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Choosing a Chinese Name

Updated on January 8, 2012

Best Resources for Selecting a Chinese Name

Selecting a name in Chinese is much more complicated than selecting a name in English and families in China and Taiwan put a great deal of thought into selecting their children's names, often hireing experts to help.  Yet it is surprisingly difficult to find English materials about the process of selecting a Chinese name.

This lens will also introduce some basic considerations in selecting a Chinese name and serve as a springboard for further exploration by highlighting the best resources on the Web and in print to help you select the perfect Chinese name for your baby or for yourself.   It is a valuable resource for multicultural families, parents adopting Chinese babies, and English-speaking students of Chinese.   Please take a moment to add any additional resources that you know of and help rank those items already listed.

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Best Chinese Name Books - Chosen by me voted on and added to by you

Disagree with this list? Change the ranking or add your own favorite Chinese name book. Only the top five will appear.

Random Thoughts

From the Non-Chinese Partner in Bicultural Family

Selecting a name in Chinese is much more complicated than selecting a name in English. For the most part, English speakers select a name from among a few hundred (at most a few thousand if the parents are more adventurous) common names. The historic meanings of English names are generally of secondary importance to what the parents personally find euphonious and perhaps their desire to honor another family member.

While a name's euphony is important to Chinese speakers, so to are the meanings of the characters used, the radicals in the character, the time and date of birth, the Chinese astrological sign of the child and his family members, undesirable homophones the name could be confused with when spoken, the masculinity/femininity of the name, and a variety of other considerations.

Unlike in America, in Taiwan it is very important to select a unique name for your child. It is very rare in Taiwan to meet someone else with the same given name (but very common to meet someone with the same surname; much more common than in the U.S.). While in China, single-character given names are common, in Taiwan two-character names are strongly preferred.

Given the thousands of characters available to choose from in creating a name and the number of possible two-character combinations, it is easy to select a name that few others will have, but difficult to decide upon a single name. It is very common for families to seek out the services of one or more experts in helping them with this process.

It is surprisingly difficult to find English materials about the process of selecting a Chinese name. I could find only two commonly-recommend books on Amazon and almost no well-researched and detailed Web sites. The following is one of the few good Web sites that I could find on the topic. Read it if you are interested in learning more:

The Role of Astrology in Chinese Name Selection

The Chinese horoscope is a cycle based upon years rather than months. Each Chinese lunar year has an animal associated with it. For example, I wrote this on December 2006, which falls in the year of the dog.

While I do not believe that a name determines one's fate, enough people in Taiwan do that having someone born in the year of the tiger with a pig radical in one of their name's characters might be as awkward in Chinese as naming your child "Harry Johnson" in English.

I'm not sure if that bit about the tiger and pig is true; I just made it up. That's my point. I have no ability to judge a Chinese name's laugh factor, pleasantness, or uniqueness. So I had no problem letting an expert put together a list of "good" names for my wife and I to consider when deciding a name for our son.

As Xiaoning Wang writes (quoting Edward Hume) in his popular article Good Meaning Characters Do Not Always Make Good Chinese Names: "'Never make up a Chinese name without consulting Chinese friends!' Maybe your Chinese friends cannot give your child a great name, but they definitely know if you are giving your child an appropriate Chinese name. Just like an Italian or an Irish knows what a typical Italian and Irish name should be."

I would add: even native speakers of Chinese often consult experts when selecting an appropriate name for their children. Simply selecting a name that sounds nice and has a cool meaning is not enough. The Internet makes it easier than ever to contact native speaker for advice in this matter. Take advantage of it.

Naming a Forest Dog

An Example of the Role of Astrology in Chinese Name Selection

One of the most common surnames in Chinese is "Lin", the character for which are associated with "forest" or "woods". Lins who have a child born in a dog year, have to take care to counteract the potential negative astrological implications.

