their children. Now that you know a little bit more, you can finally decide on your Chinese name!
Translate the name?
To simplify, there are two useful principles for picking a Chinese name, which can also be combined.
The first method is transliteration: taking your original name and writing it with characters with a similar pronunciation. Through this link you can find an almost complete list of all existing names.
Sadly, with all the linguistic differences seen above, there will be differences in transcription as well. Here are a few examples:
- Linda 琳达 (Líndá): both syllables exist in Chinese, so the pronunciation is almost equal. Even the meaning of the two characters, which indicate a type of jade and “to reach, arrive”, are lucky. The only note is that a Chinese person would read the two characters separately, not Linda but Lin Da.
- Laura 劳拉 (Láolā): without a “lau” syllable, you would choose the most similar sound, “lao”. The meaning isn’t all that auspicious: “work” and “to pull”.
- Gennaro 格纳罗 (Génàluó): “ge”, in Chinese, is not read as “ge” in “agenda” but somehow as the “ge” in “hunger”; moreover there isn’t a double consonant for “-nna-“ and there’s no “lo” syllable which is substituted with “luo”. As for the meaning… let’s not even talk about it.
- Valerio 瓦雷利奥 (Wǎléilìào): there’s no “V”, the syllable “le” is pronounced differently and so “lei” is a more suitable choice, the “O” was substituted with “ao” even though there’s an interjection 哦 (ó); however it’s a jumble of meanings.
- Francesco 弗朗西斯科 (Fúlǎngxīsīkē): what else is there to say?
Putting aside transliteration; many names have a direct translation because besides proper names there are also common names such as Fortune 福 (Fú), Felicity 高兴 (Gāoxìng), Rose 玫瑰 (Méigui). The same goes for surnames: from the “typical” Green 绿 (lǜ) or White 白 (bái).
Have you already figured out the problem? Exactly: the new pronunciation is completely different than the original, even if it has the same meaning.
Knowing how to maintain the original name from a sound point of view as well as the meaning, we can move on to “creating” a Chinese name.
Advice for choosing a Chinese name
The simplest way to choose a Chinese name is to ask advice from a Chinese friend or teacher, who has a grasp of culture, and if possible who also knows you well; many people receive a name that has nothing to do with their original name but represents, in a certain sense, the “new identity” that the person assumes.
If you want to choose your name more deliberately, here’s the advice I can give you:
- A Chinese name is always composed of a surname + a first name which are normally formed by one or two characters (even though the names of those belonging to ethnic groups often don’t follow the rules we’ve mentioned up to now).
- Though it’s true that all characters can become names, not all are actually suitable: you could wind up with an embarrassing name or one with a negative meaning, or that sounds like curse words. At best, you’ll get a name that doesn’t “sound” Chinese. All the “rules” mentioned above for choosing a name also apply here. There’s the famous case of a Danny who translated his name as 打你 (Dǎ nǐ), “I beat you”.
- For the surname, we can turn to the list of “a hundred surnames” and choose one; many choose names by transliterating the first syllable of their own surname (Turturici – 图 Tú, Lee – 李 Lǐ) or, if possible, they translate it (White – 白 Bái, Mountain – 山 Shān).
- For a first name you have two possibilities. The first is to choose from among the homonym characters from the first one or two syllables of your name (if your name is longer than two syllables): in this way, for example, the tremendous 弗朗西斯科 (Fúlǎngxīsīkē) becomes the more acceptable 弗朗 (Fúlǎng). The second option is to choose a completely new one as we saw above, which represents your character and the qualities that distinguish you or your hopes.
- When you’ve chosen a name that pleases you, all you have to do is submit it (necessarily) to a friend or Chinese teacher: if they turn up their nose then something isn’t right.
Now you’re ready to choose your Chinese name!
History of a name
Like any other Chinese student, on my first year I asked my native speaking teacher “how do you write my name in Chinese”. The transliteration of my name (Aldo) that she gave me was 啊了多 (áleduō), but she clarified that “it’s just the sound, you have to find a better name”.
At any rate I kept it for 5 years, not using it all that much anyway. In the meantime I found another transliteration (right on the site I listed above), 阿尔多 (Ārduō), equally 糟糕 (zāogāo), disastrous.
However when I arrived in China, I realized that Chinese people weren’t able to pronounce my name because of the two adjacent consonants, and forget about my surname (Terminiello). So I decided: I needed a Chinese name.
For a surname I chose one that had nothing to do with anything: 秦 (Qín), was the surname of a character in the first Chinese story I ever heard, but when I introduce myself I say that it’s 秦始皇的秦 (Qín Shǐhuáng de Qín), “the Qin from Qin Shihuang’s name” or 秦朝的秦 (Qíncháo de Qín) “the Qin of the Qin Dynasty” (from which, among other things, the word “China” comes from).
After looking through all the words that could be pronounced similarly to Aldo, I chose 奥德 (Àodé): the two characters can be translated in “secret, mysterious, deep, difficult to understand” and “virtue, heart, kindness”: depending on how they’re combined they can have many different meanings, but more or less they reflect my tendency to “hide” my qualities. Furthermore the two characters are beautiful to write and the pronunciation is rather satisfying.
I showed it to my professor of 综合 (zōnghé), the daily “comprehensive” lesson, who told me that it was a good name but “you can tell right away that it’s a foreigner’s name”, because “hidden” is inauspicious and doesn’t really sound like a “Chinese name”. But I kept it anyway: there’s no way I could ever pass off as Chinese!
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