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China, Culture

Chinese names

Are quite fascinating. First, they all have a meaning. This is what you get when your culture is several thousands years old and hasn’t been influenced too much by any others.

Family names are almost exclusively 1-character and have very little diversity and 80% of China carries 20% of them. Family names are revered and are not changed upon marriage. However, children inherit the family name of the father. Given names are 1-2 characters, depending on the fad at the time a child was born, and Chinese go wild giving them. Traditionally, given names were 2 characters.

There was a recent fad to go to single-character given names, but then names lost their uniqueness (and foreigners could no longer tell the given from the family name), so they got back to 2-character later on. There’s also a traditional “generational” way of giving names, where all kids from the same generation would have the same first character, but differ by the last one. My friend’s name can be translated as “political literature”, and his brothers are “political” too. But otherwise, there’re no rules, really. Usually, parents pick something strong and fiery for boys and something beautiful and flowery for girls. So, for Chinese it’s really not hard to tell a boy’s name from girl’s. For westerners – almost impossible.

But forget that, westerners can’t get neither pinyin nor tones right, and instead of calling Chinese by their flowery names their parents were so proud of, they will be calling them a “monkey king” at best (real example). So, Chinese protect their names and choose themselves some western name. How? One of two ways: either choosing the one that sounds close (ex: WangDanjun => Wanda) or picking a translation of the most beloved part of their flowery given name (ex: CozyCloud=>Cozy)

If you ever worked on globalized software, you know that “given name” is not a wacky way of saying “first name”, it’s actually a much more precise term that addresses the name’s inheritance and not its placement. In China, the name that goes first is “family name”, and not only in writing, but also when addressing people in day-to-day life. Names, when said this way and with correct pronunciation (add correct tones for an extra bonus), usually sound much better. Keep in mind, that every Chinese character is one syllable, so saying the full name is not that hard – much easier than it would be, say, in India, Arab countries, or even Russia.



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