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Chinese name 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” to “Yuan”.
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.
If 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
Email: beijingguiderichard@yahoo.com
Phone: 0086-13501103837

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Mobile:(+86-1350 110 3837) Fax:(0086-10-6585 4230) E-mail: beijingguiderichard@yahoo.com