cì zǐ qiān jīn, bù rú jiào zǐ yī yì. jiào zǐ yī yì, bù rú cì zǐ hǎo míng.
What's In A Chinese Name?
One unique thing about Chinese names is that they use existing words; you can't just piece together a few radicals and assign it it's own sound like it is possible with Western names.
We all know of someone in the West who has a name that looks as though it's been created by randomly putting together a few Scrabble tiles.
On the other side of it, few Western parents would consider giving their child the name Morning, but in China it's a common name for babies who are born in the morning.
Like Western names, you can have the same pronunciation with different spellings. Just like I know people named Katherine, Kathryn and Catherine, I also know three people named wáng chén: wáng chén (王忱), wáng chén (王晨) and wáng chén (王辰). Of course, in Chinese, the different characters mean that each name has a different meaning.
Choosing A Chinese Name
My first name, given by a Chinese colleague, was ài huá xià tíng (爱华夏婷). After a month in China, it felt good to have a name for the school leaders and non-English speakers to call me.
They tried their best, but Charlotte doesn't exactly roll off the tongue for the average Chinese person. Plus, some guy friends were quick to point out that it sounds eerily close to shā le tā (杀了他) or "kill him!"
But when I started telling my classes of high-schoolers about my name, the room would erupt in laughter.
I thought it was just that they were the classes of naughtier students. However the same things happened in classes one, two and three; the classes of "good" students.
Finally a few brave girls came to me and said that the reason they were laughing was because the name used four Chinese characters.
While its totally acceptable to have a four character name, its not as common as it is in Japan. Since then I've noticed that of the thousands of students I've taught, no more than ten had a four character name. Two and three is the norm.
They also thought my name was hilarious because it used characters that mean "love China" and I'm an American. Obviously, I don't love their country as much as they do, they reasoned.
So I dropped that name and went without a Chinese name for several years. My Chinese name now is simply a transliteration of my given name. It's probably the easiest way to come up with a Chinese name.
It's certainly not a name I'd choose for myself, but somewhere in the process of changing visas and buying a house, I needed to start signing my name in Chinese so I became xià luò tè (夏洛特). It makes my son's friends laugh, but at least I have a legitimate family name.
Tips for choosing your Chinese name
Pay attention to gender.
I was once at a speaking competition and the host introduced the next contestant as having a beautiful name and what a wonderful woman she must be.
My husband gently nudged me and said that the contestant, liáng yàn líng (梁燕铃), was his coworker, the same one who was looking for a girlfriend.
Both the guy and the host turned various shades of red as he entered the stage. I have no idea why his parents gave him such a name in a country where gender roles are strictly adhered to.
Perhaps this poor guy's parents were hoping that their third son would be a girl and named him as such.
Some names that are masculine are wěi (伟) "great", lóng (龙) "dragon", háo (豪) "grand".
A few feminine names are huā (花) "flower", xiāng (香) "fragrant", jìng (静) "quiet".
Keep it simple.
My husband noticed a recent trend in parents giving their children obscure names. Every year when a new group of preschoolers visit his office to get physicals, he's baffled by at least a dozen names or more out of the roughly 100 children he sees.
To help your Chinese friends save face, stick with a name that most people will recognize; don't go looking for a character that one will only find in ancient poetry or one that has 60-plus strokes so you can wow your friends with the difficulty of writing your name!
Avoid names that leave a bad impression
Imagine you're Wesley Young and you've been studying Chinese for a while. You chose Yang as a surname since it sounds similar to your own.
Wei is a common name and it would fit well with your given name. But you might get some odd looks when you start introducing yourself yáng wěi (杨伟).
There's another word combination with the same pronunciation, though with different characters, and it’s likely to leave a memorable first impression: yáng wěi (阳痿).
It's meaning? Impotence.
You won't win over many ladies with a name like that! With the uniqueness of the Chinese language, you're bound to run into other instances like this, so be careful!
Likewise, avoid names like the aforementioned ài huá (爱华) and dà shān (大山). Yes, those two North American celebrities have made a killing off of their great speaking and acting abilities, but to Chinese, these names are as laughable as “Spongebob” and “Rainbow” are to Westerners.
Ask a Chinese friend to give you some ideas.
For most Chinese, this will be as easy as it is for you to offer up a dozen English names for a Chinese friend. Although in my case my friend gave me a name that didn't go over well, which brings us to the final tip…
Run your name past several Chinese friends.
Before you get too attached to your new name, run it past some friends to get their reactions and comments. We live in a crowd-sourcing world; take advantage of it.
Maybe there's something you missed or there's a new slang word that would it you in the "bad first impression" category.