Chinese names, to the untrained ear, may sound somewhat similar. They jumble together in a scrambled binary of Changs, Wangs, Wus and Hus. They are hard to remember, since they are all 2-to-3 segment K’NEX sets of syllables that fail to strike a strong note with western minds. Yet upon further intensive (albeit unscholarly) investigation, you will find that Chinese names, when translated word-for-word, are in fact more daringly bestowed than those hippie children’s (Flowerpot, Oaktree) names from the 1970s.

Some names are just common. After the Cultural Revolution and reign of Mao, the boy’s names “Patriot” (Aiguo) and “State-Run” (Guoli) caught on with ferocity. The name Morning Diligence (Xiaoqin) is also a widespread popular girl’s name. There are several other majority names that one might suspect a stereotypical Chinese family under mainland party rule to name their kids. Yet despite the somewhat 1984-ish popular names, there are a slew of second tier names, as well as original creations, that are much more vibrant. Some full of history and artistic mastery, others simply wacky.

My first contact in China, a man who studied film along side my mother over 20 years ago, is named Liao Ye. His surname is used in ancient texts to form words that both mean spacious and rare. The surname Liao itself also happens to be rather rare. To further add profoundness to his title, his parents endowed him with the given name Ye, which he said in ancient text means a monument that shoots out brilliant light from the ground. So he is Mr. Liao Ye, the film professor. Or you could say Professor Rare-and-Spacious-Laser- Volcano-Monument. Chinese language is so much better at economizing meaning-per-square-centimeter ratios.

For a quick sample of the glory and folly of Chinese names and their direct translations, I need to look no further than the colleagues at my office. A team of engineers with names like Leftside Mountain, Plumtree Universe Creator, or Frightened-Look Changes to Flying (sorry, that last one came out looking like the English subtitles on Chinese bootleg DVDs).

Perhaps written the western way, with the surnames at the end, will make them flow better? I continue looking up, character-by-character, the names of my coworkers, via the emergency contact spreadsheet and nciku online dictionary. I come up with things like Beautiful Bright Avenger, Translucent Ginger, Permanent City Wall, or Tiger Cub Field (almost like Tiger Woods!).

So, you see folks, despite the fact that all my friends back in California think Chinese get names for their kids by dropping a bunch of pots and pans down the stairs and listening to the first acoustic combination, its actually even more fun than that!

Again, let me remind my readers that this is by no means a professional translation. There are layers of meaning behind every Chinese character. Anyone that has studied the language as long as I have knows that not only can a character have multiple meanings, but their meanings change over time and space. These are just the water-cooler ponderings of a semi-bored expat worker in Beijing. 100% for slacker entertainment.

Yet I must say there is some truth in these translations; it’s just that something gets lost in translation. Even Chinese people think their own idioms sound funny in English. Just as Sitting Bull (whose childhood name was Jumping Badger) might not sound as mystic in its native Lakota language. Still, next time I talk to my colleague Innumerous Triumphs, sitting at his computer editing Java code with his slight frame, shark-tank thick glasses and goofy smirk, part of me will be smiling inside.

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Nate is an arrangement of atoms that form cells and call themselves Nate. He used to live on a rock in the middle of the ocean that is famous for pineapples and expensive hotels, then he moved to a truck stop in the middle of California to get an education. Finally, he decided that he's spent enough time in far out places and he was going spend the remainder of his life in the most populated country in the world!... (or at least a couple years)

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Discussion

17
  1. I had a student once named New Technology, 新技. I’ll leave the family name out for their sake but needless to say it only made the whole name better when translated.

  2. I think part of the problem is you’re translating sometimes old or/and poetic Chinese into plain modern English, so the poetic qualities are all lost. I guess if someone can translate them into Latin or some other old European language and polish them a bit then they might sound like really cool names.

    Also, the meanings of single characters in Chinese can vary wildly with different context, so you can’t just take one meaning off the dictionary and assume that’s what it means in one particular name.

  3. “Frightened-Look Changes to Flying”

    Give the Chinese characters please. This I gotta see. I doubt any Chinese parents would name their children “frightened look” — more likely your selective interpretation of a simplified character, with the simplification itself also causing problems for interpretation.

