Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

How to find a suitable Chinese name

kalligrafiPeople who know nothing about Chinese sometimes ask me how to write their names in Chinese characters. The answer is that you can’t. What you can do is find a good Chinese name for yourself or choose characters that are read in a way similar to the name you want to write.

Finding a good Chinese name

Chinese has very few syllables (about 400), so choosing suitable sounds is sometimes impossible. Sometimes it is possible, but Chinese people prefer other choices for non-obvious reasons (sometimes related to complicated historical interactions between Chinese dialects).

When I teach beginner courses in Chinese, I usually play a small guessing game with the students where I say a few names of famous people in Chinese and they are supposed to guess whom they are referring to. This is easy for cases like 貝多芬 (Bèiduōfēn) Ludwig van Beethoven, but impossible for cases like 福爾摩斯 (Fúěrmósī) Sherlock Holmes.

Bend Over Hedge Master Ruffian Foetus

Now, the meaning of the characters have nothing to do with the name. At best, auspicious or neutral characters are chosen over those with decidedly negative connotations, but only in rare cases are the meaning of the characters related to the name.

This leads to a lot of nonsense, so if you translate the meaning of some common English names written in Chinese, all you get is slightly amusing gibberish:

  • 喬納森 (Qiáonàsēn) Jonathan = tall admit forest
  • 伊麗莎白 (Yī​lì​shā​bái) Elizabeth = that beautiful kind of sedge grass white
  • 克利斯朵夫 (Kè​lì​sī​duǒ​fū) Christopher = gram advantage thus earlobe man

Or you can see what Stephen Fry makes of his and his fellows’ Chinese names on the BBC show Qi:

While this might be slightly inaccurate, it still illustrates the point: foreign names directly transcribed with Chinese characters don’t make much sense and don’t really work well as names in Chinese at all. Chinese personal names often have two characters, sometimes one, but it’s exceedingly rare to have more. Family names often have just one character, but sometimes two. The average length of English names is much longer.

Finding a good Chinese name for yourself

If you think all of this is just slightly amusing and you’re okay with being called That Beautiful Kind of Sedge Grass White, then that’s perfectly okay, that’s what’s going to happen if you don’t take action and allow someone to just find a good Chinese name for you (perhaps a bored official when you apply for something in China or your overloaded, poor Chinese teacher).

I certainly wasn’t okay with this and if you feel the same, you need to find a suitable name for yourself. There are at least three ways you can do this:

  1. Try to find a good Chinese name yourself by selecting characters you like and/or sound like your name, sticking only to characters with good meaning. You might have to be quite flexible on the “sound like your name” part, but that’s okay.
  2. Steal the name or parts of it from a real Chinese person. If you’ve seen a name that you like for some reason (after checking what it means), combine this with your own family name. It might be a good idea to avoid very famous people though.
  3. Ask a Chinese person who knows you for help, finding a name that both sounds good and matches your personality. This isn’t easy, so if you ask someone who doesn’t know you well, you might get a half-hearted response.

Whatever you do, you have to check your name with several native speakers!

This is especially true if you use the first two methods as it is very likely that you will pick names that don’t work very well or have unintended effects. If you’re okay with having a name that you think is cool but just sounds really weird for Chinese people, that’s fine, but you should at least know about it.

After you have listened to suggestions and opinions from a few native speakers, you should be okay. Also note that it’s absolutely crucial that you ask native speakers rather than advanced second language learners like myself! A good Chinese name has to take into account connotations and emotions, something which is very, very hard to grasp for us foreigners, regardless of how long we’ve studied Chinese.

My Chinese name

To make this article slightly more concrete and personal, I’d like to share with you the story behind my name, which I adopted before moving to Taiwan in 2008. My Chinese name is 凌雲龍/凌云龙 (Líng Yún-lóng). The personal name is taken from a movement, Cloud Dragon Playing in Water (雲龍戲水), in the sabre form in the style of Tai Chi Chuan I used to practise. I’ve always liked both the movement and the name, the contrast between a high-flying creature and the low-lying water.

The family name matches the personal name quite well since it means “soaring”. It also happens to sound like my surname in Swedish, but that’s mostly an accident. Finally, part of my name forms the part of some ambitious idioms, like 凌雲壯志, which means to have lofty aspirations.

I decided to get my own Chinese name when I received a scholarship to study Mandarin in Taiwan for a year. On the form, there was a separate field for the applicant’s Chinese name, and I figured that if I don’t get one myself, I will end up being called Bend Over Hedge Master Ruffian Foetus. No thank you. Instead, I spent a couple of hours generating names I thought okay (I had studied Chinese for about 9 months at the time) and then asked my teacher about some of the ideas. Thus, I came up with my name myself, but I obviously received help along the way.

