September 13th, 2004

Chinese Names


Paul Hoffman send me an email a couple of weeks ago asking me how Chinese choose their name, esp. their English names which prompted me to write this entry.


Chinese has a Family name followed by a Given name and no Middle name. Family names are typically one chinese ideograph although there are some rare family names with two ideographs (e.g. 司徒). Given names are typically compose of two chinese ideographs but there is a trend (particularly in China) to give single ideograph name. For example, the Chinese basketball star Yao Ming 姚明 Family name is Yao with a single Given name Ming.

Chinese names are read and also written in this order: Family name followed by Given name (e.g. my name 庄振宏/Seng Ching Hong). While some Westerner may find that order uncomfortable, it is equally uncomfortable for a Chinese to be address by their Given name first (Ching Hong Seng somehow just don’t sound right).But Chinese has English names

Chinese has two kind of English name: (1) Transliteration of the Chinese name and (2) “Christian” or English name like John or David.

When addressing Chinese in the transliteration name, we would prefer to use the Family Name, Given Name order and if a Chinese has a Christian/English name, we will follow the Western convention of Given Name, Family Name order. For example, my name is “Seng Ching Hong” and I also have a Christian/English name which is “James Seng”.

It is also often that in academic papers that you see Chinese writes their name in initials. In these cases, the convention seem to follow a Last Name, First Name convention (e.g. C.H. Seng) however.

Sometimes, we would combine the two form of English names; For example, I would write my name as James Seng Ching Hong or James C.H. Seng. (And no, this does not make C.H. my Middle name)

How does Chinese choose their Chinese names

To the Chinese, a name is not merely a name. Given names carries a lot of ideals, hopes and expections infered by the meanings of the Chinese ideograph choosen. As such, Chinese parents would often go through long consultation with elders to fortune tellers before naming their child.

Some more English-educated parents, especially modern Singaporean Chinese just give their child a Christian/English name (e.g. David) and then derive the Chinese Name 大纬 (Da Wei). And most unfortunately, some Singaporean Chinese would not even bother to give their child a Chinese name but I am glad that is rare outside Singapore.

Transliteration of Chinese name

Formal transliteration for Chinese comes only in the 1970s, with the developed of Hanyu Pinyin (ISO 7098). (My name in Pinyin is Zhuang Zhen Hong btw). But even so, Hanyu Pinyin is not used in some part of Chinese community (e.g. Taiwan and until recently Hong Kong). So for these communities and for older generation of Chinese, transliteration of names is a random excerise2, dependent on the dialect groups and the person doing transliteration.

For example, I have seen the the Family name 陈 translitered as Chen, Chan, Cheng, Chang, Tzeng and Tseng. And if this not confusing enough, my family name 庄 which get translitered as “Seng” from my father side but “Chen” from my uncle side3. Hence, there is no assurance that Chen = Chan and no assurance that all Chen are equal either. You have to see the Chinese ideographs in order to confirm.

How does Chinese choose their Christian/English name

Well, I asked around a few friends and here’s what I have found:

1) The priest/church picks it for them during baptism. The selections are generally more traditional “Christian” names like John, Peter, David, etc.

2) The parent (or they themselves) just pick a name they like. This is where it gets really funky e.g. Winter, Piano, Rock, Arion, etc.

3) Derived from the meaning of their Chinese name. I have a friend in Taiwan called ‘Bear’ because his name is 熊 (bear).

4) Evolved from their Chinese name. e.g. Wong Pin Da become Pindar Wong.

Hope this clears up the air .. (And please stop calling me Ching Hong Seng ;-)

1 Consider also reading Name Conventions by Dr Tan Tin Wee.

2 Even Chinese are surprised at my Family name 庄 translitered as “Seng”. I don’t know either but it started from my father.

3 Yep, I have cousins who has different translitered Family name as I am :-)

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