  4. @Nate: Great post. It really is a deep piece of shame that I still, after half a decade, have troubles with Chinese names. Like most of my language woes, I trace it to my lack of strictness about referring to Chinese friends and colleagues by their Chinese names. They so often seem happy enough with an English name, and it’s simplicity for me is a temptation I’ve yet to resist.

    @Kellen: King of New Technology? Man, that would be rad.

    @Ji Feng Jing Cao/Silojet — I think you need to re-read the disclaimer in the post — no nitpicking needed on the translations. There’s little doubt that translating Chinese names (whether from simplified characters, c’mon, or ancient text that not one new father ever read before dubbing their kid with the grandiose moniker) is a bizarro exercise for any Westerner.

    But then, ask any Chinese to pronounce my last name, and the scales are balanced.

  5. @Ryan — the disclaimer aside, and yes I had read it, this was not nitpicking, and I had no problem with all but one example. The piece did not need this exaggeration for effect; it only stretched the credibility of the main point, slacker entertainment or not.

  6. Well, I would give all the Chinese characters, but I was trying to hide their IDs. I can give you the surnames though, Frightened-Look being one of them. It is the surname 瞿 (Qu2). However, I do emphasize that to Chinese even 王 (Wang2) doesn’t really mean King anymore, its just a sound to them now. I also looked up Qu in further detail (using Chinese-Chinese dictionary) and it appears that it may have also had the meaning of an old battle weapon. Perhaps it gave people a frightened look when they saw it. Then a regiment of soldiers carrying them got that name, and every progeny afterward carried the name down through the generations. Just making wild speculations though.

    Other surnames were 庞 (innumerable),仇 (avenger), 李 (plumtree), 左 (Left), 姜 (ginger), 田 (field), and 郭 (city wall). Some of these are old old meanings that Chinese don’t even know. Still, at one time and many places they did mean this!

  7. Peronsally Ive collected a list of about 615 family names and there are some downright bizarre ones, and “frigtened look” is hardly an outlier.

    There is an old variation of 瞿 which is 䀠, 目目 as one character. two eyes. good stuff.

  8. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Amateur’s Guide to Chinese Name Translation | Lost Laowai China Blog -- Topsy.com

  9. A modern Chinese name consists of a surname (xìng 姓) and a given name (míng 名 or míngzì 名字), usually presented in that order. When transcribed into western writing, the characters of the given name are often written separately. Thus Mao Zedong is often given as Mao Ze Dong.

    In former times Chinese could assume additional names at other times in their life. These include the zì 字 or style name, acquired upon reaching maturity, and the hào 號, a self-selected nickname.

    Chinese given names usually consist of two syllables (though it is increasingly common to only use one). Those syllables can be any of the thousands of Chinese characters so the combinations are almost limitless. In practice some characters are chosen more often than others, such as Mei “beautiful” for girls. Sometimes the first character of the given name is shared by all members of a generation in a family (siblings, cousins, etc)

  10. AH

    Gender: Masculine & Feminine

    Usage: Chinese

    Other Scripts: 阿 (Chinese)
    From the Chinese character 阿 which has no distinct meaning. It is not normally given as a name, but it can be prefixed to another name to make it a diminutive.

    AI (2) 爱, 蔼 f Chinese
    From Chinese 爱 “love, affection” or 蔼 “friendly”.

    BAI 白, 百, 柏 m & f Chinese
    From Chinese 白 “white, pure”, 百 “one hundred, many” or 柏 “cypress” (which is usually only masculine).

    BAO (1) 宝, 褒, 苞 m & f Chinese
    From Chinese 宝 “treasure, precious”, 褒 “praise” or 苞 “bud” (which is usually only feminine).

    BO (2) 波 m & f Chinese
    Means “wave” in Chinese.

    CHANG 昌, 畅, 长 m & f Chinese
    From Chinese 昌 “flourishing, prosperous” (which is usually only masculine), 畅 “smooth, fluent” or 长 “long”.

    CHAO 超 m Chinese
    Means “surpass” in Chinese.

    CHEN 晨, 辰 m & f Chinese
    From Chinese 晨 or 辰 which both mean “morning”.

    CHENG 成, 诚 m & f Chinese
    From Chinese 成 “accomplish, succeed” or 诚 “sincere”.

