Saturday, September 5, 2009

Chinese Names

I grew up in a culture where people had a surname, a "Christian" name (a term no longer used for various reasons) and a middle name. In my primary school days, boys used to call each other by their surname or a nickname.

Over the years I have strived to learn how names are used in other cultures. The first culture and country I am going to write about in this series of names from around the world is China. This will include names from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

A lot of informaton in this article was taken from Wikipedia, but I have added stories of my own experience. I look forward to feedback from my Chinese friends on how you use your name, particularly in regard to your Chinese and "Western" names.


Several different conventions are followed by Chinese in the use of names.

First of all, the Chinese name is written with the family name first, followed by the given name. For instance, Lee Ming is "Mr Lee" not "Mr Ming". The family name of Chinese leader Mao Zedong is Mao and his given name is Zedong.


When Chinese people emigrate or do business with Western countries they often adapt their name by adding a Western first name to their surname, for example Fred Lee.

Other variations include combining a Western name with Chinese surname and given name, for example, Fred Lee Ming. Another variation is to follow the Western name with Chinese given name then surname, for example, Fred Ming Lee.


An interesting variation on adapting Chinese names is to use the initials of given names. I know a few Chinese men with two given names. Their "Western" name is their initials. For example, I have worked with "KK" Lam in Singapore and "KK" Leung from Hong Kong. The father of one of my daughter's classmates is "CC" Cheung, and another father is "CP" Chan.

I am curious about these abbreviations but I haven't always got the information. KK Leung was Kin Kwong Leung which always made me think of "King Kong".


Chinese names are written (not surprisingly) in Chinese characters. When translated to English, the Western spelling can vary. For example, on the list of 100 most common Chinese surnames published in 2006, the character for Li () is also shown as Lee. Spellings will be different depending on whether Mandarin or Cantonese pronunciation is used.

Consider these Mandarin/Cantonese pairs: Zhang and Chang, Zhao and Chiu, Zhu and Chu, Wu and Ng, and Liang and Leung.

The spelling of these names can be your clue to indentify where the person is from. For example, I have a colleague with surname of Li and he is from China, but another fellow named Lee is from Singapore. I used to work with a Helen Lee whose accent was so Australian, that after a telephone call to a customer, she received a fax sent to Helen Leigh.


Although there are thousands of Chinese family names, the 100 most common surnames are shared by 85% of the population. The top 10 surnames account for about 40% of Chinese people in the world: Li/Lee, Wang/Wong, Zhang/Chang, Zhao/Chao , Chen/Chan, Yang/Young , Wu/Woo/Ng , Liu/Lau , Huang/Wong , Zhou/Chow.

Commit those names to memory and you will have a great conversation starter: "Did you know that you have one of the ten most popular Chinese names in the world? And 40% of Chinese have one of these names?".


I have two stories to share about marriages of a Chinese person and an Australian.

I used to work with an ABC (Australian Born Chinese) named Karen Chong. She was married and I naively assumed her husband was Chinese. I later found out that her husband was an Australian named Bruce. I asked her why she didn't use her married surname and she replied "When people hear the name Chong, they know what to expect".

I encountered the reverse situation at a client. I was studying a document which referred to a Denise Wong. I happened to be working with a Caucasian lady named Denise, so I asked her where I could find Denise Wong to ask some questions. She said, "Oh, that's me. My husband is Chinese!". This led to an interesting conversation and she said that bank tellers were always suspicious when she withdrew money.

The moral of these two tales is that you should never assume too much about a person, just looking at the surname!

Learn more about Chinese names and you will learn about the long history of China and its fascinating culture.

Suggested Wikipedia reading:
Chinese Name,
Chinese Surname
Chinese Given Name


  1. Another Chinese calligraphy it hard to read and write but I like it.

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