Category Archives: Naming

Origins of Chinese Surnames

According to the Grand Dictionary of Chinese Surnames, there are over 11,000 Chinese surnames in recorded history. However many of them have become obsolete. Currently over 3000 of them are still in use but common ones number slightly over 500.

How are these surnames created? Here are some of the ways.

In ancient society, primitive men develop special relationship with natural and animal objects. As time went by, some of these objects were adopted as surnames, example Xiong (bear) or Feng (phoenix).

Others adopt the name of the state or place that they live in or originate from. Examples include Song and Wei.

A common method is to use the name of one’s occupation. For example a potter may use the name Tao (meaning pottery).

Some would adopt the title of official post either in full or partially. For example the ancient title of the Minister of War is SiMa. It was adopted in whole as a surname. Over time the surname was simplified to either Si or Ma.

Yet another way is to adopt the name of surrounding landmarks. For example some who live near a pond may adopt the surname Chi (meaning pond). Others living near a mountain or river may adopt the surname Shan (meaning mountain) or Jiang (meaning river) respectively.

It is also not uncommon to adopt the name of their grand ancestors in order to commemorate them.

In ancient times children were called certain names to indicate their seniority. For example the eldest is called Bo followed by Zhong (for the second), Shu (for the third) and Ji (for the fourth). These were later adopted as surnames.

Some were conferred special surnames by the Emperor in honor of the outstanding services rendered to the courts. By the same token some who have annoyed the Emperor are given bad surnames such as Shao (meaning spider) and Fu (meaning poisonous snake).

Surnames are also adopted from colors e.g. Hong (meaning red) and Zi (meaning violet or purple). Others from position e.g. Dong (meaning east) and Zuo (meaning left).

They are also adopted from seasons e.g. Chun (meaning Spring) and Dong (meaning Winter) and from the names of ancient dynasties such as the Xia, Zhou or Han dynasties.

Surnames are also adopted from plants and insects. Examples include Hua (meaning flowers), Tao (meaning peach), Chong (meaning worm) or Yi (meaning ant).

This may surprise you but surnames are also adopted from numbers. Examples are Ling (meaning zero), San (meaning 3), Shi (meaning 10), Qian (meaning thousand) and so on.

The methods that I have described above are no means exhaustive and there are many others ways that surnames were derived.

You can find a list showing the 100 most popular Chinese surnames in the Chinese Almanac or Tung Shu or Tong Sing.

Have fun unravelling your own!

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Chinese Baby Girl’s Name

Chinese parents (at least in ancient times) have different aspiration for their daughters and the basis for selection Chinese baby girl names are different from that for the boys.

A good daughter should respect their parents and love their brothers and sisters. There are also expected to take care of their family and be good at housekeeping.

In addition to being filial, virtuous, gentle and chaste, they are also expected to be intelligent, graceful, sedate and pretty.

Finally they should get along well with the neighbours.

To put it another way, daughters should have both inner beauty and attractive appearance.

That is a lot to expect and the appropriate Chinese baby girl name would help a lot to get on the right step!

Baby Girl Names Selection Methodology

Based on the above expectations, parent would name their baby girl using words that would convey the following meanings. (I have provide the Chinese characters and meaning in the examples below).

Virtue and Tenderness

e.g. Ai 爱 meaning ‘love’
e.g. Pin 品 meaning ‘moral integrity’
e.g. Shu 淑 meaning ‘kind-hearted’

Feminine Beauty

e.g. Li 丽 meaning ‘pretty’
e.g. Lan 兰 meaning ‘orchid’
e.g. Mei 美 meaning ‘beautiful’

Intelligence (Feminine Style)

e.g. Wen 文 meaning ‘knowledge’
e.g. Ling 灵 meaning ‘agile’
e.g. Fei 非 meaning ‘fly’ to describe nimbleness

Gracefulness and Elegance

e.g. Zhuang 庄 meaning ‘dignified’
e.g. An 安 meaning ‘sedate’
e.g. Jie 洁 meaning ‘noble’

Another technique of naming is by using elements. The elements of metal and fire are associated with the baby boy while the elements of wood and water with the female. The earth element can be used by both boys and girls.

Words that begin with the characters c, q, r, s, x, or z in the Hanyu Pinyin system belongs to the metal element. Examples include Cai 才 meaning ‘talent’, Qi 起 meaning ‘rise’, Ren 仁 meaning ‘humanity’, Shi 师 meaning ‘master’, Xiang 香 meaning ‘fragrant’ and Zhen 真 meaning ‘true’.

Words that begin with the characters g or k belong to the wood element. Characters like Gan 甘 meaning ‘sweet’ and Ke 科 meaning ‘science’ are examples of wood element words.

