What's in a Name?

by Rui Zhi Dong

First things first, in China the surname always comes before the given name.

Why? Most probably because the family name is considered more important than the given name, like how groups can be more important than individuals.

Usually, a person’s name would consist of a one character surname (姓 xìng) and one or two characters given name (名 míng). In the past, the two syllable names were more common, and some families would choose to interchange the number of syllables through generations. For example, a grandfather would have a two-syllable name, the father a three-syllable name and the son, again a two-syllable name.

Nowadays, to avoid confusion (in school and police records, for example), parents are encouraged to choose names of a more unique nature.

This is nonetheless still somewhat difficult considering that the large majority of Chinese surnames, 129 surnames to be exact, are used by 87% of the people (this study dates back to 2006, but the situation is most likely similar today).

Among the most popular names are 李 (lǐ), like Bruce Lee, or 李小龙 (Lǐ Xiǎolóng), 张 (zhāng), like the famous Chinese movie director 张艺谋 (Zhāng Yìmóu), and 王, like the famous Chinese-American singer Leehom Wang (王力宏 Wáng Lìhóng).

This cultural peculiarity also influenced the language, and nowadays when you are referring to “old one hundred surnames” or 老百姓 (lǎobǎixìng), you are referring to "common people" or "civilians".

I have been asked before whether in Chinese it’s possible to tell the gender of the person just by reading their name. The answer is yes, at least in most cases.

Traditionally, children have been given names which express their parent’s hope for their future. For boys, their name would imply physical or mental strength, magnificent skill or talent for something; if we look at the names mentioned above: Bruce Lee, or the “little dragon”, Leehom is “powerful and magnificent” and Yimou is “artistic consul”.

My own given name, 睿智 (Ruìzhì), translates to "wise and farsighted" (Okay, I'm still working on these!)

For girls, their names usually aspire to inner or outer beauty, gentleness, preciousness, and, if they are particularly lucky, wisdom. The famous singer Teresa Teng is thus a “beautiful queen” (丽君 Lìjūn), while famous actress Gong Li is simply “clever” 俐 (lì).

Titles are important too. As we have learned here where we talked about the nuts and bolts of Chinese family titles, titles are a core part of the Chinese culture and they are to be respected, partly because they define a person’s social status and their seniority.

In short, they give you the all important "face" (面子 miànzi), and your 面子 -- in essence your reputation and prestige -- can quite literally be something to kill for. It is thus crucial that a chairman 董事长 (dǒngshìzhǎng) is always referred to as a chairman, a president 总裁 (zǒngcái) a president, a director 公司董事 (gōngsī dǒngshì) a director, all the way down to your class leader, 班长 (bǎnzhǎng).

Learn more about the Chinese Language. Rui Zhi Dong is author of the best selling book, Learning the Chinese Language.

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