consists of two parts. The first part is the family name then comes
the given name (first name). Chinese family name is divided into
xing and shi. The origin of xing was earlier than shi. Xing could
be dated back to the matriarchal society. Xing came into use to
differentiate one matrilineal clan from another for intermarriage.
When examine the composition of Chinese characters, we can find
that the radical “女” (female) is used in some of the ancient Chinese
xing, such as “姜” (Jiang), “姚” (Yao), “姬” (Ji), “妣” (Si), and etc.,
which is a trace of the matrilineal society. Names of some animals
such as “马”(ma) (means horse), , “熊”(xiong)(means bear) “龙”(long)
(means dragon) are also taken as xing, which reveals the totem worship
of the people of primitive society.
Shi was adopted some time later. As the population grew, more and
more people shared the same xing and one matrilineal clan was divided
into several branches which lived apart from one another. This resulted
in using the shi with which to differentiate the different branches.
Shi had varied origins. Some were from the reign titles or feoffs
such as “周”(Zhou), “齐” (Qi), “鲁” (lu), “楚”(Chu), “赵”(Zhao), etc.
Some were from the titles such as “王” (Wang), “候”(hou), “文”(Wen)
, “武” (Wu) etc. Some were from their occupation such as “屠”(Tu),
“陶” (Tao), “卜” (Bu) “ 贾”(Gu), etc. Some were from the place they
lived such as “李” (Li), “东郭” (Dongguo), “西门” (Ximen) and so on..
Xing reflected the blood relationship of marriage but shi indicated
feoffs or professions which manifested people’s social status. After
the Qin Dynasty (221BC-206BC), xing and shi gradually merged together.
China is a multi-racial country; nationalities were merged in the
long historical development. Some family names were taken from the
minority groups such as “Yuwen”, “Weichi”, “Murong” and “Helan”.
Some ethnic groups also took the Han People’s family name. Emperor
Xiaowen of the northern Wei Dynasty (386-534AD) once ordered Xianbi
people take the Han people’s family names as a part of absorbing
Han culture. For the imperial family changed their family name “Tuoba”
There used to be a popular textbook for children to learn Chinese
characters, which was called “Bai Jia Xing” (A Hundred Chinese Family
Names). The book was written in the Song Dynasty (960-1279AD). Actually
the family names in that time were much more than one hundred. According
to some experts there are around 1500 family names in China but
around one hundred of them were commonly used. The most popular
family names are as follows: Li, Wang, Zhang, Liu, Chen, Yang, Zhao,
Huang, Zhou, Wu, Xu, Sun, Hu, Zhu, Gao, Lin, He, Guo and Ma.
For Chinese given names, they always bear a special meaning. The
style of the given names varied in different periods and social
classes. A generation’s beliefs can be found in given names during
that period. Names are also helpful in understanding Chinese characters
and culture. It is very common to hear people say: “You have a very
good name.” or to ask : “What characters are used in your name and
what do they mean?”
Like the western countries, the surnames were symbol of the family
and they were handed down from ancestors. But given names can be
taken as indications of the parents’ hope for their children. A
lot of Chinese still believe that the given names can influence
the children’s fate and future. So they always find good characters
to name their children. Some people even go to ask for help from
fortune tellers. The characters such as “Wen” (文means intelligence),
“Wu” (武means martial), “Ming” (明means brightness), “Jie” (杰means
outstanding), “Long” (龙means dragon), “Hu”( 虎means tiger), “ Xin”
(信means faith), “ Zhi” (智means wisdom), “Yi” (义means justice) and
“li” (礼means courtesy) were always used in given names for boys.
For Girls characters like “ Lan” (兰means orchid), “Fang” (芳means
fragrance), “Zhu”(珠means pearl), “Ya” (雅means elegance), “Xiu” (秀means
beautiful), “Ling” (灵 means clever ), “Hua”(华means glory), “Hong”
(红means red), “zhen” (贞means chastity), “Shu”(淑means gentle), “
Jing” (静means quiet),, “Mei” (梅means plum) and “Ju” (菊means chrysanthemum)
were widely used.
The given names also have the trait of times. In feudal time people
always choose the words from Confucian Classics for names. During
1950s- 1970s a lot of people used the words such as “Jianguo” (建国means
establish a state), “Wenge” (文革means the cultural revolution), “Xiangdong”
(向东means towards east), “Hongwei” (红卫means red guard), “Zhenhua”
(振华means prosper China) for names.
It is the long tradition of Chinese to respect their ancestors.
So when choose the first names they never use the same words or
even similar pronunciations with their elder generations’ first
names. It is a serious taboo. In feudal times no other people could
use the words of the emperor’s first name for their first names.
In ancient time when women got married they would take their husbands’
family name but that doesn’t happen now in China. For the children,
most of them take their father’s family name. But it is acceptable
for them to take their mother’s family name in now days.
How to address Chinese names?
If we are not very familiar with the people we will not call their
first names. We will call their family names with Mr. or Mrs. ahead
in order to show respect. In the company, we will call the people
with their titles such as “Director Yang or Deputy Li.” For friends,
we always call their first names. It is a taboo to call the senior
generation’s first names. Some Chinese also have infant names or
nicknames but they were always called by their senior generations
or very close friends.
So from the Chinese names and the way of calling you can feel the
difference of traditional Chinese culture and social custom between
East and West.
you want to take a Chinese name I would like to help you. You can
email me your English name and I can translate it into Chinese for
you. Possibly I could find good words for your name, which also
relates the pronunciation of your English name. Your name can even
be carved on the Chinese seals or written on a piece of paper with
beautiful Chinese calligraphy work.
I am the owner of this web site. I am the professional tour guide
in Beijing. If you or your friends need private tour guide service
when visit Beijing please contact me. With me you will have an interesting
cultural tour and different experience in Beijing. Appreciate you
can pass my contact to your friends.
Tour guide Richard