How to Choose a Chinese Name: 4 Approaches
Should learners of Chinese have a Chinese name? That’s a good question, but it’s not one that I’ll be answering in this article. Assuming that you feel you need a Chinese name, there are several approaches that you can take, depending on your preferences and your needs.
Foreign Name Transliteration
Transliteration means representing the sounds of one language as closely as possible, using the sounds of another language. My last name, “Pasden,” has been transliterated into Chinese as something like “Pa-si-dun.” Names converted into Chinese in this way have a distinctly foreign feel, and there’s essentially a set of “transliteration characters” used for the full text conversion. When a Chinese person sees a transliterated name of this sort written in characters, she immediately knows it’s a foreigner’s name, and she also knows to disregard any meanings the characters might have originally had. It’s just a string of sounds.
This is the type of name you get if you don’t speak any Chinese and are only accepting a Chinese name because you have to. For example, if you’re applying for a work permit in China, they will ask your Chinese name. If you don’t have one, the government worker will do a basic transliteration and use that.
Examples of this kind of name include:
- 路德维希·范·贝多芬 (Lùdéwéixī Fàn Bèiduōfēn) Ludwig van Beethoven
- 阿尔伯特·爱因斯坦 (Ā’ěrbótè Àiyīnsītǎn) Albert Einstein
- 贾斯汀·汀布莱克 (Jiǎsītīng Tīngbùláikè) Justin Timberlake
You’ll notice that this approach also results in the longest possible Chinese names. If your Chinese friends or co-workers actually have to use a name like one of the above, they’ll quickly shorten your name or give you a Chinese nickname.
Which brings us to the next approach…
This approach is undoubtedly the most fun. Many Chinese people love to bestow cute Chinese nicknames on foreigners, and you’ll find that lots of singers and Hollywood actors have well-known Chinese nicknames (because no one wants to use those long, unwieldy transliterated foreign names).
As a non-Chinese, you’re going to have a very hard time coming up with anything clever on your own. These frequently develop organically as a natural result of interactions with Chinese friends, and if you like a nickname you hear, you can claim it as your own. (Just be sure you know what it means!)
Some examples of this type:
- 郭一口 (Guō Yīkǒu)
- 铁蛋儿 (Tiě Dànr)
- 大山 (Dàshān) — this one is less “fun” or silly; it actually came from the name of a character in Mark Rowswell’s first performance
Chinese Familiar Name
If a nickname is too informal or silly for your needs, but you’re not ready to go “full native” with a Chinese name, you might consider just choosing a Chinese surname, and then using the “familiar address” form built into Chinese culture which involves Chinese surnames.
This method usually uses 小 (xiǎo) or 老 (lǎo), plus a surname. This approach has the advantage of being fully culturally Chinese while still being easy, and not requiring full commitment to a Chinese name. This can actually be a good way to “get started” with your Chinese name: choose a Chinese surname, then add a 小 (or possible 老) before it. You can figure out the rest of your Chinese name later, after you’ve “tried out” the surname for a while.
- 小潘 (Xiǎo Pān) — this is what my own Chinese name started as
- 老马 (Lǎo Mǎ) — this one sort of doubles as a nickname, since it literally means “old horse”
- 小江 (Xiǎo Jiāng)
Note that this is not a formal name, so I doubt you could use it for official registration purposes. Because it’s a Chinese form of address, don’t be too surprised if the Chinese official responds with a “that’s not an official name.”
Native-like Chinese Name
This is what most learners want: a name that sounds like a Chinese person’s name, and is not readily distinguishable from a native speaker’s name. Ideally, it also has a connection to one’s original name.
Some learners opt for a Chinese name that sounds as close as possible to their real English name while still sounding native Chinese. This doesn’t work well for all names, and when done poorly, can even sound like a semi-transliteration.
Other learners are satisfied with a few token similarities (begins with the same letter, for example) and just go with something “more Chinese” that they like. (This is what I did myself.)
It’s worth nothing that you don’t have to represent both your surname and your given name in a set way. I’ve seen lots of creativity in the way that people choose their names, including the following:
- Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name (2 or 3 characters) that sounds kind of like one’s surname only
- Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name (2 or 3 characters) that sounds kind of like one’s given name only
- Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name (2 or 3 characters) that swaps the typical surname/given name order, e.g. choosing 周 (Zhōu) as a surname to represent “Joe,” and then choosing a given name that sounds kind of like Joe’s surname.
- Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name that in no way relates to your English name, or does so in a subtle way related to meaning
- Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name that integrates with Chinese in-laws, e.g. taking your Chinese spouse’s family surname
I’m not going to give lots of examples of these, because the whole point is that this kind of name sounds like a Chinese person’s name. So you might as well look at a list of native Chinese names.
One thing you need to take into account is the feel of the Chinese name, and you’re definitely going to need to ask a lot of native Chinese speakers how they feel about your Chinese name. Keep in mind that no single opinion represents all of the Chinese-speaking world, and expect a bit of conflicting information! Some feedback you might get is that the name sounds “too revolutionary” or “too traditional” or “too literary” or “too foreign” or even just 不好听 (bù hǎotīng: sounds bad!).
Get help from native speakers. (This is not something you can do entirely on your own.) Get lots of feedback. Find a name you love.
Special Mention: Jeremy Goldkorn
Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of Danwei.org and now Editor in Chief of SupChina, has a Chinese name which delights nearly everyone who hears it, but doesn’t fit neatly into any of the four approaches I’ve outlined above. His name is:
- 金玉米 (Jīn Yùmǐ) literally, “Gold Corn”
金 (Jīn) is a legit Chinese surname, but the use of the word 玉米 (yùmǐ) seems to fall into nickname territory, although it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that an actual native Chinese person could have this as their name. (I’ve heard some pretty bizarre real Chinese names in my time in China.) I think this name would be accepted by Chinese officials as a formal name.
The point here is: there’s room for creativity! My four approaches should be useful for a lot of people, but there’s definitely wiggle room for you to get creative and go your own way.
I discuss this issue on the latest issue of You Can Learn Chinese podcast with my Mandarin Companion partner, Jared Turner. You can tune in here: