Choosing a Chinese Name

By Xiaoning Wang, Edited by Joe Kelly and Jill Rips.
Originally published in the FCC New York’s Newsletter Winter 1999

Good Meaning Characters Do Not Always Make Good Chinese Names

Naming a child in Chinese is often a challenge for Westerners. Do you want a Chinese name that has a good meaning, sounds pretty, or is accepted by Chinese as a proper Chinese name?

Probably most would like to satisfy all three requirements. But my sense is that most FCC families focus only on ensuring the characters making up the name that having a good meaning. Yes, a good Chinese name shall have a good meaning. However, a name with characters having good meaning does not always result in a good Chinese name. In fact, many good meaning characters cannot be used in Chinese names. Here are some examples:

One friend thought about giving her daughter a name called Shen (3)* Mei (3)* - “Spiritual Beauty”, it has a wonderful meaning and sounds pretty in English, but unfortunately it is not a Chinese name.

Another adoptive parent asked me if Xiao (3)* Jin (3)* is a good Chinese name. She read different books talking about Chinese naming and picked up two separate characters: “Beautiful Dawn” was her choice. But when I saw the Pinyin spellings, my first reaction was “Little Gold”. Jin – “Gold” is a popular Chinese last name. Xiao, which means little, is often used in combination with a person’s last name to call younger generation. For example, my last name is Wang, anyone who is older than I am can call me Xiao Wang (please note, it is not Wang Xiao or Xiao Ning). In her case, Chinese would think Xiao Jin is only the last name “Jin” in a combination with “Little”. So I interpreted her daughter’s name as “Little Gold” instead of “Beautiful Dawn”.

A third example is from an adoptive parent who asked if Bao (3)* Er (2)* is a good Chinese name. Although it does mean “Treasured Child” (but it also means “Treasured Son”) and sounds pretty in English, it is rarely used as a Chinese name anymore. Long ago, especially in the rural areas, people often named their sons "Bao Er" -  they were so happy to have a son - a treasure.

In contrast, a good Chinese name doesn’t necessarily have a great meaning. An adopted girl’s name is Cui (4)* Ping (2)* “Wide Folding Screen”. Although it may sound funny in English, but it is a beautiful girl’s name in Chinese because both Cui and Ping are very feminine. Lots of Chinese girls’ names consist of either Cui or Ping.

Another adoptive parent was not sure if her daughter Ru (3)* Zhuo (2)* has a good Chinese name. I told her Ru means “Roots” or “Vegetables”; Zhuo means “Profound”, “Brilliant”. While combined meaning of these two words might sound funny to the Western ear, it is considered a wonderful Chinese name.

Because this parent was not sure about vegetables or roots and she tried to make up a meaning for her daughter’s name “Beautiful Vegetables that have Roots”! Oh, no! That’s not the way that a Chinese name should be interpreted. Again, she tried to find a good meaning for her daughter’s name.

Even though two combined words may not have a wonderful interpretation together, they can still make for a great Chinese name. For example, Chairman Mao's name -  Mao Ze Dong is a great name. Ze means “Grace”, “Brilliance”, Dong means “East”. How do you interpret it? Graceful East, or East is graceful? You see my point.

When Westerners ask me what my name means, I told them it means Little Peaceful King, because Xiao means "Little", Ning means "Peace" or "Quiet”, and Wang means "King". If I would say this to Chinese, they would laugh at me because they would never interpret my name this way. Usually when Chinese ask me why I got this name (that's the way Chinese ask about a person's name), I tell them because my mother's name is Ning. She was born in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, and Ning is the short name of Nanjing. I am a Xiao Ning - Little Ning. I don't think my name is interesting or exciting and it doesn’t have a great meaning, but it is nonetheless a typical Chinese name. Sometimes, I adore my Chinese friends who have meaningful names, which usually don't have "Xiao".

I always believe Edward Hume’s advice (who wrote a popular article “Naming Your Baby In Chinese”): “Never make up a Chinese name without consulting Chinese friends!” Maybe your Chinese friends cannot give your child a great name, but they definitely know if you are giving your child an appropriate Chinese name. Just like an Italian or an Irish knows what a typical Italian and Irish name should be.

Although giving your child a Chinese can be difficult, a little study can make it easier. Here are some books to consult:

  • Chinese Personal Names ISBN # 981-01-2263-2
  • What's in a Chinese Name? ISBN# 981-01-2004-4
  • Best Chinese Names by Liu Xiaoyan, (Wu Jingyu, translator), 1996 Asiapac Books, ISBN 981-3068-30-2 [this book has been recommended for people who are already acquainted with Chinese]
  • Name Your Baby in Chinese by Lin Shan, 1988 Heian International, Inc., POB 1013, Union City, CA 94857; ISBN 0-89346-304-3

Remember if you like a particular name from the books, take it. But stay away from combining two separate words – each of which you think has a good meaning – into a single name. As Edward Hume says “it is very easy to make a BAD Chinese name”. If you don’t have Chinese friends to ask about, you can ask me!

Lastly, but not at least, I think one of the most important factors of giving a Chinese name is that it should be a real Chinese name regardless if it has a good meaning. Many Chinese names don’t not necessarily have good meanings, including mine, my sister’s and many my friends’ names. So here is the conclusion: a good Chinese name shall have a good meaning, but some good names may not have great meanings and many great meaning characters cannot be used in a Chinese name.

* Tones of Pinyin. Pinyin is a transcription system used to learn the pronunciation of Chinese. The pronunciation of each syllable i.e. each sinogram includes a tonal melody. There are four accented tones, a high tone (1), a low tone (2), a rising tone (3) and a falling tone (4). Pinyin spellings do not indicate tones, and even if you indicate the tone, each pronunciation has a half-dozen to a dozen Chinese characters.