Ultimate Guide to Chinese Names and Surnames | CLI (2024)

Chinese names can be puzzling for those not familiar with Chinese language and culture. This article will provide you with the ultimate guide to Chinese names.

Read on to learn about Chinese surnames and discover how first names are picked, how to address others using diminutives and how to pick your own Chinese name!

Ultimate Guide to Chinese Names and Surnames | CLI (1)

Table of Contents

  • Chinese surnames
    • Top 10 most common Chinese surnames
  • How are Chinese first names chosen?
    • Chinese characters
    • Birth and Fortune
    • Tonal harmony
    • Naming taboos
  • Top 10 most common Chinese first names
    • Most common first names for Chinese girls
    • Most common first names for Chinese boys
  • Maiden and married names
  • Nicknames and terms of endearment
    • 老 (Lǎo, old)
    • 小 (Xiǎo, little)
    • 阿 (Ā, no distinct meaning)
    • Example: Our friend 王宇航 (Wáng Yǔháng)
  • Adaptation of English names
    • Lost in translation
    • The growing influence of Mandarin Chinese
  • Choosing your Chinese name
    • Consult a native Chinese speaker
    • How do I say my name in Chinese?
  • Chinese Name Vocabulary

Chinese surnames

In Chinese language and culture, it’s common practice to start from big to small. For example, addresses will start from the country and move down to the house number, and names always start with the surname first. Therefore, someone named John Smith would be referred to as Smith John according to Chinese naming conventions.

Children usually inherit their father’s surnames, though it’s also legally possible for children to take on their mother’s maiden surname.

Although the 百家姓 (Bǎijiāxìng, a classical Chinese text created in the Song dynasty) lists over 400 official Chinese surnames, in today’s China, the top 10 surnames account for the majority of the population. This homogeneity is mainly due to the fact that the biggest ethnic group in China is the Han Chinese.

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What makes a good Chinese name and how does the name shape destinies and character? How do you ensure that the name is meaningful, elegant and auspicious at the same time? This book provides all the knowledge you need for devising a good Chinese name for your child.

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Top 10 most common Chinese surnames

As you will see, the surnames Li (李) Wang (王) and Zhang (张) cover more than 20% of the Chinese population. Here are the top 10 Chinese surnames and the total number of people with each name in mainland China:

SurnamePopulation
1. 李 (Lǐ) 7.94% (95,300,000)
2. 王 (Wáng)7.41% (88,900,000)
3. 张 (Zhāng)7.07% (84,800,000)
4. 刘 (Liú)5.38% (64,600,000)
5. 陈 (Chén)4.53% (54,400,000)
6. 杨 (Yáng)3.08% (37,000,000)
7. 赵 (Zhào)2.29% (27,500,000)
8. 黄 (Huáng)2.23% (26,800,000)
9. 周 (Zhōu)2.12% (25,400,000)
10. 吴 (Wú)2.05% (24,600,000)

Source: kknews.cc

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Although there are hundreds of Chinese surnames, most people have one of the 10 most popular names.

How are Chinese first names chosen?

A Chinese name, or 姓名 (xìngmíng), consists of a surname (姓 xìng) and a first name (名 míng). Chinese first names are usually made up of two characters, although single character first names also exist. The process of picking a name for a newborn is taken seriously and many different factors are considered:

Chinese characters

Most parents choose Chinese characters with meanings that they hope their children will embody. Often, they also pick characters with connotations which are perceived as being either masculine or feminine. For boys, this usually means characters that denote strength and might, and for girls characters that convey beauty and elegance.

In more religious and traditional families, the Five Elements (五行 wǔxíng) and their association with each Chinese zodiac sign play a critical role in the characters chosen.

Based on his or her natal chart, a child may have too much or too little of an element, and so a character that represents the missing element is often chosen to create balance.

Birth and Fortune

For example, a child might “lack fire” (缺火, quē huǒ) in his or her birth chart and so his or her name might include an (always auspicious) character that includes a fire radical such as 杰 (jié), 荧 (yíng), 炫 (xuàn) or 炜 (wěi).

A good name is critical to a person’s good fortune. In Chinese philosophy, the five elements play an integral role in the balance of life.

