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Call Me Names

Chinese names are fascinating. In general, Chinese names make up of three Chinese characters. The first character is the family name or surname, while the second and third characters are the given name.

The exception for the one-character surname is the two-character surname (复姓); two most common two-character surnames are 欧阳 and 司徒。For the given name, though we commonly have two characters, older generations (my grandparents generation and older) may have one character for the given name. As such, when you see the names 欧阳修 and 诸葛亮, they are actually two-character surnames (欧阳 and 诸葛) with one-character given names (修 and 亮).

There is a reason why parents seldom give one-character given name to children nowadays. It is because Chinese believe that the name affects the fate of the child and a single character given name is not “heavy” enough to give a good life to the child. Furthermore, with two characters, you have more choices and can mix and match different combinations.

Non-Chinese may have some confusion on the gender of the person when they only read the names. For example, 诗 (shi, meaning: poem) is commonly used in a girl’s name. But if you read “Qin Shi Huang”, which stands for 秦始皇, it is a “he”, not a “she”. As you can see, though both are “shi”, the Chinese characters are different.

Another example is wen, which is used for 文 and 雯. 文 is commonly used in a boy’s name while 雯 is commonly used in a girl’s name. Thus, if the gender is important, ask instead of assume.

Chinese has different dialects; some common dialects are Hokkien, Teo-Chew, Cantonese, etc. From the family name, we can (safely) assume the dialect of the person. For example, the surname 林, it is pronounced lin, the second tone, in 汉语拼音. For Hokkien, it is pronounced Lim, while for Cantonese, it is pronounced Lam.

The next time you meet a Chinese friend, ask for his / her Chinese name instead of Western name, and you will find out how fascinating Chinese names can be.



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