    CHIN m & f Chinese
    Variant of JIN (1) (using Wade-Giles transcription).

    CHUN 春 f & m Chinese
    Means “spring” in Chinese.

    DA 达 m Chinese
    Means “attain, achieve” in Chinese.

  11. DONG

    Gender: Masculine

    Usage: Chinese, Korean

    Other Scripts: 东, 栋 (Chinese), 동 (Korean)
    From Chinese 东 “east” or 栋 “pillar, beam”. It also means “east” in Korean.

    FEN 芬 f Chinese
    Means “fragrance” in Chinese.

    FU 富, 芙 m & f Chinese
    From Chinese 富 “wealthy” or 芙 “lotus”.

    GANG 刚 m Chinese
    Means “strong” in Chinese.

    GUO 国 m & f Chinese
    Means “country” in Chinese.

    HAI 海 m & f Chinese
    Means “sea” in Chinese.

    HE 河, 荷 f & m Chinese
    From Chinese 河 “river” or 荷 “lotus” (which is usually only feminine).

    HENG 恒 m & f Chinese
    Means “permanent, constant” in Chinese.

    HONG 弘, 鸿 m Chinese
    From Chinese 弘 or 鸿 which both mean “great, vast”.

    HUA 华, 花 f & m Chinese
    From Chinese 华 “magnificent, Chinese” or 花 “flower” (which is usually only feminine).

    HUAN 欢 f & m Chinese
    Means “happy, joyous” in Chinese.

    HUANG 煌 m Chinese
    Means “bright” in Chinese.

    HUI 慧 f Chinese
    Means “intelligent, wise” in Chinese.

    JIA 佳, 家 m & f Chinese
    From Chinese 佳 “good, fine” or 家 “home, family”.

    JIAN 建, 健 m & f Chinese
    From Chinese 建 “build” or 健 “strong, healthy”.

    JIANG 江 m & f Chinese
    Means “river” in Chinese.

    JIN (1) 金, 锦, 津 m & f Chinese
    From Chinese 金 “gold, metal, money”, 锦 “embroidered, bright” or 津 “ferry”.

    JING 精, 晶, 京 m & f Chinese
    From Chinese 精 “essence, perfect”, 晶 “clear, crystal” or 京 “capital city”.

    JU 菊 f Chinese
    Means “chrysanthemum” in Chinese.

    JUN 君, 俊, 军 m & f Chinese
    From Chinese 君 “ruler, supreme”, 俊 “talented” (which is usually only masculine) or 军 “army” (also usually only masculine).

    KUN 坤 m & f Chinese
    Means “earth” in Chinese.

  12. LAN

    Gender: Feminine

    Usage: Chinese, Vietnamese

    Other Scripts: 兰 (Chinese)
    From Chinese 兰 “orchid”. This is also the Vietnamese word for “orchid”.

    LI 理, 立, 黎, 力, 丽 f & m Chinese
    From Chinese 理 “reason, logic”, 立 “stand”, 黎 “dawn, black”, 力 “strength, power” (which is usually only masculine) or 丽 “beautiful” (usually only feminine).

    LIM m & f Chinese
    Hokkien Chinese form of LIN

    LIN 林, 琳 m & f Chinese
    From Chinese 林 “forest” or 琳 “fine jade, gem”.

    LING 灵, 铃 f & m Chinese
    From Chinese 灵 “alert, quick” or 铃 “bell, chime”.

    MEI (1) 美, 梅 f Chinese
    From Chinese 美 “beautiful” or 梅 “plum”.

    MIN 敏 f & m Chinese
    Means “clever, sharp” in Chinese.

    MING 明, 铭 m & f Chinese
    From Chinese 明 “shining, bright, clear” or 铭 “engrave”.

    MU 慕, 木 m & f Chinese
    From Chinese 慕 “admire” or 木 “wood”.

    NING 宁 f & m Chinese
    Means “peaceful, tranquil” in Chinese.

    NUAN 暖 f Chinese
    Means “warm, genial” in Chinese.

    NUO 娜 f Chinese
    Means “graceful” in Chinese.

    PING 平 m & f Chinese
    Means “peaceful, level” in Chinese.

    QING 青 f & m Chinese
    Means “greenish blue” in Chinese.

    QIU 秋 m & f Chinese
    Means “autumn” in Chinese.

