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The Art of Devising a Chinese Name

Choosing a name is a task not to be taken lightly. The following notes are taken largely from Chinese Personal Names by Ning Yegao. (Federal Publications, 1995. ISBN 981-01-2263-2). I have added comments of my own.

The Structure of a Chinese name

A Chinese surname is usually one character, e.g., Li (Li), Zhang (Zhang), Wang (Wang), Liu (Liu); but it may be two, e.g. Sima (Sima), Zhuge (Zhuge). A Chinese personal name may be one or two characters (very occasionally three) and the words used can come from almost any part of the language. This means that a Chinese name is most commonly three words, but it may be two words or (rarely) four. The surname is written first and then the personal name. Chinese living in Western countries often change the order of their names for the sake of convenience.

There are more than 6,000 Chinese surnames all told, but only 100 surnames are used by 87% of the population. The first step to devising a Chinese name therefore is the surname. If you are not Chinese then the easiest thing to do is to adopt a surname which sounds similar to your own, but it is probably best to avoid choosing a surname which is too common or you will find yourself with a large number of new "relatives". You should however choose a word which at least sounds like a surname (to Chinese ears). A table of common surnames is found at and you will probably want to stay away from surnames in the top one or two lines of that table.

The Ideal Name


Names should contain no ambiguity and should not be composed of obscure characters or readings. Anyone with a reasonable education should be able to recognise the words that make up the name: there is no point having an elegant name which no-one can read.

The most mispronounced name is probably that of Li Yangning (Li YangNing), famous scholar and calligrapher of the Tang (Tang) dynasty. The character bing is usually pronounced as bing ("ice") but in his case, is pronounced ning ("sublimate").

Another commonly mispronounced name is that of Li Yiji (Li Yiji), court adviser during the Han dynasty. His name is often mispronounced Li Shiqi and the problem again, is with obscure readings of common words.

Educated people tend to use more complicated words in their names, so as to show off their knowledge. The opera singer Guan Sushuang (Guan Sushuang) was given her name by her teacher, but her audience did not know how to pronounce it so she eventually simplified her name to Guan Sushuang. The all time winner for most complicated name has to be that of Cuan Zaokan (Cuan Zaokan) with a total of 81 strokes in his name. Such names are undesirable and tasteless.


Names that consist of words all of the same tone are awkward and ugly. Avoid combinations like Ding Jikun (Ding Jikun all first tone) or Liu Wenyi (Liu Wenyi all second tone).

Words that begin with l, m, n, sh, w, y, etc. sound weaker than those beginning with b, c, ch, d, k, p, t, zh, etc. Use a mixture of consonant sounds to give the name rhythm. An example of a weak name is Yuyi (Yuyi) which was the courtesy name used by Duke Shang of Song during the Spring and Autumn period.


Don't use reduplication. Names like Hong Hong (Hong Hong) and Li Lili (Li Lili) may sound clever at first, but they quickly tire and become irritating.

Examples of interesting, well chosen names are: Ye Zhiqiu (Ye Zhiqiu) "A [falling] leaf tells the [coming of] autumn"; Zhu Dekang (Zhu Dekang "Virtuous and healthy") sounds like Zhu Dekang "The pig has bran to eat." Cheng Fangyuan ChengFangyuan, comes from Euclid's goal of squaring (chengfang) the circle (yuan).

And remember that rules are meant to be broken.



In common with other societies, the Chinese regarded dreams as omens. The famous Tang dynasty poet, Li Bai (Li Bai) was so named because his mother saw the planet Venus (Taibai Taibai) in a dream.

Descriptive names

Names are sometimes given to describe the physical features of the person. History provides us with many such instances.

Emperor Chengdi of the Han dynasty gave his Empress the name Feiyan (Feiyan "Flying Swallow") because her lithe limbs and body reminded him of a swallow in spring.

According to Records of the Historian (Shi Ji) Confucius was named named Qiu (Qiu "Mound") because he was born with a mound-like head.

The noted painter and seal carver, Wu Changsuo (Wu Changsuo 1844 - 1927) turned deaf in his later years. He therefore called himself Wu Dalong (Wu Dalong "Wu the deaf") and carved a seal in that name.


Confucious named his son Li (Li "carp") because at his birth, the family was given a carp as a present.

The writer and poet, Xu Zhimo (XuZhimo 1896 - 1931) was so named because when he was an infant, his family was visited by a Buddhist monk named Zhihui (Zhihui) who rubbed (mo) the infant's head and predicted, "This child will have a great future."

In modern China, you will often see names like Wenge (Wenge "Cultural Revolution") and Jianguo (Jianguo "National Construction," or Mao Zedong's "Great Leap Forward").


The name, Ma Shitu Ma Shitu from the saying Laoma shitu laoma shi tu "An old horse will know the way."

