With a billion plus people comes the opportunity for a billion plus names and surnames. Luckily for us, surnames tend to be quite common, but putting thousands of names to memory can indeed be challenging. This page will first address the question of "How do I translate my name into Chinese?", and then introduce you to some common surnames, and later we'll also teach you some basic given names.

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 Name

Before 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 Naming

You 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.

Asking Names and Stuff

If 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 Surnames

Your 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
SimplifiedTraditionalOther meanings of the same character
张 ZhāngSheet
王 Wáng (same)
李 Lǐ(same)Plum
周 Zhōu(same)Week
吴 WúA former state in southern China
陈 ChénAnother former state in southern China
胡 Hú(same)Whiskers
杨 Yángpoplar flower
许 Xǔ (you may sometimes see Hsu)to permit
石 Shí (same)stone
刘 Liú No other meanings
徐 Xú (you may sometimes see Hsu)(same)Gentle
郭 Guō (same)city wall
师 Shī teacher
林 Lín (same)forest
朴 Piáo (same)Japonica, a shrub. This is also used by any Koreans in Chinese with the last name "Park"
叶 Yè leaf
赵 Zhào趙 ZhàoAn old state of ancient China
When we say these names are common, we sure aren't kidding. These names are so ubitiquous in China that you can use the character combination of 张王李赵 (Zhāng Wáng Lǐ Zhào) to mean something like "any old Tom, Dick, or Jane" or "John or Jane Doe" or "anybody at all".

Common Given Names

As 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
SimplifiedTraditionalOther meanings of the same character
淇 Qí(same)a river
莎 Shā(same)katydid
倩 Qiàn(same)pretty
玲 Líng(same)gem
丽 Lìbeautiful
华 Huámagnificent, can be used for either gender
涛 Tāobig wave
博 Bó(same)rich
汉 Hànman
宏 Hóng(same)magnificent
杰 Jiéhero

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.