The following saying shows the relationships that are traditionally believed to exist among the five elements:

金克木,木克土,土克水,水克火,火克金。

Jīn kè mù, mù kè tǔ, tǔ kè shuǐ, shuǐ kè huǒ, huǒ kè jīn.

Metal overcomes wood, wood overcomes earth, earth overcomes water, water overcomes fire, fire overcomes metal.

Ultimate Guide to Chinese Names and Surnames | CLI (5)

Traditionally, the characters in Chinese names are chosen based on the elements that they represent.

Tonal harmony

As you may be aware by now, Chinese is a tonal language. Therefore, it’s very important to consider how the characters sound together, especially when combined with the surname.

Not only does the name need to have a pleasing sound, but due to the large number of Chinese homophones, wordplay can result in either auspicious or inauspicious meanings.

Naming taboos

It is inappropriate to name a child after a famous person. In ancient times, this meant not using the same name as the emperor, but in modern times, that could mean avoiding using names linked to celebrities or any other well-known people. Failure to respect this taboo comes across as extremely immodest, so it’s best to choose a nondescript name.

Top 10 most common Chinese first names

Originating from Taiwanese, the word “farmer’s market name” (菜市场名, càishìchǎng míng) is used to refer to a name that is so common that when called out in any farmer’s market, many heads would turn. Very much like the Johns and Karens of the English speaking world!

Here are the top first names for men and women according to the 2019 National Name Report.

Most common first names for Chinese girls

First namePinyin
一诺Yīnuò
依诺Yīnuò
欣怡Xīnyí
梓涵Zǐhán
诗涵Shīhán
欣妍Xīnyán
雨桐Yǔtóng
佳怡Jiāyí
佳琪Jiāqí
梓萱Zǐxuān

Most common first names for Chinese boys

First namePinyin
浩宇Hàoyǔ
浩然Hàorán
宇轩Yǔxuān
宇航Yǔháng
铭泽Míngzé
子墨Zimò
梓豪Zǐháo
子睿Ziruì
子轩Zixuān
梓睿Zǐruì

Maiden and married names

In traditional Chinese culture, women retain their original surnames after marriage and the idea of taking your husband’s name is almost non-existent.

This is due to the influence of strong filial piety and patriarchal values in Chinese culture. Traditionally, women were identified by their fathers’ lineages. People today have the freedom to choose either parent’s last name, but it’s usually the father’s surname that’s passed on to the child.

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In China, women keep their maiden names after marriage.

Nicknames and terms of endearment

老 (Lǎo, old)

Generally speaking, 老 (lǎo) is only used for males. Most commonly, 老 (lǎo) is used as a colloquial prefix of respect. It can be used for someone with whom you are acquainted, usually of the same age as yourself. It can also be used for people who are older than you or who have a superior position.

However, keep in mind that although 老 (lǎo) is frequently used for people who are not young, addressing a person who is actually a lot older than you by adding 老 (lǎo) to their name is very impolite. Instead, you can call them 哥 (gē, older brother), 姐 (jiě, older sister), 阿姨 (āyí, aunt) or 叔叔 (shūshu, uncle).

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In Chinese culture, the name seal is a profound item that is used as an official means of signing ones name, or leaving one's mark. Made with natural Shoushan stone (寿山石 shòushānshí), this timeless piece is a perfect gift for yourself or others.

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小 (Xiǎo, little)

小 (xiǎo) can be used both for males and females. It’s usually a term of endearment and can also be used when addressing subordinates.

阿 (Ā, no distinct meaning)

This is usually prefixed to the last character of a person’s name to produce an affectionate or diminutive sounding form of address. It’s mainly used by speakers of the Hokkien, Hakka and Min dialects in southern China.

Example: Our friend 王宇航 (Wáng Yǔháng)

Let's say we have a person called 王宇航 (Wáng Yǔháng) who is around 30 years old. His friends might call him 老王 (Lǎo Wáng) while his boss might call him 小王 (Xiǎo Wáng). Those younger than him might call him 王哥 (Wáng Gē) and those a lot younger than him might refer to him as 王叔叔 (Wáng Shūshu).

In Chinese, there’s actually a joke about how you know you’re getting old when younger people start calling you 阿姨 (āyí) or 叔叔 (shūshu)!.