Words that begin with b, f, h, m or p belong to the water elements. Examples include Bai 白 meaning ‘white’, Fang 方 meaning ‘square’, He 和meaning ‘gentle’, Man 满meaning ‘full’ and Peng 朋 meaning ‘friend’.

Words that begin with d, j, l, n and t belong to the fire element. Characters like Dao 导meaning ‘guide’, Ji 季 meaning ‘season’, Li 理 meaning ‘logic’, Ning 宁 meaning ‘peaceful’ and Tian 天 meaning ‘heaven’ are examples of fire element words.

Finally words that begin with a, w, y, e or o belong to the earth element. Examples include Ai 爱meaning ‘love’, Wu 武 meaning ‘military’, Ye 业 meaning business and En 恩meaning ‘favor’.

Chinese baby boys name can have names made up of an earth + fire, earth + metal, fire + fire or metal + metal combinations. Examples include An Dao 安道, an earth + fire or Yi Shu 艺书, an earth + metal combinations.

Chinese baby girls name on the other hand would combine water + wood, wood + water, water + water, earth + earth or wood + wood. Examples include Ge Feng 歌风 a wood + water combination and Bai Fang 白方 a water + water combination.

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Chinese Baby Boy Names

One of the more popular methods of naming a baby boy is based on the parent’s aspiration for the child.

Parents (at least in the old days) have different expectation of their sons and daughters and hence there are differences in the methods of selecting Chinese baby boy names and Chinese baby girl names.

The role of men in the family is to assume duties and responsibilities and in some cases to carry on the family business. In the old days, they (also) have to bring honour to their ancestors, uphold traditions and devote himself to his country and people.

A good man is also expected to have good moral character and be broad-minded. In addition he should also be strong and healthy.

Baby Naming Methodology

All parents also wish that their sons become ambitious and blessed with wisdom and capabilities.

On the basis of their parent’s expectation, their role in the family and the characteristic traits, Chinese baby boy names should express the following ideas. (I have provided examples with the Chinese characters and their meanings).

Bring Honour to the Family and Ancestor

e.g. Jia 家 meaning ‘family’
e.g. Zu 组 meaning ‘ancestor’
e.g. Ting 庭 meaning ‘clan’

Carry on the Family Business

e.g. Ye 业 meaning ‘family property’
e.g. Chang 昌 meaning ‘prosper’
e.g. Shao 绍 meaning ‘carry on’

Have High Ambitions

e.g. Zhi 志 meaning ‘aspiration’
e.g. Kai 开 meaning ‘open, develop’
e.g. Jin 进 meaning ‘forward, progress’

Be of Noble Character

e.g. De 德 meaning ‘virtue’
e.g. Dao 道 meaning ‘moral’
e.g. Zheng 正 meaning ‘upright’

Serve the People and Nation

e.g. Guo 国 meaning ‘country’
e.g. Shi 世 meaning ‘society’
e.g. Ji 济 meaning ‘rescue’

Have Strong Will Power

e.g. Li 力 meaning ‘strength’
e.g. Zi 自meaning ‘independent’
e.g. Yong 永 meaning ‘persistent’

Can Assume Responsibility

e.g. Zhong 重 meaning ‘heavy’
e.g. Zhu 主 meaning ‘undertake’
e.g. Dang 当 meaning ‘carry’

Strong Physique and Good Health

e.g. Shan 山 meaning ‘dignified’
e.g. Jian 建 meaning ‘healthy’
e.g. Gao 高 meaning ‘tall’


e.g. Xiao 笑 meaning ‘laugh’
e.g. Liang 亮 meaning ‘bright, open’
e.g. Kong 空 meaning ‘spacious’

Have Wisdom and Ability

e.g. Cai 才 meaning ‘talent’
e.g. Xue 学 meaning ‘learning’
e.g. Shu 书 meaning ‘books

And this is how Chinese baby boys end up with names like these!

Watch out for my next article on Chinese baby girl names.

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How to Choose Chinese Baby Names?

It is not uncommon for a Chinese couple to seek the services of an astrologer to select an auspicious baby name for their new born child. It is believe that a suitable name can improve the luck of the child and give the child a more auspicious life path.

The methodologies for selecting a suitable Chinese baby name vary between the different schools but most of them are based on the principles of Yin and Yang as well as the Five Elements.

Chinese characters are made up of strokes. The odd number strokes are Yang while the even number strokes are Yin. For example a character composed on two strokes is Yin while another character composed on 3 or 5 stokes are Yang. The total number of strokes used in the name also matters. Depending on the school, a certain range of strokes are auspicious while certain other ranges are not.

In most schools the date of time of the baby’s birth is also required to compute the Ba Zi or Eight Characters. From the eight characters, the astrologer can determine the useful element. This is usually but not necessary the element is that most lacking in the chart.

