The Name of Chinese People

After I wrote about Chinese Characters (which is an interesting topic), let me talk about the name of people in China. Just as the last article, I “intentionally” over-simplify it since 1) how can it be possible to tell the “complete” story with such a short answer 2) why people need to understand that details when they are first exposed to such topics.

What’s in the Name?

I chatted with Chris the other day about giving naming to my son – it was not an easy task. I asked: Do you have explicit meaning in English names? I assume there is no for most names, and the choice is just about pronunciation and because people who are named with this name. (Is this true?)

The Chinese name is different. There are only limited number of Chinese characters (you cannot create a new one, and it is always impossible to create a “typo” on computer since you cannot create one characters on computer), and there are just a small subsets that are often used (within 2000). That means, every single character has explicit meanings. It is either some physical objects (like mountain, rain, cloud, tree, gold), or some concept like happiness, good, wisdom…

Finding out the name is like write a very poem. Everything express some meaning so you need express something with the two or three characters.

So, ask what the meaning of their name when you meet a person from China, and you will be surprised by how deep the meaning of the names are.

Family Names

Unlike English names, people put family name in the first place, and the given name the second. It shows respect to the anscester.

There are not so many last names. The common saying is “100” last names in China, but actually, there is more than that. To recite all the 100 last names with the exact order is one of the must-do task for children in the past.

Common last names are:

Wang, Zhao, Zhang, Li, Yang, Sun, Zhou, Wu, Zheng…

The Middle Names

People in China actually don’t have middle names.

In tradition, all the names are three characters, with the first character as last name, and the rest two are the given name. However, in many families, the first character of the given name is a mark of the generation. (Let me name it as middle name, although people in China don’t call it so). Everyone in the same generation has exactly the same middle name.

For example, according to the Family History Booklet, my middle name should be Zhong 重. This has been determined hundreds of years ago already, so I know my son’s middle name, or my grandson, or his son, or grandson’s middle name.

The usage of this middle name is make sure when two person with the same last name meets, they can immediately tell what generation he is, and they know how they should address the other. It is not rare for a person of 70 to call a person of just 5 grandfather…

So, when the last name, and the middle name are determined, people typically only need to think of one name – the second character of the given name. The tradition is, you cannot use the same name as your ancestor, even names with similar pronunciation to show respect. There are thousands of characters, and there are only hundreds of pronunciation in China, so you can calculate how many characters with exactly the same pronunciation. So this further limit the options.

The Sense of Family History

When I read the history of my family, I realized I am the 20th generation of the family living in that small place. The first generation, according to the history, moved from Shanxi province to Henan Province in the year 1380. We know the name of this person, and how many children he has (and what is their names), and the all the way down to me – it is a very big family tree there. When I read about the person who record the relationship. They did the work in the 15th century, and once in the 18th century, and the latest work is in 1993. I was amazed by how long the history of my family is. I just discovered this when I am thinking about names for my son, who is the 21th generation of the family.

Current Situation

We finally turned out that we didn’t follow the naming standard recorded in the Booklet. However, I will tell Yifan what generation and what “middle name” he should have. In China, the recent two or three generations typically give up the old way of giving names, so people have two characters name or three, or even more. It is chaos. The long history of naming in China gradually got lost… It is a pity.

20 thoughts on “The Name of Chinese People

  1. Wow! How very interesting. But I do not understad how a person of 70 can call a person of 5 “grandfather”

    Got back from Frankfurt Monday. Off to PVG tomorrow.



  2. George, think about this senario:

    One person (A) has five children (A1 – A5) (very common in old China), and A1 may be 20 years older than A5.

    A1 has three children (A1.1 – A1.3), and A5 has three children(A5.1 – A5.3).

    Then A1.1 has three children, and A5.3 has three children (A5.3.1 – A5.3.3).

    In this case, calculate how many years of difference between A1.1.1 and A5.3.3? It can be easily 60 years in difference with three generations!

    In a big family like ours, you know why it may happen if I am the 20th generation (and I happen to be the children of relatively elder son). So many people with the same generation but differs in age (greatly) and many differs in age (greatly) are of same generation.

  3. Jian Shuo

    That is extremely interesting. How difficult is it for a person in China to research his or her family tree, especially in a more rural province such as Yunnan?

  4. It should be relatively easier to build a family tree in rural provinces, because people don’t move around that often and usually don’t marry long distance. And the tradition of preserving the family tree in rural areas is not fading as fast as in the cities. You’ll have a lot more historical record to reference and a lot more people to ask for information.

  5. Many family has the record – a small booklet, as my family. xge is right – it is harder to trace it in bigger cities, instead of rural areas.

    For example, in the last 700 years, my family lives in the same place and until now, they are together in the same place.