    RONG 荣, 融, 容 f & m Chinese
    From Chinese 荣 “flourish”, 融 “harmonious” or 容 “to hold, to tolerate” (which is usually only feminine).

    RU 儒, 如 m & f Chinese
    From Chinese 儒 “scholar” or 如 “like, as, if”.

    SHI 时, 实, 史 m & f Chinese
    From Chinese 时 “time”, 实 “real, honest” or 史 “history”.

    SHU 淑 f Chinese
    Means “kind, gentle” in Chinese.

    SHUI 水 m & f Chinese
    Means “water” in Chinese.

    SHUN (1) 顺 f & m Chinese
    Means “smooth, agreeable” in Chinese.

    SU (2) 素, 肃, 肅 m & f Chinese
    From Chinese 素 “plain”, or else 肃 or 肅 which both mean “respectful”.

    TAI 太 m & f Chinese
    Means “great, extreme” in Chinese.

    TU (1) 图 m & f Chinese
    Means “chart, map” in Chinese.

    WEI 威, 巍, 伟 m Chinese
    From Chinese 威 “power, strength”, 巍 “towering, lofty” or 伟 “great, mighty”.

    WEN 文 m & f Chinese
    Means “culture, literacy” in Chinese.

  13. WU

    Gender: Masculine & Feminine

    Usage: Chinese

    Other Scripts: 武, 务 (Chinese)
    From Chinese 武 “military, martial” (which is generally only masculine) or 务 “affairs, business”. This was the name of several Chinese rulers, including the 2nd-century BC Emperor Wu of Han who expanded the empire and made Confucianism the state philosophy.

    XIANG

    Gender: Masculine & Feminine

    Usage: Chinese

    Other Scripts: 翔, 祥, 香, 湘 (Chinese)
    From Chinese 翔 “to soar”, 祥 “auspicious, lucky” or 香 “fragrant” (which is usually only feminine). It can also come from the name of the Xiang (湘) River in southern China.

    XIU 秀 f Chinese
    Means “beautiful, elegant” in Chinese.

    XUE 雪, 学 f & m Chinese
    From Chinese 雪 “snow” or 学 “study, learning”.

    XUN 迅 m & f Chinese
    Means “fast, sudden” in Chinese.

    YA 雅 f Chinese
    Means “elegant” in Chinese.

    YI 宜, 义, 益, 怡, 仪 f & m Chinese
    From Chinese 宜 “suitable”, 义 “justice”, 益 “profit”, 怡 “joy, harmony” (which is usually only feminine) or 仪 “ceremony” (also usually only feminine).

    YIN 银, 音, 荫 f Chinese
    From Chinese 银 “silver”, 音 “sound” or 荫 “shade”.

    YONG

    Gender: Masculine & Feminine

    Usage: Chinese, Korean

    Other Scripts: 勇, 永 (Chinese), 용 (Korean)
    From Chinese 勇 “brave” or 永 “perpetual”. It also means “brave” in Korean.

    YU 玉, 愉, 雨 f & m Chinese
    From Chinese 玉 “jade”, 愉 “happy, pleased” or 雨 “rain”.

    YUN 云 f & m Chinese
    Means “cloud” in Chinese.

    ZAN 赞 f & m Chinese
    Means “support, favour” in Chinese.

    ZHEN 珍, 真, 貞 f Chinese
    From Chinese 珍 “precious, rare”, 真 “real, true” or 貞 “chaste, pure”.

    ZHENG 正, 政 m & f Chinese
    From Chinese 正 “just, proper” or 政 “government”.

    ZHI 志, 智 m & f Chinese
    From Chinese 志 “will, purpose” or 智 “wisdom, knowledge”.

    ZHONG 忠, 中 m & f Chinese
    From Chinese 忠 “loyal” or 中 “middle”.

    ZHOU 舟 m & f Chinese
    Means “boat” in Chinese.

  14. Interesting. So could you have a possible male name like Wen Hu and female name like, Zheng Xiu. I’m working on a project, and need some good Chinese names.

  15. A chinese parent will NEVER do this. NEVER. I cannot stress this enough. The meaning of the name is believed to have life long consequences. No one would be so idiotic as to choose a character based on solely the sound. It has to sound good AND have significance.

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