The modern Taiwanese poet, Zheng Chouyu (ZhengChouyu) was originally named Zou Wentao. He took his pen name from the poetry of Xin Qiji (Xin Qiji). The last two line of the poem "Written at Zaokou Cliff in Jiangxi" (Shu Jiangxi Zaokou Bi) run:

"Night comes to the river with a feeling of sadness,
and in the deep mountains I hear the call of magpies."

The word zheng (zheng) is pronounced exactly like the surname Zheng (Zheng), so the poet's name, Zheng Chouyu (ZhengChouyu) is a subtle gesture of respect to the poet.


Lin Xiangru (LinXiangru) was a famous minister of the State of Zhao (Zhao) during the Warring States period (Zhan Guo) and his name was adopted by many people who themselves became distinguished in Chinese history.

Sima Xiangru (SimaXiangru)Han (Han) dynasty
Liang Xiangru (LiangXiangru)Northen Zhou (Bei Zhou) dynasty
Yang Xiangru (YangXiangru)Tang (Tang) dynasty
Wang Xiangru (WangXiangru)Song (Song) dynasty
Wu Xiangru (WuXiangru)Ming (Ming) dynasty
Zheng Xiangru (ZhengXiangru)Qing (Qing) dynasty
Ma Xiangru (Xiangru)Qing (Qing) dynasty
Qian Xiangru (QianXiangru)Qing (Qing) dynasty

Principles & ideals

Some people choose names which embody principles they aspire to.

The author, Shu Sheyu (ShuSheYu 1899 - 1966) was originally named Shu Qingchun (ShuQingchun). He devised the name Sheyu by splitting his surname into its component parts. She (She) means "sacrifice" and yu (Yu) means "self." He selected this name because he wanted to give of him self and thereby improve this tormented world.

Gao Shiji (GaoShiji) was head of the Laboratories at the General Hospital in Nanjing (Nanjing) at a time of great political corruption which prevented him from carrying out any research. Resigning his post in protest, he changed his name to Gao Shiqi (GaoShiqi) demonstrating that he was not interested in money (Jin) or position (Shi).

In modern Communist China, you will see names like Xuenong (Xuenong "Learn from the peasants") and Weidong (Weidong "Defend the East"). You will also see names embodying more Confucian ideals like Anshi (Anshi "Bring peace to the world") and Guowei (Guowei "May the country be mighty").


In this century, there has developed a passion for choosing names based on horoscopes, counting the number of strokes in each character, and balancing the five elements. This is a phenomenon of the late twentieth century and has no historical basis. Evelyn Lip has written a book detailing one method of choosing names, Choosing Auspicious Chinese Names (ISBN: 0893468479). This book is may be ordered from


Culture and connotations

Once might think that Menglan (Menglan "Dreaming of Orchids") is an elegant choice of name. That is, until one realises that Menglan is also an euphemism for "being pregnant." This is an historical reference to Yan Ji (Yan Ji), concubine of Duke Wen of Zheng (ZhengWen Gong, 672 - 628 BC) who dreamed one night that a heavenly messenger had given her an orchid, saying he was one of her ancestors and that the orchid was given to her that she might bear a son. This child succeeded his father to become Duke Mu of Zheng (ZhengMugong).

Chinese has only a limited syllabary, so it is especially easy to mistakenly produce a Chinese name which sounds like a known phrase, with possibly embarassing consequences. For the uninformed, this is a veritable minefield and is the best reason for going to someone with a good knowledge of the Chinese language. Here are a few disasterous examples:

Yagao Yagao "High precipice"Yagao yagao "toothpaste"
Wugu Wugu "To regard enlightenment"sounds likeWugu wugu "to die"
Jiehe Jiehe "Eminent lotus"Jiehe jiehe "Tuberculosis"
Ranji Ranji "Gradually attain [excellence]"Ranji ranji "to catch a disease"


Do not attempt to translate an English name or concept into Chinese. To quote John Boswell, "Only a naive and ill-informed optimism assumes that any word or expression in one language can be accurately rendered in another." To reach a Chinese destination, one is better advised to begin from a Chinese start-point than from an English one. There are millenia of human experience separating the two languages, and the inexperienced pilot navigating unfamiliar waters is unlikely to find a port he has never seen. The result of such an exercise is often contrived and more usually, ridiculous. Occasionally he will find there that is no Chinese equivalent for the English word he is seeking, and the effort expended is wasted.

An American visiting this site asked me to translate the word "endurance" for him, because he felt this was an attribute he valued. I produced for him a list of three words, nai (nai), ren (ren), shou (shou). I also had to point out while these words - to varying degrees - all encapsulated the English meaning of "endurance," they also imply suffering without complaint, tolerance of the intolerable. These qualities are weakness to an American, but are virtues to a Chinese mind. Thus there is no single word translation of the English word "endurance."

This page created 31 July, 1999. Updated 9 June 2002.

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