What you need to know about Chinese Names

In China, people’s names are structured differently. First, they have a family name, followed by a given name. Unlike in Western countries, women don’t change their last name when they get married. The given name usually has one or two Chinese characters, but sometimes newborns are given three characters to make it easier to tell them apart

In China, given names are chosen to have special meaning. They often express good wishes for the baby’s life, such as where they were born (like “Jing” means Beijing), their birth time or a natural phenomenon (like “Dong” means winter). Some names also aim to instill good values, like “Zhong” means faithful, “Yi” means righteous, “Li” means courteous, and “Xin” means reliable. Others express hopes for the baby’s future, such as “Jian” for good health, “Shou” for a long life, and “Fu” for happiness.

In China, there are over 22,000 family names that have been used at some point, but today, only around 3,500 are commonly used. The top three most popular surnames are Li, Wang, and Zhang, and about 270 million people in China have one of these three names. In fact, just 100 common surnames cover almost 87% of the entire Chinese population. Among these 100 surnames, 19 stand out as particularly popular, including Li, Wang, Zhang, Liu, Chen, Yang, Zhao, Huang, Zhou, Wu, Xu, Sun, Hu, Zhu, Gao, Lin, He, Guo, and Ma – together making up about half of the Chinese population.

Some people in China have compound surnames made up of two characters, such as Ou Yang or Tai Shi. There are a total of 81 different compound surnames used in the country.

In China, everyone has the right to use their own name and it’s legally protected. Traditionally, children usually take their father’s surname when they’re born. However, nowadays children can choose to take their mother’s surname instead. Many people also have nicknames that are used in childhood or by close friends.

When speaking to a Chinese person, it’s considered polite and respectful to address them by their surname, followed by a title of respect such as “Mr.” (Xian1 Sheng1) or “Madam” (Nv3 Shi4). Job titles can also be used as a form of address. Between close friends, given names are often used. However, it’s generally considered impolite to use the term “Xiao3 Jie3” (meaning “little sister”) to address a young lady.

Here is a general guide to addressing different types of Chinese people:

  • Mr. Li: Li Xian Sheng
  • Mrs. Wang: Wang Nv Shi
  • Ms. Zhang: Zhang Nv Shi
  • President Xi: Xi Zhu Xi
  • Minister Zhou: Zhou Zong Li
  • Manager Wang: Wang Jing Li


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