How to Choose Your Chinese Name

Obtaining a proper name is something every Chinese self-studier has to deal with before they use mandarin abroad. This is imperative because Western names are inherently toneless and clash with the Chinese phonology. Many people try to come up with their Chinese name on their own, but this almost always results in a strange sounding/looking, and ultimately meaningless name. Your Chinese name will follow you throughout your journey with the language, until death really, so make sure you take pride in your Chinese name and adopt one that is both appropriate and meaningful using the methods I will explain below.

But first, let me dispel a common misconception.

There is no “conversion”

Converting your English name to Chinese is simply impossible because meaning is just as important as sound in Chinese names. That being said, it is possible to have a vaguely similar sounding name. My Chinese name is 立言, or “li yan” in pinyin. My English name is Ryan, so you can see the slight similarity in pronunciation between the two.

You may have come across some of the Chinese approximations for common Western names like 約翰 for John, or 沙拉 for Sarah, but unless you want to have a Chinese name that means “salad”, you should steer clear away from these.

What a Chinese name consists of

A Chinese name is generally three characters long with the first character being the family name and the last two characters being the “first name”. I would also note that in mainland China there are a large number of people who have only two characters in their names. However, this is not the norm and is growing less popular with time. I recommend you choose a Chinese name with three characters because I think the overall goal of your Chinese name should be to make you blend in with China rather than stand out. Also know that two character names are very rare in Taiwan and southern China in general.

Now let’s find good characters for your name.

Step 1: Get a family name

This character is the easiest to get for your name because there is a limited amount you can choose from. I made this list of the 100 most common surnames in China and Taiwan for you to consult. 

I recommend you choose whichever character you think looks the best and has a pronunciation you like. These surnames are the most common so rest assured they all have great meanings!

Now that you have the first character selected we’ll move on to the harder part.

Step 2: Watch a Chinese movie

You don’t really have to watch the movie, just fast forward straight to the end credits. What you’ll find there is a treasure trove of Chinese names for your personal selection. Now find a name you think looks nice and take those last two characters for your own name. But be careful! Don’t mistakenly choose the name of a famous actor as people might recognize it and constantly point it out to you. I recommend choosing the name of someone in the film’s crew instead like you see here.

You can also get a good name from stuff like university faculty lists or a company masthead for example. Basically anything where a person is definitely using their own name.

You may be wondering, “why can’t I just get names off of social media, Youtube, or tv shows?” The reason why you shouldn’t do this is because on social media and entertainment related things, Chinese people often use pseudonyms to make themselves appear more cute, funny, badass etc. For example, Jackie Chan goes by the name 成龍, or “Becoming a Dragon”. As amazing as this name is, it isn’t actually his real name, that would be 房仕龍 (fáng shì lóng), a decidedly much more normal name.

A more advanced learner would be able to pick up on this habit, but if you’re a beginner I recommend using the guaranteed methods I described.

Step 3: Confirm the gender

Just like in English there are Chinese names specifically for girls and boys, and some that are fine for both genders. If you don’t already know the gender of the person whose name you stole, then you should paste it into Google images and see what comes up.

I’ll take my own name as an example and see what images I get.

As you can see, mostly males named 立言 appear in the image results. If your name is feminine, then obviously women should appear in the search results instead.

Step 4: Discover meaning

Now that you have an appropriate Chinese name for yourself, you should find out what it means so that it holds some significance for you. Take the second and third characters together and type them into your dictionary. If the name you’ve chosen is a set phrase originating from something like classical Chinese poetry it might have a dictionary meaning.

My name happens to be like this so I get a result on Pleco, but you might not.

If nothing comes up then just type the characters in individually to find out what your name means.

Step 5: Learn how to “spell” your name

So you have a name and you know what it means, but how do you explain exactly what the characters in your name are to people without writing them down? This is done by using two methods. The radical method and the word method.

The radical method involves explaining what parts are in the character. For example, if your surname is 李, then you could say 木子李 (the 李 with 木 and 子). My surname is 沈 so I explain it using this method as 三點水的沈 (the 沈 with three drops of water). 

The other method is to use a word the character appears in to give context. I use this to explain my name by saying 立刻的立,語言的言 (the 立 in immediately, and the 言 in language). You can use this method by typing the character into your dictionary and seeing what compounds appear. Make sure you don’t choose some obscure technical phrase for this obviously.

Final thoughts

My name was given to me by my Chinese teacher during the first week of class. At that time I had no idea I’d spend so much time in Taiwan, and didn’t plan on ever learning traditional characters either. However, both those things happened, and when they did I was really glad my name was the exact same in simplified and traditional characters. It’s something that’s kind of silly and doesn’t really matter, but I personally liked that about my name so you should maybe consider things like this.

I hope this article has helped you come up with your very own Chinese name. Now start learning to write it!

What name did you make for yourself? Let me know in the comments!

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