Yit-Seng YOW

While it is now common for Chinese to adopt a Western name, the act of naming in China is considered both a challenge and an art. A given name often reflects the hopes and aspirations parents have for their child, and because the given names are so personalized, one’s identity and personality is often deduced simply from their name.

Choosing a name for a newborn is an important decision for all parents, even for the “parents” of companies (think of Google). But for Chinese parents the process of naming their infants is even more important; it reflects a complex aspect of their culture and has characteristics very different from Western naming systems. Chinese names can be chosen from a vast range of words, rather than being limited to religious or other origins. Chinese names are easily distinguished from any other names in the world. In the West parents usually name their children from a list of established names, such as Peter, François, Günther, Carlos, or Antonio. The Chinese, on the other hand, create personalized names by choosing words from a vast vocabulary that bestows unique meaning or significance.

Personalized Names

In the Chinese dictionary there is a wide choice of words that can be coined as names, although in practice some words are used more often than others are. It is often a challenge and an art to choose suitable and meaningful words as names. Embedded in most Chinese names are the parents’ aspirations and hopes for their children. Since a Chinese person knows the meaning of a specific name, it is often possible to understand what one’s parents had hoped for their child. And, since a person is addressed by his or her name throughout life whether he or she likes it, a person’s identity and perceived personality (until better known by others) are consciously or unconsciously associated with the name, whether or not he or she likes it.

The character for name ? (ming) is made up of two components, twilight (xi) ? and mouth ? (kou). Before the invention of electric light bulbs, in twilight hours when vision was poor, one needed to speak out his or her name to be identified, hence the concept of “name.”

Even today people subconsciously build up a mental picture of someone based on his or her picture, voice, and name. A good name is an excellent image builder. Names are coined from words that project esteemed character traits, such as beauty, confidence, excellence, grace, happiness, intelligence, a loving and caring nature, loyalty, tranquility, successfulness, trustworthiness, and ability to acquire wealth.

Chinese Naming System

A typical Chinese name has two or three elements. A name usually indicates that the person is of Chinese (Han ?) origin. The first element is the surname, or family name, (xing, ?), the remaining one or two names are the given name (ming ?). Take the following name as an example: Chin Hon Fah ???. Chin is the surname and Hon Fah is the given name.

Placing the surname before the given name is consistent with the hierarchy of relationships. It is an acknowledgement that the parents’ and ancestors’ name is more important than one’s own name. Mistaking the surname as a given name or vice versa is often a source of confusion and embarrassment.

If one chooses to address a Chinese person by his or her given name, and that name consists of two words, it is important to realize that both words are used when addressing the person. The concept of a middle name, as it is known in the West, does not exist in Chinese. In the example mentioned earlier, Mr. Chin Hon Fah should be addressed as Hon Fah rather than as Hon or Fah.

Some Chinese names can be written in various ways in English, such as Chin Hon Fah, Chin Hon-Fah, or Chin Honfah. Mr. Chin living in Western society would probably place his surname last. His name would then become Hon Fah Chin or H. F. Chin.

The surname Chin, or Chen ?, is the fifth most common surname in the Chinese naming system, with some 54.4 million people sharing it. It is the most common surname in Fujian, Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and Zhejiang. Other spellings include Chan (Cantonese); Chang; Ch’en; Chern; Chin or Ching (Hakka); Ciin Dan (Hainan); Ding; Tan (Hokkien, Teochew); Tchen; Ting; Tjin (Indonesian); Tran (Vietnamese); and Zen.

Chinese Using Christian Names

Many people in Southeast Asia and in the West might know their ethnic Chinese friends by their Christian names. The Chinese are great survivors and adapt easily to new environments. Some have made their name easier for their friends, teachers, employers, and government authorities by adopting a Christian name, even though in some cases they might not be Christian by faith. Nevertheless, most keep their Chinese surname, thereby maintaining their ethnic identity.

If Mr. Chin were to adopt a Christian name such as Peter, his name would become either Peter Chin Hon Fah or Peter Chin or Peter H. F. Chin. In Indonesia and Thailand, most ethnic Chinese were coerced, induced, or otherwise legally required to adopt a local name. (The Indonesian government has relaxed this ruling in recent years.)

Westerners Adopting Chinese Names

In recent years some Westerners, in particular those living or working in China, have acquired Chinese names for academic, business, cultural, personal, or professional reasons. This practice aims to facilitate pronunciation of Western names, in most cases creating better rapport and closer relationships in the host country.

Chinese names can be acquired in two ways: direct translation of the Western name or adoption of a Chinese-style name with three elements, a single word for the surname and two words for the given name. Either way, it is important to be aware of the visual image connected with the name.

Chinese Names and Harmony

The traditional Chinese psyche believes in harmony and balance among various elements or entities in nature. One of the unique features in the Chinese naming system lies in its ability to harmonize with nature, in particular creating balance among the five determinant elements: metal, fire, water, wood, and earth. These elements are reflected in one’s personality, character, relationships with others, health issues, and cycles of ups and downs in life. An individual at birth would have an inherent combination of the five elements. Through a prudent choice of naming words, some people believe that it is possible to supplement any deficiency inherent at birth and rebalance the elements.

Further Reading

The Hereditary Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Sciences. List of the most common surnames. (2006, January). Retrieved October 16, 2008, from www://news.xinhuanet.com/society/2006-01/10/content_4031873.htm

Lin Shan. (2002). What’s in a Chinese name? Singapore: Times Media Private Limited.

Lip, Evelyn. (1997). Choosing auspicious Chinese names. Singapore: Times Editions.

Yow, Yit Seng. (2006). The Chinese dimensions: Their roots, mindset, psyche. Selangor Darul Ehsan, Malaysia: Pelanduk Publications (M) SDN BHD.

Source: Yow, Yit-Seng. (2009). Naming System. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1541–1543. Great Bar
rington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Naming System (Zh?ngguórén xìngmíng xìt?ng ???????)|Zh?ngguórén xìngmíng xìt?ng ??????? (Naming System)

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