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Article by Yi Zhang about Chinese names

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Basics About Chinese Names


Thinking of going to China for business and having your business cards translated? You may want to consider this: What will your name sound like to potential Chinese business partners?

There are a few basic things about Chinese names that are important to know when doing business in China.

First, understand a fundamental difference between a Chinese name and a western name, that is, the order of given name and family name. A western name places the given name first and the family name last, for example, American president, George Bush. A Chinese name places the family name first followed by the given name, for example, Chinese President, Hu Jintao. Why the difference? There is some speculation on that. One possible reason is that order indicates different cultural values. The Chinese culture holds great respect for their origins and ancestors so they put family names first. Western culture is more individualistic, hence an individual's given name comes before the family name. Making sense of the difference in name order, although only speculation, helps us shed light on cultural differences, which in turn allows us to be more culturally sensitive when doing business in China.

Second, know that Chinese given names generally have meanings. Chinese characters that signify something special to parents are usually used to name their child. For example, my name, Yi, it means "high spirit". According to my name, I am always in good spirits. Parents pick a child's given name in different ways. Most of the time, parents pick Chinese characters to express their wishes or expectations for their child. For example, "Qian" is used to express the wish that your child always stay humble; "Ping" is used to wish a child a secure and peaceful life; "Fu" is used to wish a child a prosperous life; "Jian", is used to wish a child to be strong and perseverant. Other than the most common method of naming a child, some parents name their child after a certain hero. In that case, the child would have the same given name as that of a person the parents admire. Some use certain Chinese characters that are rarely used just to make their child's name special and distinctive from others. In any case, chances are if you ask a Chinese person about his or her name, you might hear an interesting story. If you want to strike up a friendly conversation, ask about a person's name and what it means.

You may wonder how your name would be translated into Chinese. A foreign name is typically translated into Chinese based on its pronunciation using Chinese characters that are generally used to signify foreign names. This will give you a transliterated name based on pronunciation only. But knowing that Chinese names usually carry meanings, you may want to have a more Chinese-like name. The translator will then try to use Chinese characters that sound close to your name but carry certain meanings. For example, for the name Macy, a translator can either use characters that only signify foreign names, or use two Chinese characters that mean Beautiful and Happiness. A good Chinese name is not only phonetically sound and rhyming but also rich in its connotation. A translator will do his best to create a name that is both.

Keep in mind picking names is actually a specialized trade in China. Picking the right name is not always an easy task. Still, it may be worth having your translator work on creating a more Chinese-like name, rather than a transliterated one. Not only will your name sound more authentic, you'll have a conversation-starter!

By Yi Zhang. Copyright 2005.
Published by lexicool.com, November 2005.

Yi Zhang earned her B.A in China in 1996 and finished her Master's degree in 2000 in Canada. She has performed Chinese translation for clients from different parts of the world. She now works as a project manager at WinTranslation.com.

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