The Art of Chinese Names

Ryan Zhang moved to the United States from Guangzhou, China at the age of twelve, and has lived in three U.S. cities and two different continents since then.  Ryan received his Master of Divinity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is currently serving as a church planting resident at New City Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, OH, his US hometown. Before moving to Boston for seminary, Ryan lived in Washington D.C. for seven years, first as a student at Georgetown University and later working for a law firm.  It was during his time in D.C. that Ryan met his wife, Abigail, who shares his love for history and classical music.  In his free time, Ryan likes to watch Chinese dramas, cook, swim, and listen to Beethoven.

My wife and I are happy to announce that we are expecting our first child at the end of April. This is certainly an exciting development for us. We are leaving the gender of our child as a surprise, which means we have to prepare a boy's name and a girl's name. In addition to coming up with an English name, we also solicited my parents' help to come up with two Chinese names for our baby. This process has caused me to rediscover the intricate complexity behind the art of Chinese names.

When we first came to America in 1999, my parents and I adopted English first names as a way to transition into the American society. My parents chose the names Karen and Gary mainly because they sounded most similar to their Chinese names. I was first given the name "David," but I did not like the sound of it (that was long before I knew about the handsome and brave King David in the Old Testament). Instead, I had selected the name "Ryan" because it sounded cooler. It is a bit strange that once we moved to a new country, we would be known by something completely different. But fortunately for us, we are still able to retain our Chinese names as our middle names, and thereby keeping a piece of our Chinese identity with us. So as we think of naming our son or daughter, Abigail and I decided we would do the same: an English first name plus a Chinese middle name.

Generally, for people in the Han ethnic group – which is about 91% of the entire Chinese population in Mainland China – a Chinese name consists of two to three Chinese characters. Contrary to English names, the family name always goes first in a Chinese name.  Therefore, the first character in a Chinese name is always the family name, except for a few unique family names that have two characters. After the family name, parents form the given name by choosing one or two characters out of more than 5,000 Chinese characters. There is no standard list of names where parents should choose from, which allow Chinese parents to be quite creative in naming their children. Since parents can create so many different combinations with these 5,000 characters, even though there are more than 1.3 billion people in China, you don't often run across people with the same names.

My Chinese name is 张永昭. It is a three-character name. The first character is our family name "Zhang," to which my dad added the name永昭 (Yong Zhao), which means "forever bright." Some people prefer to only have two-character names, such as my childhood best friend 沈俊.  沈 (Shen) is his family name, and the given name俊 (Jun) means "handsome," which I've always thought was a very simple and appropriate name for him because he was a popular, handsome fella. Some people also take into consideration of the meaning of the family name. A famous singer in Hong Kong is named 黎明. The family name 黎 (Li) does not usually mean anything, but combined with the character 明 (Ming, meaning "bright") the whole name stands for "dawn." Of course, some characters are more closely associated with male names while others are more feminine, so parents pay attention to that as well.

Similar to how some Americans like to name their kids after someone in the family, Chinese parents can also adopt a character from the name of someone they admire. For example, I really like the character 烨 (Ye) for a name because it is also the name of the Emperor Kangxi, 玄烨 (Xuan Ye), who is commonly regarded as one of the best emperors in Chinese history. It also means "bright" like the last character of my own name. In addition, the character 烨 (Ye) is formed by combining two smaller characters 火 (Huo, meaning fire) and 华 (Hua, meaning China), so this combination can also have the meaning of "lighting up China." As you can see, this one character has three layers of meaning for me because 1) it is adopted from my favorite emperor, 2) it takes after the meaning of my own name, and 3) the two parts that form this character express my devotion to China. 

Besides considering the meaning of the characters, parents also have to think about their pronunciation. Because many Chinese characters sound the same, a name could have one meaning on paper and sound totally different when you pronounce it. At first I really liked the name 恒莹 (Heng Yin) for a girl because it also means "forever bright" like my own name, but after sounding it out in Cantonese I quickly rejected it in horror because it sounded exactly like the Chinese word for "execution" (行刑)! 

In addition to these, some people also take into consideration the timing of a baby's birth, the five Chinese elements, various family traditions, and a number of other factors. If all of that is confusing to you, I hope it at least helps you appreciate the depth of meaning behind a Chinese name. Naming is one of the most important acts parents do for their children because it expresses the care and hope the parents place on their children. Not only is a person known by a name for the rest of his or her life, but the meaning behind a name may also define his or her character. Economist Steven Levitt argues in Freakonomics that names can reflect the education level of the parents and thus determine the destiny of a child, and I think this is even more true for Chinese parents.

If you have ever struggle to pronounce the names of your Chinese friend, besides asking them to teach you how to say them, ask them to tell you the meaning behind their names. It may be one of the best ways to get to know them and their families.