That was almost seven years ago. I have been called by my Chinese name more than my Swedish name during that time, and today both names are part of who I am. I think it’s a good Chinese name, although the three consecutive second tones are a bit annoying. Some native speakers think it sounds a bit like a wuxia character, but there are also real Chinese people with the same personal name. Thinking about my Chinese name, it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to have another name, just like it is for my Swedish name.

Your Chinese name

What’s your Chinese name and the story behind it? Are you happy with your Chinese name? Do you have any funny stories about other people’s Chinese names? Please leave a comment!

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15 comments

  1. Rob says:

    My Chinese name during school (and during my scholarship period in Taiwan) was 卡伯斯. It was certainly a conversation starter when people asked my name and I could tell them about this weird meaningless and hardly phonetic (last name sort of, first name not at all) name, but ultimately I wanted a cool name. However, the Chinese teachers at school all know me by this name, so in a way I’m sure it will never fully leave me. (One time someone laughed and said my name sounds like 卡脖子, I thought that was pretty funny too)

    However, I decided upon graduation once I started studying Chinese by myself that I would choose a more suitable name. After a lot of thought and some consulting others, I chose 柯羅羆. It accomplishes the phonetic effect much better (as it sounds similar to my last name) but also has some meaning.

    Ke: Axe handle -> chose this over other surnames because it is not terribly common much like my actual surname, and I do like tools / I play tennis and generally use pretty heavy racquets (kind of a stretch).
    Luo: Catch with a net and tie, I’ll be honest: this one is mostly phonetic, though I picked it over other Luo/Lou/Rou/etc. due to how it looks next to Pi.
    Pi: Brown bear, ancient Youxiong totem in the Battle of Banquan -> I have always liked the fearsome potential, protective instincts, self-preservation, and size of bears.

    All in all, my logic might be a little bit stretched at times, but what I think is important is that I like how the name looks and sounds and I do not feel embarrassed about it.

  2. Nick says:

    Websites with lists of people from various communities and age groups (graduation announcements, lists of university/business/organization staff etc.) can be helpful if you want to see many examples of names.

    Speaking of avoiding very famous people, some people recommend asking someone to help Google the name to check for matches with important historical figures and recently (in)famous people. If you ask enough native speakers, someone will probably mention if the name reminds them of someone, but it depends on who you ask, where they’re living, and how much they keep up on current events. If you ask them to help you Google the name for you, it might jog their memory.

  3. Ieva says:

    My Chinese name was given by a local teacher and I’m very grateful for that. Last name sounds like the first syllable of my real surname and the name sounds a little bit like my real name and has girlish meaning with those “brilliant” and stuff that Chinese like very much 🙂 I heard that there are real people with this given name in China. A surname is though a little bit difficult to pronounce (the third tone) so I’m thinking about changing it, because my real surname also changed after I got married. But I’m so used to it… And I was so annoyed by Chinese ignorance when I came to university in China – they all of a sudden gave me “just a name” according to it’s original sounding, despite that my “real” Chinese name was filled in in all the documents.
    Now myself being a teacher I know my first teacher did a great job to figure that name out. And all the people say: “Hey, what’s my name in Chinese?”, as if to get him that name was like to say “Nihao”. To find suitable name for a person – oh, it’s not easy at all. I use some internet tools and lists of popular English names to get some ideas. And if I’m stuck, I ask my Chinese friend. But choosing Chinese names for my students is the hardest part in teaching Chinese 🙂

  4. Paweł says:

    My Chinese teachers call me 宋夫亞. I was given this name at the beginning of my journey with the Chinese language. I don’t like it for a few reasons:
    1) It doesn’t sound nice for me.
    2) It reminds me of some not nice words in my mother language.
    3) I don’t like the fact that 亞 apart form “asia” may have other, not so nice meanings.
    I tried to think up new Chinese name but i didn’t find any that would fully satisfy me. There are already people who would associate my person with “宋夫亞” but i am still determined to have a “new name”.

  5. Sara K. says:

    I have one and a half Chinese names.

    Sometimes, people simply call me 莎拉 because that’s how ‘Sara’ is usually transcribed into Chinese, and it’s fairly easy for Chinese speakers to say, and I’m okay with a name which reminds people of salads.

    I’ve never used my Chinese name nearly as much as you have, but sometimes while I was in Taiwan I got 凌珍珠 (same 姓 as you). ‘-ling’ is the one part of my father’s name which can be transcribed into Chinese without being totally mangled, and I felt that, for Chinese culture, using a 姓 from my father is appropriate. 珍珠 happens to be the name of a character in a TV show I like, and I’m okay with being called ‘pearl’.

  6. Scott says:

    My Chinese name is 洪宇 which I’ve always loved. When I lived in Yunnan during my gap year, one of the teachers at the school gave this name to me. The “Hong” sounds like my English surname, and the “Yu” she said represented my ambitions and dreams (it means universe). When I lived in Taiwan I kind of wished I had a 3 character name, but I could never find a third character that I wanted to add to my name!