As the dog is a domesticated animal that thrives best with people and requires shelter from people, it is an issue when someone with the surname Lin is born in the year of the Dog. Lin, as stated above, means "forest." While most people don't think of a surname's meaning in normal circumstances, when selecting an auspicious name, it's various meanings and symbology are scrutinized very carefully.

Have a dog running around loose in the forest is not an auspicious image. It implies being lost or perhaps a feral condition (wild, dangerous, uncivilized). Either way, not something that most Chinese parents would want their child associated with.

The solution is to select a names whose characters contain countervailing radicals. For example, the name "Yijie" is a good name for a child born in the year of the dog as each character contains the "person" radical. If you look at the image above, on the far right is a character made of two strokes, looking something like the "carrot" symbol on your keyboard (above the "6", or like an exponential symbol, or like an editor mark for insertion, whatever). The character is a very stylized depiction of a person standing with legs apart.

A radical's shape will change to fit the character it is used with to maintain an aesthetic and practical square-based shape. The two characters in the middle are the person radical as they look in the characters themselves, which are pictured on the far left of the image.

The person tames/domestics and cares for the dog. Therefore the symbology of a Lin born in the Year of the Dog is neutralized by the person radical found in both characters of his name.

Top Recommendations for the Beginning Chinese Language Student

I'm one of those people that wastes a lot of money buying more materials than I could ever reasonably use. The good thing for you, however, is that I've compared many different materials. Below are my recommendations for beginning student of Mandarin Chinese. The materials I chose are especially helpful for self-study.

Even better, you can add your suggestions and, if you used any of the below-listed materials, you can vote them up or down the list.

Hanyu Pinyin Workbook
Hanyu Pinyin Workbook

This workbook provides an affordable way for the beginning student or Chinese to learn Pinyin. It is also useful for native speakers who want to learn Pinyin.

Rosetta Stone V2: Chinese Level 1-2 [OLD VERSION]
Rosetta Stone V2: Chinese Level 1-2 [OLD VERSION]

I'm using this software to brush up on my Chinese now that I've moved back to Taiwan after being away for MANY years. It is an awesome product. I highly recommend this software for beginning Chinese language learners. As a matter of fact, I created a lens about it: It is particularly good for improving your listening and reading skills. You can practice with Pinyin and characters (both simplified and traditional). It is a wonderful way to drill your Pinyin. You do, however, have to use the diacritical tone markers. There is no way to use the TOP system within this software. But, what you can do is copy phrases in the TOP format on a flashcards for practice away from the computer.

Chinese Primer: The Pinyin (v. 1-3)
Chinese Primer: The Pinyin (v. 1-3)

This is the textbook I used when I studied Chinese as an undergrad. It is a very good textbook. Please note that it comes in both a Pinyin and GR version. I recommend that you get the Pinyin version as you will need to learn Pinyin eventually. Although the authors recommend the tonal spelling GR version to help you learn tones as a beginning Chinese language learning, if you know the TOP system, you can use the more practical and widespread Pinyin system and not have to waste your time with the convoluted GR system that is becoming increasingly rare. You can rewrite the Pinyin vocabulary, phrases, and sentences in the book to help with memorizing and reading the tones.

Besta S701 Interactive English-Chinese Handwriting Dictionary
Besta S701 Interactive English-Chinese Handwriting Dictionary

The rolls royce of Chinese electronic dictionaries. Touch screen, handwriting recognition, multiple input methods, basically everything you need to look up Chinese characters.

The interactive multimedia BESTA S701 is a Chinese <-> English <-> Chinese bidirectional dictionary, personal organizer and language teacher including Chinese Mandarin, Japanese and English voice synthesis. Designed to assist people whose learning, speaking Chinese/English. It is one of the most sophisticated reference, language and business tools currently available. It's making the most sense of the complex information necessary when learning any foreign language.

FEATURES: (Best for both of Chinese and English Learning)

Built-in "Sentence Translation" and "Smart Comparisons", a good reference tools for English and Chinese translation or learning.