王宇航 (Wáng Yǔháng) might also have several nicknames. His grandparents might address him by repeating the last character of his first name: 航航 (Háng Háng), or if he’s from southern China, his older family members might call him 航 (Ā Háng).

There are no hard rules when it comes to nicknames as they’re naturally selected by family or friends during the course of one’s life. The nicknames a person receives tend to depend on his or her character and relationship to others.

Ultimate Guide to Chinese Names and Surnames | CLI (9)

Chinese children often have a cute nickname chosen by their family members.

Adaptation of English names

Many Chinese adopt English names for a variety of reasons, such as to help them achieve better integration in a foreign country or workplace, or simply because English names are easier for foreigners to pronounce and remember.

Usually, elementary or middle school English teachers provide English names for their students, but some students will also choose their own names.

Lost in translation

As already mentioned, Chinese names are chosen based on their sound and their positive meanings. However, when the same principles are applied to choosing English names, it sometimes results in the choice of what most English speakers would consider bizarre English names.

It’s not uncommon to meet Chinese people whose English names are Candy, Happy, Sunny, Star, or even something cute like Piggy. Often, these strange names are actually direct translations from their Chinese names.

The growing influence of Mandarin Chinese

There are more and more reasons to learn Chinese, especially when you consider China’s growing economic power. As more people around the globe start to gain familiarity with the Chinese language, many Chinese people are deciding to stick to their original names instead of adopting an English name.

This usually means using the Hanyu Pinyin system to transcribe their names (albeit without the tone marks).

Since Chinese surnames come first while western surnames come last, many (but not all) Chinese people who keep their original Chinese names may still choose to reverse the order so that their surname comes last. Thus, our previously mentioned friend 王宇航 (Wáng Yǔháng) might choose to be referred to as Yuhang Wang in a foreign setting.

Choosing your Chinese name

After reading this article, you may be wondering how to pick your own Chinese name. Read on to learn more about the best way to do this.

Consult a native Chinese speaker

Even if you have a good level of Mandarin, it’s best to have a native speaker pick a name for you due to the number of cultural nuances involved. A perfect candidate would be your Chinese teacher.

If you don’t have a Chinese teacher, you can check out our online one-on-one Chinese classes and even schedule a free trial class.

When picking your name, your Chinese teacher should take into consideration your personality, date of birth and your name in your native language.

Ultimate Guide to Chinese Names and Surnames | CLI (10)

It’s best to seek help from a native Chinese speaker when choosing your Chinese name.

How do I say my name in Chinese?

Choosing an appropriate Chinese name takes time and effort. If you need to introduce yourself on short notice and haven't yet had time to pick a Chinese name, you can always use the Chinese transliteration of your English name. Keep in mind, however, that it's always best to choose an authentic Chinese name for yourself rather than just using your name's Chinese equivalent.

Why should you adopt a Chinese name? Learning any language requires you to cultivate a genuine interest in the corresponding culture. It’s important to adopt a Chinese name as this demonstrates seriousness in learning the language and respect towards Chinese culture.

Choosing a Chinese name can also be fun and presents a great way for you to fully develop your new Chinese identity as you immerse yourself in this rich and beautiful language. So what are you waiting for? 取一个名字吧!

Chinese Name Vocabulary

ChinesePinyinEnglish
取名字qǔ míngzìto pick a name
好运hǎoyùngood luck
积极jījíauspicious
消极xiāojíunlucky
算命suànmìngto tell someone's fortune
五行wǔhángfive elements
wood
huǒfire
earth
jīnmetal
shuǐwater
五行 (火) 多wǔháng (huǒ) duōto have too much (fire) *can insert any element
五行缺 (火)wǔháng quē (huǒ)to lack (fire)
补救bǔjiùto remedy
生辰八字shēngchén bāzìnatal chart (based on Chinese calendar)
Ultimate Guide to Chinese Names and Surnames | CLI (2024)

FAQs

What is the order of Chinese names and surnames? ›

Chinese naming conventions arrange names as follows: [FAMILY NAME] [given name]. For example, ZHANG Chen (male) and WANG Xiu (female). The family name (or 'surname') is inherited from one's parents and shared with other members of the individual's immediate family .

