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How to get a Chinese name

Get a Chinese name (名字)

How to get a Chinese name is a question that comes up constantly on China-related forums, sub-reddits etc. If you’re learning Chinese then you probably do want to get a Chinese name, because European names just don’t really work in Mandarin with its limited set of valid syllables.

As it comes up so frequently, and I’ve now had several questions about it via the site, I thought I’d add my two cents to the issue here.

A note for the uninitiated

Before I talk about how to actually get a Chinese name, here’s a quick note for anyone who’s new to this or doesn’t know too much about it. Sometimes I get questions through the site asking me things like “here is my English name ____ - how do I write it in Chinese?” or “can you convert my English name _____ into Chinese?”

These questions don’t really make sense. There’s no way to “convert” or “write out” European names in Chinese. You may be able to find a Chinese name that sounds similar, but it’s never a one-to-one conversion. There are standard Chinese ‘versions’ of European names (see below), but in my view they’re not as good as having an authentic, genuine Chinese name.

So, if you were under the impression that names are convertible or translatable between European languages and Chinese, please think again! It’s much better to have a look at the advice here and get a trusted native speaker to give you a real Chinese name.

1. Get a Chinese name from a native speaker you know

This is the most important point I’m going to make here. I’d strongly recommend you do not do any of the following to get a Chinese name:

  • Make one up yourself.
  • Use some sort of auto-generator to create a name.
  • Ask non-native speakers to make one up for you.
  • Ask random people on the Internet to think of one for you.
  • Ask random people on the Internet to “check” your Chinese name.

You see people doing all of those quite a lot, and it’s just a bad idea for a number of reasons.

  • You end up with a name that just doesn’t sound nice or flow.
  • You end up with a nonsense name.
  • You end up with a ridiculous / funny name (which is very possible).

The only way I can think of that might sort of be valid if you really want to choose the name yourself is to copy the name of a real Chinese person, i.e. use a celebrity’s first name and then pick some random surname (so that you’re not going round introducing yourself as the equivalent of “George Clooney” or something similarly comical).

Again though, I think this is pretty likely to go wrong, because it could be difficult to know how unique the name is (i.e. whether people will immediately spot it as a celebrity’s name) or what associations it has for native speakers. Also, you might accidentally create a funny homophone by picking an unfortunate surname to go with your given name.

So, I really think the best way to get a Chinese name is to ask a native Chinese speaker that you know personally and trust to think of a good Chinese name for you. Obviously your preferences will vary, but personally I would recommend asking for something that fits these:

  • Isn’t an obvious “foreigner” name like 史密斯 , 比尔 , 约翰 etc.
  • Isn’t too unusual or ostentatious.
  • Is just a nice-sounding, genuine name.

People very commonly have their Chinese teacher give them a Chinese name, or the teacher just gives everyone in the class a name at the start of the course. This can be OK, although I’ve found a lot of teachers are prone to just “translate” students’ European names (into things like 玛丽 , 汤姆 etc.), or just give out generic names without much thought.

Our Chinese class at uni had an amusing mix-up where the teachers had created similar-sounding Chinese names for everyone, but got them mixed up, so everyone had a Chinese name that sounded like someone else’s English name. Luckily for me, I escaped that fate by already having my Chinese name ( 修远 ) before starting the course.

2. Should your Chinese name sound similar?

Personally I would say there’s no point trying to get a Chinese name that sounds like your European one or has a similar meaning or something. It makes the whole thing so much more difficult and complicated, and I think it makes it more likely that you’ll end up with something a bit weird. That’s just my suggestion though.

You’ll probably find that most people are very happy to think of a name for you, and will (hopefully!) put quite a lot of thought into it. It’s probably best to just suggest it but give them a few days to think about it. In other words, if you ask your new best friend you’ve just drunkenly met in a bar to give you a Chinese name on the spot you probably won’t end up with something good.

Also remember that ultimately you can just change your Chinese name after trying it out for a while and seeing how people react to it etc. I think most people go through a couple of names this way (my first Chinese name was 大牛 … I changed it to 修远 ).

3. Learn how to explain your Chinese name

One final note: once you’ve got a nice Chinese name from your trusted native speaker, also ask them to help you learn to “explain” it in Chinese. By that I mean, learn how you describe the character for your surname, and the character/s in your given name.

There are generally two ways of doing this. The first is to physically describe the components of the character, so if your surname is you might say it’s “ 文刂的刘 ” because the character is composed of and .

The second way is to give a word or reference that contains the character. My Chinese surname is , and if I need to explain what gě that is, I say “ 诸葛亮的葛 ” because everyone knows who 诸葛亮 is and what the character is in his name.

You can do the same thing with the character/s in your given name, and it can be nice to carefully choose words that convey some sort of meaning you want people to associate with the name.

So my given name 修远 could be explained as “ 修养的修 ” and “ 远大的远 ” - “the xiū from ‘cultivate’ and the yuǎn from ‘ambitious’". Having said that, most people recognise 修远 as a quote from the poem  離騷 and then they know what the characters are.

So that’s been my two cents on how to get a Chinese name. It’s certainly not an expert opinion on this, but if anyone asks me about it from now on I can just link them to this page.

Thoughts? Suggestions? Please share all in the comments!

Contact me: mhg@eastasiastudent.net