Chinese People’s English Names

Random? Peculiar? Awkward? Perhaps adjectives you would use to describe the English names your Chinese colleagues chose for themselves. Find out how these names come about.

How many times have you ran into such Chinese whose English names would often make you frown upon? Candy, Sunny, Kitty, Almighty, just to name a few. This idea almost totally ignores the basic rules of western naming, as Chinese tend to go for anything they like as they come across it. Most of them don’t care for the implications because it’s not the one written on their official documents.

When Chinese name themselves, they really aim to stand out, be memorable and special. They will feel most awkward when running into someone with the same name.

Why do Chinese have to use a western name? Well, unlike Japanese and Korean names that use romanization, much of Chinese pinyin is hard for Westerners to pronounce, such as “x,” “q” or “c.” Trying to pronounce “Qian” or “Xiu” is not a simple phonetic exercise. In more extreme cases, a Chinese name that is perfectly beautiful in Chinese, may have misleading meanings if the Mandarin Pinyin is directly used as the English name. A classic example is [诗婷], a girl’s name that means “poetic and graceful” in Chinese. Sadly, its pinyin is “Shiting.”

So, the practice of the “English Name” was adopted. Generally speaking, there are several ways in which Chinese like to name themselves:

1. Interesting or favorite things such as lucky numbers; for example, Sunshine, Lake, Flower, Seven, Eleven, Mars.

2. Some positive adjectives like Sunny, Happy, White, and even Funny, Strong, Furry.

3. Director rough translation or transliteration of Chinese names. “Snow” as a name indicates that the person might have a [雪] (snow) character in their original name. The name “Leeway” may sound silly, but the person who uses it might have the Chinese name Li Wei [李伟], which sounds identical to the word leeway.

4. According to textbooks and foreign movies, sometimes a person sees a favorite star and they may name themselves after that famous person, such as Kobe, James, Helen, Taylor, Cupid, or even Hitler. (Mind you, Chinese tend to idolize powerful figures in history even if they were basically monsters.)

Also, don’t forget China’s long history of giving themselves various names and nicknames. Until the PRC was founded in 1949, except for parents-chosen name, “ming” and surname “xing,” people were granted an alternative personal name, called a “zi” when they reached adulthood. In the Confucian society of ancient China, it was common courtesy to address people using their zi. Apart from these three names, one or more self-chosen names known as “hao” were also very popular to reveal an aspect of the individual’s personality.

When local naming traditions entwine with a foreign linguistic context, you can guess the results. As every Chinese character carries its specific meanings, the idea of a name being somehow “meaningful” is significant in Chinese culture, which stands contrast to western names. When people choose their English names, they lack a certain understanding to western naming culture and a dictionary is a lot easier to get hold of than naming records. This is why they consider it perfectly acceptable to call themselves “Almighty” or “Sunny.”

When Chinese name themselves, they really aim to stand out, be memorable and special. They will feel most awkward when running into someone with the same name. Although they can’t change their Chinese name given by their parents, they can certainly be creative with western ones. A girl surnamed “Tang” with the same pinyin as another Tang, meaning sugar, will certainly name herself Candy. A Chinese prefers to be called “Shopping” because her Chinese name is Xiao Ping [肖萍], which sounds similar to the word. Someone gets inspiration from his surname Yang, which sounds exactly like young, and names himself “Forever” to form his full name Forever Yang. And there you have it, the story of how English names are selected by Chinese people.