Choosing a Chinese name

Someone in my club asked what the Chinese version of their name was, so I thought I'd make a post about choosing names in your new languages.

Note: I have written this blurb about Chinese names, but the same concepts should apply if you're learning a language that doesn't have direct translations for English names (e.g. not Spanish or French).

Also, apologies if this has been covered before; Thanks to the DL team for the new forum features, but the search function still leaves a lot to be desired.

How to Choose a Chinese Name:

In China, names have immediately recognizable meaning, which means it's a pretty bad idea to pick a direct transliteration of your name. This will most often result in a name that makes no sense whatsoever (imagine how western names would sound if random syllables were chosen without concern). Names in China have two parts, the surname and the given name. When introducing yourself or addressing others, names are stated surname first, then then given name - 李小龙 (Li Small Dragon) rather than 小龙李 (Small Dragon Li).

Last names are an important part of a Chinese name, but choosing one is pretty easy since there are only about 100 common Chinese last names (Wang, Li and Zhang being the three most common). Choosing a common Chinese last name will ensure it is readily identifiable as a personal name. Often, people choose a Chinese surname based on a name with a similar pronunciation to their own last name, e.g. if your last name is Johnson, the surname 张 (Zhāng) might be a good pick. It's best to choose a common one so that your name is easy to recognize for native speakers, so if you would like to get creative with your Chinese name, leave it for the given name.

While giving yourself a new name seems like an opportunity for artistry or humor, choosing the right name means paying attention to the many cultural nuances that play into how a name is perceived, which makes it almost an impossible task for someone unfamiliar with Chinese culture (read: most of us here learning Mandarin).

Instead, you might start by choosing personality traits that describe who you are (or who you want to be). Look at the characters with those meanings and then look at a list of Chinese names for those with that meaning. Google is your friend for name lists (

Finally, consult a native speaker before settling on a name. Your name is something you use frequently so you need to make sure the one you pick isn't unlucky or unsavory in any way to your average Chinese audience. Sometimes, like in my case, you'll end up with a name that is way better than the one you picked yourself ;)

Good luck, and happy naming


April 17, 2018


Being a Chinese person, I already have a Chinese name: 于清岚 (yu qing lan) and I'd like to add that some people choose characters for names based on the meaning; the artistic touch or historic definition of it.

For example, my name comes from the saying "qing shen guo lan" which pretty much has to do with the rainbow; indigo coming after blue and "surpassing" it. It means that my parents hope that I will surpass my mother.

Of course, the artistic touch in my name is that the "qing" is written with the water radical and the "lan" is written with a "mountain" and a "wind". This has the meaning of a waterfall cascading down a mountain.

This might be explained horribly (you'll probably understand none of this) so if anyone could help me further explain I would be very thankful.

April 17, 2018

Here is another example! a pair of twins in my class, one called "something ping" and "something an" i don't remember their last name but "ping an" means peace. And from their names, you know right away who is older because "ping" always comes before "an".

April 20, 2018

This is also like back in the day, when people had much larger families, how parents would name have one character that they used in all their children's names.

For instance, in the early 20th century, the Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin had fourteen children, with two wives and four concubines.

Eight sons were named: Zhang Xueliang, Zhang Xueming, Zhang Xuezheng, Zhang Xuesi, Zhang Xuesen, Zhang Xuejun, Zhangxueyang, and Zhang Xuequan. Each name began with the character 学. This was meant to evoke his aspirations that his sons would become educated. Zhang himself was an illiterate bandit before rising to power, and often joked that he graduated from "Green Forest University," referring to his time hiding out in the woods.

His daughters were Zhang Shoufang, Zhang Huaiying, Zhang Huaitong, Zhang Huaiqing, Zhang Huaixi, and Zhang Huaimin. His first daughter, and oldest child, was named 首芳, as she was the first child, and 首 means "first" and his subsequent daughters all had names that started with the character 怀, which in this case could be translated as "cherished" though it also could mean heart, bosom, or pregnant.

April 20, 2018

The transliteration of my name was so bad, my first chinese teacher laughed in my face after giving it to me. That was 马泰奥 as for.. thailandese olympic horse.. why thanks..
Since then four years have passed, and I chose one for myself,
陶 tao which sounds like my italian nickname "teo", and also smirks to 陶瓷 taoci "pottery" because I look like poor man's Daniel Radcliffe, not to mention I come from the birthplace of St.Francis, whose symbol was indeed τ, the "tau".
旭峰 xufeng "crest of the rising sun" because it's a positive imagery, has to do with the sun so it's masculine, plus I come from the mountains so 峰 has to do with who I am.
Not to mention all three characters are the same in traditional and simplified so that's just one set of businesscards to print for me.

April 18, 2018

This is a great post!

A lot of foreigners get names that are basically nonsense, which ultimately can create a bit of a barrier to real interactions in Chinese. Having a good name can really open a lot of doors. People automatically engage with you differently. If you put some effort into picking your name it can be a great conversation starter, and become an important instrument in communicating your personality and cultural interests to your Chinese friends.

