Creating a good first impression is a crucial part of starting any successful relationship. Introducing yourself and shaking hands with good eye contact is usually all it takes in the west. But in China, an introduction is a lot less simple when both sides are unable to understand, or even pronounce, each other’s names. This is why many Chinese people who live overseas or regularly interact with foreigners, often adopt an English name for smoother communication.
As China continues to develop their economy and policy of opening up to the world, co-operation with the international community has reached an all-time high. People from all over the world are now consistently conducting business in China or with their Chinese counterparts. These changing dynamics mean it’s important to recognise that most people don’t speak any English, meaning they can often find it hard to pronounce or understand the likes of Alexander or Sarah. Therefore, adopting a good Chinese name, as many have done with a new English moniker, is necessary to help develop strong relationships.
However, the process of selecting a new Chinese name is all too often underestimated and not done correctly. This often results in people (from both sides) deciding on something that – at one end of the scale – does not reflect their character, gender or profession, right through to being highly peculiar or ridiculous. Needless to say, this creates negative first impressions and can hamper any potential relationships. Below we will explore the differences in names between China and the west, as well as offer some practical advice so you can craft one of your own to allow you to do business with confidence.
Why are names so important in Chinese culture?
The way names are chosen and the importance that is attached to them is completely different in China. In the west, we tend to decide with the phonetics of the name – rather than the imagery or deeper meaning – at the forefront. The majority of western names come from the Bible, cultural heroes or from people who hold sentimental value, but decisions are also often influenced by current trends and fashion. As a result, very few westerners are aware of its origin or meaning. Equally, they do not usually believe it will have a significant impact on their life or future success.
The construction of Chinese names are incredibly complicated to outsiders and can also be quite a challenge to natives as well. Due to the nature of the language, each can be a unique construct, creative and original, acting as a sort of code. Most Chinese names consist of either two or three monosyllabic characters. The family name is one character which usually comes from a common pool (typically no more than around 100). Given names usually consist of two monosyllabic characters which can be drawn from almost any of the thousands of Chinese characters that exist, allowing the possibility for limitless combinations. Therefore, most combine symbolic meanings and aspirations, and some even incorporate characters designed to make it aesthetically pleasing.
There is enormous importance attached to these decisions. Usually, the parents decide on one that represents characteristics they hope their child will possess, allude to aspirations for its future or create something unique that suits their artistic taste.
Another cultural difference to note is that in Chinese culture the family name is always placed before the given one. For example, in the case of famous director 张艺谋 Zhāng Yìmóu, “Zhang” is family and “Yimou” is given. This reflects the fact that China is a collective society, placing priority on one’s origins and ancestry over individuality.
With such importance surrounding names, and such a complex way of constructing them, even the most linguistically astute can find the task daunting. To lessen the challenge below is some practical advice on tackling the pitfalls you may encounter when setting out in search of your own Chinese name.
Be serious about it
Names are a big part of the Chinese culture; they act almost like a bridge, linking ancestry with the modern day. People in China believe that a name, and the character traits coded within it, has a genuine impact on a person’s future. As discussed above, parents spend a considerable amount of time and effort choosing the right one for their children.
Many foreigners have made the mistake of not taking the process seriously, either by not giving enough attention to developing one or giving themselves a name they find quirky and amusing. For example:
- 一个二 (Yīgè èr) – which phonetically sounds very similar to Igor, but means “one-two”.
- 喜羊羊(Xǐyángyáng) – the name of a popular cartoon character and translates as “the happy sheep”.
- 少林寺 (Shàolínsì) – which is the original name of the world-famous Shaolin Temple.
Unsurprisingly, names in this vein are never taken seriously in China, while some may even deem them as offensive to their culture and sensibilities.
Don’t just transcribe your name
One of the most common mistakes made is to simply transcribe a name into Chinese characters. While this may help with pronunciation, it is not a real name in the Chinese sense. This option is usually reserved for famous individuals who have relatively little contact with the culture. Therefore transcribing is only used as a tool to help Chinese people pronounce the original name. For example, David Beckham becomes 大卫贝克汉姆 (Dà wèi bèikè hàn mǔ).
Even those who choose characters with positive connotations will still be left with something that is visibly foreign. This is because the majority of Chinese names comprise of just two or three characters, whereas transcribing a foreign will usually require many more. For example, Jennifer Aniston becomes 詹妮弗 安妮斯顿 (Zhēnnī fú ānnī sī dùn).
The end result is both weird and confusing to most native speakers, especially those who have little to no interaction with foreigners.
Don’t take it too seriously
While many do not take the process seriously enough, others have been known to do the exact opposite – choosing a name that is perceived as too ambitious, traditional or elaborate. Usually, this is done by those who have a genuine respect and fascination with Chinese culture but have had little exposure to contemporary China itself. Their understanding is often shaped by kung-fu movies, classic literature and old philosophies. They then take names inspired by these mediums, for example:
- 吕晓突 (Lǚ xiǎo tū) – Although it may sound similar to Shawn, this is a Buddhist name meaning “Sudden Dawn”, referencing enlightenment.
