A little note on Chinese names – Part 1, Surnames and Generations

Chinese names are funny. Inherently so.

I can’t speak for everyone, of course, when I say I’m not particularly offended at people slagging off Chinese names; but I simply am not. The point is, given the multiplicity of Chinese words with exactly or almost the same pronunciation, differing only by tone, it is far easier to come up with a name that sounds funny – in Chinese – than an English name that sounds funny in English.

(NB: the numbers after each pinyin word refers to their tone – of which there are four in Mandarin.)

My cousin, for example, had a classmate in her primary school whose surname was 馬, ma3 ‘Horse’ – which already has some comedic potential right there. Clearly not very well versed in Mandarin (or probably any dialect), his parents named him 壮強, zhuang4 qiang2 ‘Strong’ – except that zhuang4 qiang2 could also be written 撞牆, or ‘running headfirst into a wall’. Horse Running Headfirst into Wall – brill!

Some other badly-conceived (ah, haha, hahaha) names are rather more unfortunate, like 揚偉 yang2 wei3 ‘displaying greatness’, which sounds exactly the same as 陽痿 – or the nemesis of many a man, erectile dysfunction. And yes, it’s a guy’s name.


Aaaanyway. What I actually wanted to do here was to give a tiny little primer on the mysterious subject of Chinese names – what they’re all about, and how they work. In modern times, names have gotten a lot simpler (which if you ask me is a sad thing); but since there’s going to be plenty of history in this blog, I figure there ought to be a bit more depth.

Chinese names always come surname first. As for the surnames themselves, they can have all sorts of origins, which actually should sound familiar to Western audiences. Many surnames are derived from ancient place names and fiefdoms in China; some probably come from occupations, and yet others might derive from the periodic invaders, mostly from the northern steppes, who often took up Chinese surnames once they started settling in China proper.

I could write another article about surnames themselves, and probably will at some time; but that’s for a brief introduction. The second component of a Chinese name, and the only part which has survived into modern times, is simply the given name. This name, naturally, is given at birth by the parents, and so aspirational names are very common; but in many families, especially more traditional ones – like mine – there is a system of generational words.

These generational words are characters within the given name which indicate which generation in the family tree a given person belongs to; some families have separate words for male and female offspring while others have the same word. This is a handy feature for a culture as family-oriented as the Chinese, where one might be expected to deal with distant relatives every now and then – a quick glance at the name would suffice to know if someone is an uncle, a cousin or a nephew (or aunt/niece), allowing one to adjust behaviour accordingly.

Even more lovely, many seriously traditional families – this is pretty much a preserve of the literati – have actually got their generational words linked up into poems. For a very very noble example, this is the generational word poem for the families of the Prince of Qin, a branch of the imperial family of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644):


High in aspiration, bearing public trust,


Preserving and keeping respect and amity in mind,


Aiding honesty and continuing righteousness,


A support of the age, ever trustworthy and humble.

So the first generation would be named ‘尚-something’ (the ‘high/pure generation’), followed by ‘志-something’ (the ‘aspiring generation’), and so on. Nice sentiments, of course – and also quite unduly optimistic, given it would take 20 generations to finish the poem. As it happens the Ming Dynasty never made it past 12 generations in the emperor’s line. Such is life – and history…

(Part 2 is right here.)


One thought on “A little note on Chinese names – Part 1, Surnames and Generations

  1. Pingback: Learn Chinese word radical – King « Learn Chinese Weekly

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