  7. Enrico Brasil says:

    I think the most “authentic” Chinese name should be made taking the first syllable from your last surname and one or two from your first name and finding good characters with a close sound from them. That way you can keep the “essence” of your name. Other good way I think is finding the Chinese equivalent translation for your (sur)name (if it has a clear meaning, like Woods = 林).

  8. Kai Carver says:

    My name 卡福凱 was given to me a long time ago during my first visit to China, in Shanghai, following a long after-dinner discussion among several relatives of a friend, some of them teachers by profession.

    The name feels a bit weird because the family name is two syllables (I think!), and because it uses the rather overused character 福. I’ve had a few Chinese people smile when I told them my Chinese name.

    But I never changed it because my friend’s relatives had gone to such an effort to give me the name.

    By the way, it fascinates me that Chinese can be such a constrained language, with nearly everyone having a three-syllable (X Y-Z) name! Restaurant menus often seem equally constrained, with all the items on the menu having the same number of characters. It’s a stringency that I find both admirable and alarming. I suppose some of the fastidiousness comes naturally from the use of Chinese characters. They line up so nicely, don’t they? Western writing must seem terribly messy to Chinese speakers.

  9. Since my family name is Hawkes, when I took a Japanese class several years ago I looked up the character for ‘hawk’, which is 鷹 (taka in Japanese, yīng in Chinese). While it doesn’t sound like Hawkes, it has the same meaning. For my given name, a Chinese colleague helped me choose 迈克. I walk a lot, so it seemed appropriate.

    I haven’t been to China yet, so I haven’t tried it out on anyone other than coworkers and teachers.

    鹰迈克

  10. Lella says:

    My chinese name is 龙白蒂,given by a teacher at 厦门大学.
    My surname is Lombardi, so it sounds quite similar to the original,but some chinese people say it sounds like a male name, others say it reminds of 白帝城 (from 早发白帝城 of 李白)so not a lucky name, someone even called me 白兰地!What can I say, I got used to it and I like it.

  11. Emily Liedel says:

    My Chinese name is 李熙怡, and like a lot of people I had a very circuitous route to getting it. My first Chinese name was a transliteration of ‘Emily’ and sounded awful, it wasn’t until years later that I asked a friend to help me come up with a better one. My sister had gotten the surname 李 when she studied Chinese, and it seemed appropriate for us to have the same surname. I’ve gotten a lot of compliments on the name 熙怡, but interestingly enough I haven’t found many Chinese people with the same personal name. A social media search a while ago revealed only one hit, and it looked like a little girl (like 4 years old) somewhere in rural China) whose parents had posted a picture of their daughter on-line.

  12. Robert R. says:

    My last name starts with “Ro”, just like my 1st, so the
    3-character transliteration suggested by my wife (to-be at the time) would be 羅羅伯 (Luó​ Luó​bó​), and I just don’t like the Luo sound (really the ‘o’ sound) for my name, so having it in triplicate was right out.

    I decided to take my wife’s surname (鍾 zhōng), and just looking for a name with initial sounds of “R” and “B” for the given name.

    Our search was my wife looking through a dictionary as we were in a taxi through Taipei. One of the suggestions was “Reibai”, but to close to “rabbi” for me.
    Ended up with 瑞邦 (ruìbāng), which I’m quite happy with. Alas, I’ve had little opportunity to use it, even for the 5 years I was in Taiwan.

  13. Hauke says:

    I got my name from my first hostfamily in Taiwan. They decided to give me their family name and chose the first name as close as possible to the pronuncation of my German Name. So my name is 楊浩克. The only thing they didnt tell me that the Hulk a filmcharacter had the same name, so most of my classmates laught when I told them my name. Actually I am really content with my name because the characters seem to have a good meaning and at least everyone remembers this name after smiling about.

  14. 李巧儿 says:

    My English name is Kelsey which, as it turns out, Chinese people really hate pronouncing. Eventually someone decided that my name would be 巧儿 and that was what I was called for the next full year, even when I left China. The next year I began learning Chinese and my teacher gave me my surname 李 so now my full name is 李巧儿 which I find extremely hard to pronounce in terms of getting the tones correct but I think that after four years I’ve finally gotten it down. These days I’m actually more comfortable with people refering to me using my Chinese name than I am when they use my English name! 巧 ssupposedly means skilful or clever =]

  15. After about two months of consideration, my Chinese friends in San Francisco and I devised 高思俐 for me based on personality traits, and 高 is a close Kallio sound match. Some Chinese people really like it, a Chinese guy next to me on a flight said flat out he did not like the name and that it sounded foreign, multiple Chinese people have told me it sounds very Chinese, and I am still observing people’s responses to it. Most are positive. Open to native people’s honest impressions.

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