How do I translate my name into Chinese?You may have come here just specifically for this page and you may not have time to read the other pages on "Chinese Writing", but the gist of it is that in Chinese, there is no exact "alphabet", and Chinese custom looks down upon any name, first or last, that is longer than two syllables. So, how do we go about telling Chinese people our names? Do you have to adopt an official Chinese name while doing business in China? Well, we have some solutions.
Your Legal NameBefore we get into a discussion about how to "Chinese-ify" your name, we need to make sure one thing is clear. If you, like us, are an American citizen, you were born with a name in English. Even when you are abroad, yes, even in a place like China, that name with English letters and spelling is, and will always be, your legal name. In business, the same principle holds. When you go to fill out forms, you must use the English name with the English spelling. You do not "adopt" a Chinese name, nor is there a government agency that gives you a "Chinese-ified" name. Translators working between the two languages can basically translate the "essence" of your name, as we will show below, but legally speaking, your "John Hancock" is exactly as you were born with. Even if you, for example, have a "Chinese name" given through a Chinese-American grandmother, it would have to be officially registered or you would have had to have been born in China for it to hold weight as your legal name in China. So for most "ABCs" with a Chinese name, you would still use your English name in official business. If you were,say, born as Jimmy Zhou in the U.S., but maybe named something like "Zhou Wangjie" by your grandmother, you would always be "Jimmy Zhou" in business and from a legal perspective, but you could also use your Chinese name less formally, to help other Mandarin speakers, for example.
A Quick Note on East Asian NamingYou may already know this, but it is common in East Asian countries for the name order to be reversed from our usual first-name first order. Chinese people, as well as Japanese and Korean people, will introduce themselves with their last name first. So, let's say you have a Chinese acquaintance that introduce themselves as 张友 (Zhāng Yǒu). This actually means that their last name is 张 (Zhāng) and their first name is 友 (Yǒu). The reason for this is basically, cultural differences. As you should be well aware, China is a communual-oriented culture, rather than an individualistic one. It shouldn't come as a surprise then, that the family is viewed as more important than the individual, hence the last name first. This different way of naming people comes from respect for the family name, and of course, the Confucian values that shaped so much of East Asian cultures.
OK, So How Do I "Chinese-ify" my name?Now having understood the legal concept of your name, let's address the larger problems mentioned. If Chinese doesn't have an "exact" alphabet, and names basically have a maximum of four syllables, how do you let people know your name for day-to-day life in China? Most Chinese people will be upfront that a name with any more than four syllables is simply too long for their language. Well, you certainly aren't the first one to have this problem, so let's look at what other foreigners with longer names do, for the sake of day-to-day life with clients or coworkers that speak Mandarin.
- You could "Chinese-ify" your last name by chopping it down to one or two syllables, and then use characters that mimic your last name's pronunciation. If you do the same with your first name, you'll have a name that "fits" in Chinese.
- For example, someone named John Johnson could rework the English name into Chinese syllables. For you, I'll do that here. Jiang-sen sounds close enough for the last name, as would Jiang for the first name. A Mandarin speaker would be able to "work with" this name much easier.
- This does of course, mean that you'd have to find someone familiar enough with Chinese to be able to convert your name into a good-sounding Chinese syllable version. At the same time, you'd also have to watch the characters that match with the syllables, so you don't accidentally name yourself "Stupid" or "Mosquito"!
- While Chinese doesn't have a true alphabet, it does make use of certain "phonetic characters" that mimic one. These characters don't have any meaning themselves, they just help render foreign words.
- Common names, like Steve and Mike, actually have semi-official "Chinese spellings" that are based off of these "phonetic characters". Remember though, those would only be for day-to-day life, not used legally!
- You can also borrow a Chinese character based on meaning, perhaps by the route of tracing your name's origin and finding the equivalent term in Chinese.
- You can always ask a trusted Chinese friend or teacher for help. You could perhaps take the time to look up characters for a name close to yours or with a meaning you like and ask for any sugggestions to make it sound better, that way they don't can avoid the parental naming dilemma.
- You could always just give yourself any old Chinese name based on a character you like, but again, remember this is a pseudonym and it might be more useful in the long run to use something close to your actual name
- If you can help it, try to limit both your first name and last name to two characters each. It's hard to explain, but it just flows better in Mandarin that way.
Asking Names and StuffIf you're ever confused about names, you can ask a Chinese person 你姓什么 (nǐ xìng shénme) to ask them their surname specifically, and you can follw up with 那你叫什么名字 (nà nǐ jiào shénme míngzì) for "So then, what is your name?" if you want the name specifically. It's more common to ask the latter, and they'll usually respond in the typical last-name first order. To help you differentiate, the surnames are almost always one character (there are exceptions), and you'll learn these characters that pop up over and over again for last names. First names are infinitely harder since usually they're older and rooted in tradition. If at any point you get confused, just ask your friend to write their name down. This helps you remember their name and the characters and most will be happy to do it.
Common SurnamesYour Chinese textbook probably introduces a few at a time, but I think I can fairly introduce you a bit more than that and not overwhelm you. These are relatively common, you'll see them over and over again, I promise. It may also help to remember what the character can mean otherwise. So, you will get funny names like "Mr. Sheet", "Mrs. Plum", and "Ms. Teacher", "Little Leaf", and all kinds of fun.What is this, a game of Clue? I promise you that there is reason for most of these in more historical Chinese, but we'll dig into that later. And please also note that some simplified forms of these common surnames have a corresponding traditional character. Most Chinese will know the traditional character of their surname, so if you're doing anything formal, it'd be ideal to find the traditional character, which I have also listed.
|中国常用的姓 (Zhōngguó chángyòng de xìng) : Common Chinese Surnames
|Other meanings of the same character
|A former state in southern China
|Another former state in southern China
|许 Xǔ (you may sometimes see Hsu)
|No other meanings
|徐 Xú (you may sometimes see Hsu)
|Japonica, a shrub. This is also used by any Koreans in Chinese with the last name "Park"
|An old state of ancient China
Common Given NamesAs we've said, given names take a lot more time to learn. This is because while there are only a few hundred surnames, there are also a billion plus people in China, each needing a unique name. Luckily, some characters to tend to get used a lot, and many will often give away the gender. But like everything in Chinese, it just takes time and you'll learn new names on a case by case basis. I obviously can't teach you everything, but as you learn the Chinese alphabet, you'll figure out what their name can and can't possibly be. Chinese people will often try to help you get the character by telling you something to the effect of "My name is the character x, like used in the word with characters x and y". Here are some samples based on some Chinese celebrities and my personal circle of friends. Male names are indicated in blue, and female in pink. Typical, I know...
|中国常用的名字 (Zhōngguó chángyòng de míngzì) : Common Chinese First Name Characters
|Other meanings of the same character
|magnificent, can be used for either gender
Whether to give one or two characters is up to the parent, you will often see these in combination with other characters. As always, keep an eye out and rmeember everyone is different. Hopefully by this point, you are well versed in what to expect with Chinese names.