Let say that the element that is most lacking in the chart is water. In this case the astrologer will find a name that is associated with water. Obvious names would include water or ocean. Less obvious is winter which is also associated with water. For someone lacking in the wood element, suitable names include wood, forest, spring (a season of wood) or a name of a plant.

Another technique is to find a Chinese name that comes with the required element. Most Chinese characters are composed of basic characters. For example the character for the word stove a made up of the character fire and earth. Therefore if you lack fire or earth you can call yourself stove. Not the best of example but I hope you understand the principle!

Aside from taking an astrological or metaphysics approach to selecting Chinese baby names, other methods include naming according to the parent’s expectation of the child, naming according to the seniority among siblings and naming after historical events. There are yet other methods but I will not cover them in this article.

A parent’s expectation of their child may include:-

Moral Accomplishment e.g. ‘de’ 德 meaning ‘virtue’
Good Health and Looks e.g. ‘ying’ 英 meaning ‘handsome’
Wealth and Position e.g. ‘fu’ 富 meaning ‘rich’
Scholarly Achievement e.g. ‘xue’ 学 meaning ‘learning’
Safe and Smooth Life e.g. ‘ping’ 平 meaning ‘peace’

It can also include particular characteristics such as determination, capabilities and so on.

Naming can also be based on a specific naming method that is handed down by the ancestors. In this method, all its parents have to do is look up the family records and find the name already chosen according to what generation or branch of the family that the new born belongs to.

Naming after a historical event is also common. For example a child that is born during the year of independence of the country may be carry the name ‘guo’ 国 or country. In addition to directly referring to an event, the name can also be after a thing or a scene that symbolizes the event. For example the word Oak can be used to symbolize independence and freedom.

There is another method that is related to the astrological or metaphysics approach but much simpler. The child is given a name that matches the time, day, month, year or season of birth.

For example those born in the year of the rat are expected to display intelligence and creativity but they may also lack a sense of security. Therefore a suitable Chinese baby name for the Rat can be is ‘An’ 安 (meaning peace) or ‘Bao’ 保 (meaning protect).

Similarly a child may be name based on the season of birth. For example a baby girl born in spring may be called 春美 or ‘Spring Beauty’.

These are by no means the end. Let me give you an example. In the old days, where infant mortality rate is quite high, parent resort to giving their child very lowly names like Cow or Pig hoping the evil spirits will ignore them hence allowing them to live to a ripe old age!

Finally whatever method that you use to select a suitable Chinese baby name for your child, here are some tips that you should consider.

First the name should have a good meaning.

Second watch the number of strokes. Too many strokes and your child will have a tough time remembering his name and become disadvantaged when to come to filling forms!

And third, avoid using names that have similar consonants and vowels or sound like tongue twisters! They are difficult to pronounce and to remember!

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Chinese Names Made Easy

Han Chinese names usually comprise of a one character surname and either a one character or two-character given name. In the example of Mao ZeDong, Mao (毛) is the family name or surname while ZeDong (泽东) is the two-character given name.

While a two-character given name is widely used, one character given names are not uncommon. An example is Yao Ming. Yao (姚) is the one character surname while Ming (明) is the one character given name.

Much less common are two characters or compound surnames with either a one character or two characters given name.

In the example above, the two character given name ZeDong is written as one word in English. This is the convention adopted in China. In others countries such as Malaysia and Singapore, the two-character given name is spelt separately. For example the former Prime Minster of Singapore’s name is written as Lee Kuan Yew. Lee is the surname while Kuan Yew, the two-character given name is written separately.

Another big difference between Chinese names in China and others parts of the world is the Romanization convention. In China, names are Romanize in PinYin. In other parts of the world it is the Wade-Giles convention or other systems. A good example is the surname (林). In China it is spelt Lin, but in other parts of the world it may be Lin, Lim, Lam or some other variation. A popular Chinese name for girls is (美) meaning beautiful. While this is written as ‘Mei’ in China, it can be written as ‘Mei’, ‘Mi’, ‘May’, ‘Mee’, ‘Mae’ or even ‘Bee’ elsewhere depending on the dialect and pronunciation.

Unlike western cultures where the surname is shown last, Chinese names are always written with the surname in front e.g. Mao ZeDong instead of ZeDong Mao. So it is Mr. Mao rather than Mr. Dong and Mr. Lee rather than Mr. Yew!

Chinese given names are selected based on a number of criteria. They should be pleasant to hear, easy to remember and have a good meaning. They should also be easy to write. Some badly constructed Chinese names require over 40 strokes. It can be a pain every time you need to write you name!

Names are selected based on their parent’s expectation it include moral accomplishments, scholarly attainments, good health, wealth, rank etc for boys and feminine morals, beauty, intelligence, grace, elegance etc for girls.

Names may also be selected according to seniority among siblings, after a historical event, based on the time, date, month or year of birth or metaphysically using the Yin Yang and the Five Elements.

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