The name I ended up with is 欧阳悟龙. The surname 欧阳 was suggested to me because my personality tends to split the difference between classical poet 欧阳修 and kungfu novel villain 欧阳锋. I always find taking a surname slightly awkward, since it is like intruding into someone's family, but every 欧阳 I've met has been glad to have me. In general, I highly recommend picking a surname based on a figure from history or literature. It's a free opportunity to demonstrate some cultural knowledge, and that can be really meaningful in China.

For my given name, the character 悟 was chosen because I'm a Buddhist, and this character alludes to Buddhist realization or comprehension. In the Journey to the West, the Bodhisattva Guanshiyin tames three demons to protect the monk Tang Sanzang, and she gives each of them a Buddhist name starting with 悟 (孙悟空 - the "monkey king" who understands the void, and has the power of flight, 猪悟能 - the pig who understands ability, and 沙悟净 - the sand demon who understands purity.) In this case, the name 悟龙 was given to me by a friend, as a bit of a joke, given my dual passions for wulong (乌龙) tea, and my interest in Chinese culture, in addition to my Buddhist practice.

The name gives me a few good stories to tell, and it introduces a number of key aspects about my personality. It worked out that way because it was given to me by a committee of Chinese friends, who knew me well, and it was their gift to me, explaining what they saw in my personality, and giving me the ability to really function in Chinese society in a way that I couldn't with a meaningless phonetic name. I treasure it as a gift, but it's also a little over the top, and perhaps that was also the intention of my friends, as a bit of a prank. Once, when I introduced myself in a bar, a guy turned to me and said "That's hilarious. That would be like if my English name was Orlando Cadillac Jones." I told him I'd watch the hell out of that movie.

The name you are born with doesn't necessarily have much to do with who you are, but when you get the chance to take a name in another language, then you might as well have some fun!

April 18, 2018

Another thing you can think about, if you really want to go deep, in China it is traditional for people to have several different names for different contexts. Before the 20th Century, most Chinese people had a "courtesy name" - 字 - that was used in public rather than their surname - 姓 - or given name - 名. You would also have a specific name given when you were in school - 学名 (not to be confused with the same word that is used to describe binomial nomenclature in biology) - and a pen name for creative work by artists and writers - 号.

Many prominent people, especially Emperors, would have a "posthumous name" which is used after they die. Even more complicated, Emperors also had an era name, by which their period of rule is known, and Emperors had a further "Temple Name" that was used when their name was evoked in religious rituals, prayers, or tablets.

You don't need any of these names yourself, but you will see them. If you go to a museum and read the cards, or look people up in a biographical dictionary, it will usually give you all their names in a list. Reading documents, you'll see the same person referred to by different names in different documents. At first this can be confusing, but it's also pretty cool once you get the hang of it.

For example:

In English we call the founder of the Republic of China "Sun Yat-sen" because his pen name was 孙逸仙, but in China today he is referred to by his posthumous name of Sun Zhongshan 孙中山.

Bei Dao 北岛 is the pen name of Zhao Zhenkai, a poet and essayist I highly recommend. This illustrates how there are plenty of pen names that are often simply poetic justifications of characters meant to evoke something, rather than resembling a typical personal name.

You most often hear the Chinese Emperor referred to as the "Qianlong Emperor" because 乾隆 is his era name, but his birth name was 爱鑫爵楼红利 (Aisin-Gioro Hungli in Manchu, and Aixin-Juelou Hongli in Chinese) so he is often called "The Emperor Hongli" by some historians (including Phillip Kuhn). At the same time, if you are hanging out in Beijing and visit one of the many temples he contributed to, he'll be referred to there by his Temple name, 高宗. And his posthumous name (I'm not making this up) was actually 法天隆運至誠先覺體元立極敷文奮武欽明孝慈神聖純皇帝 which nobody uses for obvious reasons. But you'll see it if you visit his tomb in the Eastern Qing Tombs in Zunhua, outside of Beijing.

April 18, 2018

Thank you, 欧阳悟龙. What I shared was only a brief synopsis for an important decision, and your input gives much more insight into choosing a name. When one studies a language seriously, he not only learns the words but learns the culture as well. In fact, that is the greatest reward I've gained by learning to speak Mandarin: an insight into a deep culture with a rich history.

April 18, 2018

"Orlando Cadillac Jones" 笑死我!!

April 19, 2018

interesting story

April 18, 2018

My Chinese teachers gave us all names. They tried to make them sound like actual Chinese names, rather than just being strict transliterations of our English names. Mine is 孟玲 (meng4 ling2). ^_^

April 20, 2018

When I started studying Chinese many years ago at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, my Chinese teachers gave me the surname Guan 关 because it appeared to them closest to my last name which is spelled Kuehn but pronounced keen. I was not given a given name. Later, when I needed a Chinese given name I transliterated Paul into 保罗 and then went by the name 关保罗. My Chinese teacher in college pointed out that this wasn't a Chinese name but he never could come up with good given names for Paul Richard.

November 18, 2018

if you change the "保罗" to the “宝罗”, you will get a turly Chinese name! It's that simple :)

November 25, 2018
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