How do I find my Chinese first name and last name? ›

Chinese surnames usually come first, followed by the given name. In our earlier example, Chan Tai Man, Chan is the surname while Tai Man is the given name.

What is a rare Chinese last name? ›

Some of the rare surnames Kuo has collected include Hu (虎, tiger), Yi (蟻, ant), Shui (水, water), Yun (雲, cloud), Suo (鎖, lock), Dan (但, but) and Mai (買, buy). Some of the surnames were so rare that the character could not be found on a computer, he said.

What are the 4 most common Chinese last names? ›

These top five surnames— Wang, Li, Zhang, Liu, Chen—alone accounted for more people than Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world, and their total number is around the population of the US, the third most populous country in the world.

Which Chinese last names are royalty? ›

Wáng is the most common surname in mainland China and is a royal surname meaning “King.” This surname has origins from multiple royal families from the Qin dynasty to the Tang dynasty. Those with the surname Wang are likely descendants of royalty.

Is a Chinese first name first or last? ›

It's important that you understand that the surname comes first in Chinese name order. If you meet someone called Chen Wei, then you should address him as Mr Chen and not as Mr Wei. The use of the first name in Chinese culture comes down to intimacy and familiarity.

Can you pick your own Chinese name? ›

Even if yours is a name that translates easily, you may still want something that has more meaning to it than just the translation. Don't feel like you need to use the direct translation of your name if you don't want to – there are infinite Chinese name possibilities for you to choose from.

Is Xi a first or last name? ›

Xi is a common last name found among Overseas Chinese communities around the world. In fact, "Xi" is the transliteration of several different Chinese surnames. Its meaning varies depending on how it is spelled in Chinese, and which dialect it is pronounced in.

What's my last name in Chinese? ›

Summary of ways to ask what is your name
What is your name?你叫什么名字?Nǐ jiào shénme míngzì?
What is your last name? (Formal)您贵姓?Nín guìxìng?
And you?你呢?Nǐ ne?
My name is...我叫。。。Wǒ jiào...
My last name is...我姓。。。Wǒ xìng...
2 more rows

What is the oldest Chinese surname? ›

According to ancient documents, the earliest surname in China was "Feng", and the earliest surnames were "Fuxi", "Shennong", "Nuwa's" and so on. The most commonly used ones in China are "Li", "Wang", "Zhang", "Liu", "Chen", "Yang" and so on. 100 common surnames, accounting for about 85% of China's total population.

What is the oldest surname in the world? ›

The oldest surname in the world is KATZ (the initials of the two words — Kohen Tsedek). Every Katz is a priest, descending in an unbroken line from Aaron the brother of Moses, 1300 B.C.

What are the top 3 last names in China? ›

In fact, the top three surnames, Wang (王), Li (李), and Zhang (张) account for over 20% of the population. Learning the top surnames in China can come in useful when analysing text in Chinese.

What is a typical Chinese full name? ›

Zhāng Wěi 张伟, Wáng Wěi 王伟, and Lǐ Nà 李娜 are the three most common full names.

Why do Chinese siblings have different last names? ›

As in much of the world, children in China typically inherit their father's surname. This was once a defining characteristic of the country's traditional patriarchal family structures, which greatly emphasized the need to have sons to carry on the family name.

What does Wang mean in China? ›

Wang 王 is the Chinese word for "king".

Why do Chinese put last names first? ›

Chinese naming patterns

The first part is the generation name that is shared by all members of a generation, and the last character is given to the individual person. The reason Chinese people write their surname first is to show respect to their ancestors.

How do you say Chinese names in order? ›

Basic Name Structure

Names written in the western order include the given name (first name) followed by the family name (last name). However, keep in mind in China, this order is reversed with the family name first and the given name second.

Is Zhang a first name or last name? ›

Zhang ([ʈʂáŋ] ( listen)) is the third most common surname in China and Taiwan (commonly spelled as "Chang" in Taiwan), and it is one of the most common surnames in the world.

Is surname the first or last name? ›

Your surname is your family name. It's also called your “last name.” When filling out applications, type your surname as it appears on your passport, travel or identity document. Do not use initials.

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