  6. Base on my knowledge, ShanXi province is the cradle of Wangs. My family tree also shows that our ansestors moved from Shanxi province(to HuBei province) many many years ago. It says that our family is the main branch of Wangs,with a famous name “三槐堂王氏”.

  7. Very interesting; I tried to get my adult junior college students and university staff in Shanghai to describe their family trees,and they said they didn’t know, or only kept track of the males, rather than both parents, yet you know of your family roots back to the 1380’s…..I can trace mine back to the early 1600’s here,and were I to go to Europe, maybe farther. Amazing.

  8. XGE and Jian Shuo, thanks for that info. Very helpful and enlightening.

    where would one start to research the family tree of a deceased person who lived in Yunnan Province back in the early 1900’s without knowing the name of the village that person is from? If that deceased person’s family is pretty much gone or dispersed, how would one go about putting together even a rough family tree?

  9. Jian Shuo, going back to the question of somebody who is 70 calling someone who is 5 “grandfather” might be something that got lost in translation. Grandfather in the west has a very specific meaning. It represent a relationship that has direct lineage between a man and the children of his children. Only that kind of relationship would it be appropriate to use grandfather. It does not represent the difference of generations of two people. I think in your scenario, I think the appropriate term would be grand uncle. That was why you confused some of the non-Chinese readers.

    As I have realized as an Chinese American raised in America, you can learn a language as a second language. But in order to really get the nuances of a language, you need to actually be immersed in that language.

  10. I agree with Akam42. It is confusing to the non-Chinese speaking people about our references to our relatives. Great Uncle, grand uncle, or distance great uncle will address that issue.

    Also, to most western culture, it is hard to tell which cousins they are referring to, in Chinese, we address the relationship in different titles. So, we know the relationship between the cousins, the in-laws, aunts and uncles and etc. Now, because of the one child policy of China, the meaning of the different relationship between generations are much more simplified than it used to be.

    I remember one of my high school classmate, who came from a very wealthy and large family, she called her uncle in Calgary the 24th Uncle from the father side. I asked how many wifes did her grandfather had……….he had 4 wifes, therefore, they had a huge extended family. They took up a few greyhound buses for a family trip. The family photo shoot is a major events, and the size of everyone’s headshot is the size of a short grain rice. I think the extended father side of her family member total number are about 186 people in 3 generations. I can’t bring myself to asked how many on her mother side because she did mentioned her mom came from a even larger family.

  11. George, just remember, Chinese are connected to all their cousins, and all the cousins are consider to be extended brothers and sisters. So, it is not unsual to have these kind of confusing relationship. I have been a great aunt since I was 8 years old. I think my title may have to be jagged up to about great great aunt by now. Those people who called me great great aunts are my grandpa’s cousin’s decendents. My Grandpa was the youngest in his generations. His oldest cousin is about 57 years older than him, he neices and nephews are good 30+ years older than him, and his grand neices and nephews are 10+ years older than him. so, yes, it can be dog gone confusing when it comes to the extended family relationship in Chinese, but within the immediate family, it is quite easy.

  12. 王建硕, this is very interesting. As a Chinese American I have some idea of the name structure but your explanation goes much more in depth. It’s a little sad to know this naming tradition is gradually getting lost.

  13. Jian Shuo, thanks for the enlightening article. I am a third generation overseas Chinese residing in Singapore, my father was born in Malaysia and grandfather in China. To date, we managed to trace our roots back to China – to a name and place (somewhere in Fujian). Can you share some leads or details as to how I can continue the trace in China? It would be interesting to see how the family tree expands. Thanks.

  14. Great comments. I’ve always wanted to check our family tree and did a little research a long time ago, mostly because I am a true “Curious George”. Nothing exciting turned up. However, since having children I haven’t done much. Both our boys are adopted, which they know, and we were initially concerned that it might raise some issues for them when they were younger and never really took it any further. Both boys are from different birth moms and we decided that if they were interested their biological parents history we’d research that. It actually would be quite fun. So far neither has shown an interest so we haven’t persued it.

  15. according to the religion, what is the effect with two friends with similar name. I was told that when two people with similar names, one will sure to met an accident or death. Is this true? i need to know about this!

  16. hi WANG

    where can free download chenese font and software in order i cant improve myself in chenese language and access in chenese web.

    best regards

  17. We are Canadian born Chinese and my husband Allan’s Chinese name is Wong FOON Cheung. We named our adopted son Gregory – Wong GOK Tim. Now Gregory has a son named Ryan and we’re trying to give our grandson Ryan an appropriate Chinese name. We’re having difficulty in finding our family history of a “generation” middle name for our grandson. We will call him Wong ___?____Yun. Yun means to be compassionate. My question is, if we don’t have a family history book, what is acceptable to use as a generation name in Ryan’s case?

    Thank you for your assistance,

    Grandma Wong

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