The Art of Chinese Names

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Editor’s note: This post begins a series highlighting the stories of CP staff adopting new names, either Chinese or English. Naming is an important part of cultural identity, and understanding the stories behind the new names we take on when entering new cultural contexts helps us to understand each other and our histories. This article was originally posted in February 2017.

Ryan moved to the United States from Guangzhou, China, at the age of twelve. Ryan received his Master of Divinity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is currently serving as an Assistant Pastor at New City Presbyterian Church in his US hometown of Cincinnati, OH. He also serves as the China Partnership Translation Manager.

My wife and I are happy to announce that we are expecting our first child at the end of April. This is certainly an exciting development for us. We are leaving the gender of our child as a surprise, which means we have to prepare a boy’s name and a girl’s name. In addition to coming up with an English name, we also solicited my parents’ help to come up with two Chinese names for our baby. This process has caused me to rediscover the intricate complexity behind the art of Chinese names.

When we first came to America in 1999, my parents and I adopted English first names as a way to transition into the American society. My parents chose the names Karen and Gary mainly because they sounded most similar to their Chinese names. I was first given the name “David,” but I did not like the sound of it (that was long before I knew about the handsome and brave King David in the Old Testament). Instead, I had selected the name “Ryan” because it sounded cooler. It is a bit strange that once we moved to a new country, we would be known by something completely different. But fortunately for us, we are still able to retain our Chinese names as our middle names, and thereby keeping a piece of our Chinese identity with us. So as we think of naming our son or daughter, Abigail and I decided we would do the same: an English first name plus a Chinese middle name.

Generally, for people in the Han ethnic group – which is about 91% of the entire Chinese population in Mainland China – a Chinese name consists of two to three Chinese characters. Contrary to English names, the family name always goes first in a Chinese name.  Therefore, the first character in a Chinese name is always the family name, except for a few unique family names that have two characters. After the family name, parents form the given name by choosing one or two characters out of more than 5,000 Chinese characters. There is no standard list of names where parents should choose from, which allow Chinese parents to be quite creative in naming their children. Since parents can create so many different combinations with these 5,000 characters, even though there are more than 1.3 billion people in China, you don’t often run across people with the same names.


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My Chinese name is a three-character name. The first character is our family name, to which my dad added two characters which mean “forever bright.” Some people prefer to only have two-character names, such as my childhood best friend.  In addition to his family name, his given name means “handsome,” which I’ve always thought was a very simple and appropriate name for him because he was a popular, handsome fella. Some people also take into consideration of the meaning of the family name. A famous singer in Hong Kong is named 黎明. The family name 黎 (Li) does not usually mean anything, but combined with the character 明 (Ming, meaning “bright”) the whole name stands for “dawn.” Of course, some characters are more closely associated with male names while others are more feminine, so parents pay attention to that as well.

Similar to how some Americans like to name their kids after someone in the family, Chinese parents can also adopt a character from the name of someone they admire. For example, I really like the character 烨 (Ye) for a name because it is also the name of the Emperor Kangxi, 玄烨 (Xuan Ye), who is commonly regarded as one of the best emperors in Chinese history. It also means “bright” like the last character of my own name. In addition, the character 烨 (Ye) is formed by combining two smaller characters 火 (Huo, meaning fire) and 华 (Hua, meaning China), so this combination can also have the meaning of “lighting up China.” As you can see, this one character has three layers of meaning for me because 1) it is adopted from my favorite emperor, 2) it takes after the meaning of my own name, and 3) the two parts that form this character express my devotion to China. 

Besides considering the meaning of the characters, parents also have to think about their pronunciation. Because many Chinese characters sound the same, a name could have one meaning on paper and sound totally different when you pronounce it. At first I really liked the name 恒莹 (Heng Yin) for a girl because it also means “forever bright” like my own name, but after sounding it out in Cantonese I quickly rejected it in horror because it sounded exactly like the Chinese word for “execution” (行刑)! 

In addition to these, some people also take into consideration the timing of a baby’s birth, the five Chinese elements, various family traditions, and a number of other factors. If all of that is confusing to you, I hope it at least helps you appreciate the depth of meaning behind a Chinese name. Naming is one of the most important acts parents do for their children because it expresses the care and hope the parents place on their children. Not only is a person known by a name for the rest of his or her life, but the meaning behind a name may also define his or her character. Economist Steven Levitt argues in Freakonomics that names can reflect the education level of the parents and thus determine the destiny of a child, and I think this is even more true for Chinese parents.

If you have ever struggle to pronounce the names of your Chinese friend, besides asking them to teach you how to say them, ask them to tell you the meaning behind their names. It may be one of the best ways to get to know them and their families.

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Further Reading

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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

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Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

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About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

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Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.

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About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

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Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

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About Shenzhen

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About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

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About Beijing

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