Built-in reputable Oxford Advanced Learner's English-Chinese Dictionary 6th Edition

Built-in English Chinese Dictionary with approx. 300,000 searchable words or phrases

Built-in Chinese Dictionary with approx. 60,000 words, phrases, and 8,000 idioms

Pre-download The Contemporary Chinese Dictionary making easier for Chinese learning

Built-in Chinese-English Dictionary, American Slang Dictionary with Chinese, Japanese and Korean definitions and Internet Dictionary

Multilingual Travel Dialogues with human voice pronunciation

Overall word searching technology across the dictionaries and Grammar Cross-searching in the sample sentences of English-Chinese Dictionary

Databank in Words studio, such as TOEFL, GRE, etc. to improve your vocabulary power

Downloadable Animated Grammar and Phases for English learning through a real scene and animation

Built-in or downloadable Synonym-Antonym Dictionary, Structure of Words, Structure of Sentences, English Proficiency Test & Interactive English.

Chinese <-> English <-> Chinese Electronic dictionary BESTA CD-616
Chinese <-> English <-> Chinese Electronic dictionary BESTA CD-616

If you want a more basic and affordable model, check out this one.

This Chinese &lt;-&gt; English &lt;-&gt; Chinese Electronic dictionary BESTA CD-616 includes 36 dictionaries with over 670,000 entries. Includes speech synthesis for 9 languages including Chinese, English, Japanese, Korean and more. Dictionaries: English - Chinese - English: over 270,000 entries and 64,000 expressions. Chinese Mandarin: over 13,000 words and expressions, with Zhuyin and Pinyin reference. Oxford Advanced Learner's English-Chinese Dictionary: 60,000 words and 84,000 sentence examples. Cambridge Encyclopedia: 4,000,000 entries and 24,000 grouped phrases. English-Chinese-Japanese-Korean dictionary with pronunciation in each language. Chinese-Japanese and Japanese-Chinese dictionaries: the voice function exists for English, Mandarin and Cantonese. Animated dictionary, Illustrated dictionary, DIY dictionary, Net dictionary, Extend dictionary, Travel Dialogue dictionary with voice function. Advanced English-language study course including: animated grammar, English proficiency test, interactive study exercises, review and self-tests, TOEFL, IELTS, GRE vocabulary study, morphological and phonetic analysis for English words. Incorporates the best of Voxware and Bestalk Human Voice Technologies for advanced voice synthesis delivery. Multi-Country Conversations in Chinese, English, Japanese, Korean and more. Enhanced story line featuring animated grammatical teaching, through 3D animation including scenario teaching method and understanding the correct use of grammar. Extensive encyclopedia with diagrams and illustrations for accelerated learning process. Handwriting recognition. Specially designed with MP3 system, audio &amp; visual games and animation. Comes in a slim case, with the users manual in English and Chinese, headphones, power adapter, rechargeable battery and a bonus CD.


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    • ChouDoufu profile image

      ChouDoufu 5 years ago

      @jimmielanley: Funny! For my readers who don't know Chinese, "Wu" also sounds like the word for "no" or "lack of", so his name sounds like "no culture" or uncultured. Always good to run a name past native speakers.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      I am in Chinese currently (8th grade, Chinese 1) and my name is Bi Yan Jiao. Yan means I like to write, and Jiao means feminine, I think. Idk why I picked feminine, but it sounds cool. :) lol. Ni shi huan Justin Bieber ma? Wo bu shi huan Justin Bieber(:

    • profile image

      123ysaolivia 7 years ago

      This is an interesting lens. I am thinking now what should the name I choose if I am a Chinese.

      Graphic Design | Social Media

    • jimmielanley profile image

      Jimmie Lanley 9 years ago from Memphis, TN, USA

      I have a funny story. An American friend chose the last name Wu -- common one, no problem. But for his name he chose wen ming (culture).

      Get it? Wu wenming. He couldn't understand why people laughed when he shared his name. :-)

    • profile image

      sudever 10 years ago

      Hi I'm the groupmaster for

      Your lens would be nice addition to this group,

      you are cordially invited to join!