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.