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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.
One of the reasons why students do not like Chinese language is because it is difficult. Chinese language writing system is using characters to represent the words. Thus, you do not know how to pronounce (read) a Chinese character the first time you see it and you lose the interest to learn (Imagine you are reading a Chinese book and you do not know how to read most of the characters). In the end, Chinese language is being labelled as “difficult”.
Chinese language characters are easily mistaken for two reasons: (a) They have the same pronunciation, and (b) Their characters look similar.
Below is a list of easily mistaken Chinese Language characters:
1. 在 vs 再
在 and 再 have the same pronunciation, zai, the fourth tone. 在 is used as preposition and/or verb-to-be. For example:
我在吃饭。 — I am eating rice. (I am having a meal.)
我在学校。 — I am at the school.
再 means again. For example:
请再说一次。 — Please say it again.
2. 累 vs 泪
累 and 泪 have the same pronunciation, lei, the fourth tone. 累 means tired. For example:
我累了。 — I am tired.
泪 has three water drops on the left and an eye on the right, which means water of the eyes => tears. For example:
她哭了，泪在流。 — She cries, tears are flowing.
3. 讲 vs 进
讲 and 进 look similar, both have the character 井, but they are pronounced differently with different meaning.
讲, jiang, the third tone, means talk or tell. For example: 不要讲话。 — Do not talk.
进, jin, the fourth tone, means enter or go in. For example: 走进图书馆之后，就不要讲话。 — After entering the library, do not talk.
The list can go on and on. To “conquer” Chinese language, look out for characters with the same pronunciation and/or similar look. Chinese language is easy; you just need to pay attention to small details.