Understanding the Beauty and Reasons Behind
Chinese Names


China is a unified multi-nationality country with 55 ethnic minorities in addition to the Han Chinese.

The full name of a Han Chinese is composed of two parts: the surname and the given name, the opposite of the arrangement of names in many other countries outside of Asia.

The surname is generally composed of one word or syllable, such as
Zhang, Wang or Zhao. There are also two character surnames, or compound surnames, such as Ouyang and Sima.

A given name is usually two words but also can consist of just one syllable. A full Chinese name always has two or three characters, but can also have four if there is both a compound surname and two syllable given name. Since time immemorial, a one-syllable surname and two syllable given name has been the norm in China.

A Chinese surname is often passed down through the father, but Chinese women always retain their family name even after marriage. Today, there are 3,050 Chinese surnames, but 87 percent of all Han Chinese use 100 or so common ones. Among these,
Li, Wang and Zhang are the most commonly heard, given to about 250 million Chinese.

Changes in names reflect the times and history of the Chinese nation. In the old society, the emperor's name could never be uttered. Those whose names were the same as the emperor's faced castigation and sometimes execution. In the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC to 23 AD), when Liu Bang became emperor, anyone with the syllable "bang" in their name had to change it.

Many Chinese want their offspring to live well, without illness or misfortune, and such hopes are reflected in one's name. After the establishment of the People's Republic of China, children were named for historical significance, hence names like
Jianguo (build the country), Jiangun (build the army) and Guoqing (National Day). During the cultural revolution, from 1966 to 1976, Hong (meaning red or revolutionary) became very popular, with many people being named Yonghong (forever red) or Chaoyang (toward the sun).

With renewed stability in the 1980s, a lot of people began to call their offspring names like
Zhifu (getting rich) or Xinghua (rejuvenate China). A word's pronunciation and meaning can distinguish a Chinese man or woman as well. A woman's name should traditionally include words relating to composure, expression, flowers and birds, or jewelry, such as ting (graceful), mei (enchanting), hua (flower), feng (phoenix), huan (ring), yin (silver) and yan (beautiful). Many women today are moving away from this custom. Men's names almost always imply honor to one's ancestors, militaristic bearing or virility, such as shaozu (bring honor to our ancestors), zhenbang (rejuvenate the country) gang (steel), zhijian (firm in spirit) and jinsong (sturdy pine). In addition, Chinese names can express the hopes and wishes of the father's family, hence names like Ren Youcheng (accomplishment).

Best Chinese Names, published by Asiapac, notes that, unlike names in other languages, Chinese names are made up of individual characters, used singly or strung together.

Best Chiense Names aims to help those who don't understand Chinese to select good Chinese names by providing various methods of choosing names. For instance, names may be chosen to express the parents' expectations for the future of the child, to commemorate a significant event or to mark the time of the baby's birth. The names, thus chosen, fit the character of the individual, sound pleasing and are easier to remember.

Best Chinese Names provides hundreds of names, with sections for both male and female babies, suggestions on methods of naming a baby, and a list of English names compatible with Chinese names.

The 152 page book, ISBN number 981-3086-30-2, costs $14.95 and was published
February 1997.


Shared Blessings - March 1997
This article is reprinted from China Today, a monthly magazine distributed in the United States. Subscriptions are $26 for one year and information can be obtained from China Books and Periodicals, 2929 24th St., San Francisco, CA 94110.


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