How do Chinese parents choose a name for their child?
Traditionally, Chinese names consist of two, three of even four characters. Three is most common. The first character (or first two) is your family name or surname. The next character could be decided by your generation in the family. There would be a family pattern that is followed that according to the characters in a sentence in a poem chosen by your ancestor. The last character is decided by your parents. It usually contains some sort of good wish for you from your parents.
Some parents like to give their child a name by combining the father and the mother’s surnames. This method is actually quite good, but one must be careful to avoid ambiguities that might arise when combining the names. For example, with a father named Zhū (朱) and a mother named Luó (罗), you might accidentally end up naming the kid “Zhū Luó” (朱罗), which unfortunately has the same pronunciation as pig (猪猡).
Nowadays young parents are often breaking traditions and getting more creative with naming their children. In many cases, names are simply chosen for their beauty in sound or meaning. Some popular choices include 美 (měi) meaning beautiful, 花 (huā) meaning flower/blossom, 安 (ān) meaning peace/security.
Another way Chinese parents might choose a name for their child is by going to a fortune teller. My parents actually chose my name that way. They asked my grandma to talk to a fortune teller and get the best name for me. I’m very happy with the Chinese name I was give: 繼仁 (jì rén). You can translate it as “inherited charity” or “continued benevolence.”
How to translate your name into Chinese
If you have a common name, your name has probably been translated into Chinese before. To translate your name into Chinese, just find someone famous with your name and then look up the translation. This works for most common names. For example, if your name was Brad you could look up the name for Brad Pitt in Chinese 布拉德 皮特 ( bù lā dé pí tè). From that you could get your own name. Bible names are also quite easily translated into Chinese because they have already been translated before. Paul is 保罗 (bǎo luó) and you’ll actually find a reoccurring character by that name that appears in our Chinese lessons. Translating your name this way will make it obvious that you have a foreign name.
Some names simply translate into Chinese better than others. Even if yours is a name that translates easily, you may still want something that has more meaning to it than just the translation. Don’t feel like you need to use the direct translation of your name if you don’t want to – there are infinite Chinese name possibilities for you to choose from.
How could you choose a Chinese name for yourself?
To choose a Chinese name for yourself, first start with your surname. You will most likely want to choose from one of the 100 most common Chinese surnames, which actually make up 87% of the population. Usually you would want to choose a surname that sounds similar to your own last name. If your last name was Adams you could use the last name 艾 (Ài) or if your last name was Banks you could use 鲍 (Bāo). Choosing one of the common surnames will help people to recognize that your name is a name and not a name of a thing or place.
After you choose a surname, you’ll want to move on to the next two characters of your name. Here you can start to look for meaning that expresses what your hopes, your desires or just sounds cool to you. This is the part where it gets quite tricky as non native speaker, and you’ll want to get feedback from native Chinese speakers on your name. If you have a Chinese speaking friend you can also enlist their help in coming up with a name. Not everyone will agree on what is a good name, but at the very least you can avoid some obviously poor sounding names. You don’t want to accidentally name yourself after a famous villain in a movie.
Changing your Chinese name
Whatever you choose, don’t worry if you change your mind down the road. In Chinese culture, names are very important and many believe names can have an effect on your luck and destiny. I have many Chinese friends who have actually changed their name in order to change their luck. Hopefully things work out and you don’t need to do that!
In today’s sentence, we learn how to say “choosing a name” in Chinese.
What is your Chinese name? Let us know in the comments below!
This is the accompanying blog post for our intermediate lesson “Choosing a Name“.