- 活雷锋 (Huó Léifēng) – he was a communist role model during the 70’s who sacrificed his life for his country. For generations, Lei Feng has been associated with humility and virtue. But in this form, the first character 活 means “live” and “living”. So in this case, a person would be introducing themselves as “living Lei Feng”, which is in poor taste. Also, this kind of construct is actually an adjective.
- 孙悟空 (Sūn Wùkōng or Monkey King) – A character from one of the four classic Chinese novels, it is often picked as a name by foreigners because they think it’s a cool character. However, in China, although being comic, the Monkey King is also often seen as rebellious and a hooligan.
Names such as these are not offensive, quite the opposite, they will usually draw a smile from your counterpart. Your good intentions would certainly be appreciated, but you would likely be viewed as naive, having no real understanding of modern Chinese culture. For those doing business, this can seriously undermine your credibility. To illustrate this further, imagine meeting someone called William Shakespeare, Aristotle or Taylor Swift. As you can probably see, it is best to avoid looking at classic literature, Chinese movies or historical figures too closely for inspiration.
Keep gender in mind
Many characters have gender connotations that are not easily seen or understood by a foreign eye. In China, as well as most East Asian cultures, gender roles are very pronounced, while at the same time being slightly different to those from other cultures. Things associated with femininity in the west can sometimes favour the masculine in the east and vice versa.
To really understand what is normally considered feminine or masculine a person needs to have in-depth knowledge of the language and culture. A dictionary is of little help here. There are many cases of foreigners choosing wrongly gendered names, which has caused them embarrassment among their Chinese peers. For example, 霞鹰 (Xiá yīng) “eagle of the red clouds” sounds very masculine to most westerners. In practice 霞 (Xiá), or “red clouds”, is very often used in female names and 鹰 (yīng) “eagle” is gender neutral, together creating a feminine name.
In other circumstances, these gender associations are much clearer to interpret when you consider the cultural context. China is still a conservative country, meaning characters associated with power, wealth and nobility are usually reserved for men, while those linked to weather, dreams, plants, beauty and poetry are reserved for women.
Be aware of the tones
Mandarin and Cantonese are tonal languages (five and ten respectively). Most languages use the pitch of language to convey emotion, but in tonal languages, they are used to distinguish lexical or grammatical meanings. Due to the limited number of sounds in Chinese, there are many characters that have the same pronunciation even if the meaning differs greatly. This can work for or against you, for example:
- FOR: 莉亮 Lì Liàng would directly translate as “bright jasmine” or “light of the jasmine”. However, there are other words that have the exact same pronunciation, such as 力量 Lìliàng, meaning “power”. So, by adopting this, a woman could have a feminine name, while also maintaining an association with power and authority.
- AGAINST: 侯岩 Hóu Yán with Hóu (meaning “noble” – a common surname) and Yán (meaning “rock”) acting as a given name. The problem is that the word for Laryngitis (喉炎 Hóu Yán) has the same pronunciation.
The consequences of these mistakes can range from some minor embarrassment, to ridicule, to even being offensive. Therefore it is vital to be aware of the associated meanings that are linked to the pronunciation of the characters you have chosen.
Choose characters that reflect your personality or aspirations
As mentioned before, in China parents usually weave their aspirations into their children’s names, hoping that they will possess these given characteristics. So, just by hearing someone’s name, a Chinese person can understand not only what the parents were hoping for in their child’s future, but also get a clue towards the family background. This can mean that, while a Chinese name is often chosen to define the owner’s future, it can sometimes act more like a window into the past.
Foreigners approach the situation from a different angle. They usually choose their Chinese name when already at a mature age, understanding more about themselves, as well as knowing what they want from their future. With that in mind, it is mostly a good idea to choose a name that would express your personality and aspirations. In doing so not only would you not stray away from the cultural customs, but you could even use it to your own advantage, by giving your Chinese counterparts an insight into your personality.
Ask a native for help
Having explored the trials of choosing a name, many people mistakenly turn to a friend fluent in Chinese for help. While having fluency certainly allows them to understand the literal meanings of the characters, but grasping the cultural context behind them requires understanding the Chinese worldview and thinking patterns on a deeper level.
Characters not only have multiple meanings, but they also hold aesthetic value and their own developmental history; incorporating multiple layers of cross-referencing across historical figures and events. After all, calligraphy still is and has been for hundreds of years, their main form of art. Therefore, only a native can understand all of the subtleties hidden within the language.
The only way to ensure that you have a Chinese name that works best for you is to seek the help of a native. They can help you experiment with different names to find one to best suit your personality, and maybe even find something that sounds similar to your original name. That being said, don’t treat their word as gospel, try out your prospective name with at least five or six natives before making what is ultimately a very important decision.