Sinology Sunday: How do Chinese names work?

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While Wang Kai’s leading role in the Held in the Lonely Castle is most well-known as Song Renzong in Chinese,  his last name is Zhao and first name is Zhen.  Instead, Song Renzong is his temple name that translates into Emperor Renzong of Song.

Even for fluent speakers, watching an ancient drama can often be confusing because of how many names everyone has.   Here’s a mini-guide to the different parts of a Chinese name, starting with simpler modern names and moving onto complicated historical names. There’s also some information on non-Chinese names and how we at Cfensi translate names.

Chinese names are grouped into two – 姓(xing)氏(shi) and 名(ming)字(zi) . You can think of 姓氏 as last names that you inherit, and the later as given names. Nowadays , they’re shortened into  your last name 姓(xing)   and  your first name 名(ming).  Historically,  they were once distinct.

Xing 姓 (family name)

The character for xing is composed of woman 女 and birth 生.  Most historians believe the character originally meant to indicate which woman gave birth to you.  However, by the time historical records existed, most of China has been patriarchal millenniums in the making.

Many of the oldest existing last names started as xing, and you can usually tell which ones they are by a female sign -姜 Jiang (Jiang Wen’s Jiang, not Jiang Shuying’s Jiang 江 nor Jiang Xin’s Jiang 蒋)、姚 Yao (Yao Chen, Yao Ming)、姬 Ji、嬴 Ying ( Ying Zheng)、姒 Si、妘 Yun、媯 Gui、and 姞 Ji .

Ming  名  (given name)

The character for ming is  a mouth and a ear, so it’s the name you’re called by. In modern Chinese names, it’s just your first name. This is traditionally one or two characters of your parents’ choice, although recent trends have made three character ming popular (ex. Yi Yangqianxi).

Some families require the first character of a  ming to be a certain character or character family common to all males of a certain generation, although nowadays many families have abandoned the rules and/or extended it to female descendants.  Rules are often determined by a respected ancestor or friend of the family.  The most famous example of this is the descendants of the Four Sages (Mencius, Zengzi, Yan Hui, and Zisi the grandson of Confucius), who all use the same generation rule usually decreed by the head of state at the time.

Ex. Actor Kong Chuinan 孔垂楠 ‘s  垂 Chui is a part of the ming of all male 79th generation descendants of Confucius (minus a small group in Korea) and was chosen by the Emperor Qianlong in 1766. He is of the same generation as Korean actor Gong Yoo (Gong = Kong), a descendant of a Confucius family member who accompanied a princess to Korea in 1351 and became the only Kong family line outside of China until modern days.

The last time the Kong family needed new generation names, it was approved by the Republican government.  I wonder if there’s going to be a fight for which government gets to approve it when they run out since one head of the family is in mainland and the other is in Taiwan.

Actor Kong Chuinan shares the “Chui” in his name with almost all 79th generation descendants of Confucius.

Shi 氏 (clan name)

As clans began to diminish under a central government during the Qin dynasty, the two last names began to be blended together to merge into one. Although there are no exact recordings of how this happened, by the end of the Qin dynasty, people only used the xing.  However, many chose to use their shi or title as their xing. For example, descendants of Confucius use the xing Kong, which was originally his Shi.  His actual xing at the time is 子 zi . It’s extra confusing because he’s called Kong Zi 孔子 in Chinese, but it is because  子 zi is also an honorific and not because people are called by their Xing and Shi together.

Zi 字 (Courtesy name)

Zi is a name given upon reaching adulthood or upon going to school. This is usually only given to higher-class individuals.  Once you have a zi, this is the name most acquaintances will call you by. Your zi can be combined with your last name or stand alone. Zhaoyao of The Legends is an example of a character who goes by her zi, Zhaoyao.  Liu Rushi (I highly recommend her bioepic Threads of Time) is one who goes by a combination of her xing, Liuand her zi, Rushi. Because she came from a courtesan background, she gave herself a zi.

Zhaoyao of The Legends is an example of a character who goes by her zi, Zhaoyao.

Hao 号 (Art name)

The hao is a name that one picks themselves to go by. It’s usually used by artists and writers to refer to themselves. Few famous historical figures are mostly known by their hao.    The most famous example is Song dynasty poet, politican, and gastronome Su Dongpo, and that’s partly thanks to the famous Dongpo Pork dish named after him.

In the Ming and Qing dynasties, many emperors are known mostly by their era names. For example, the Yongle Emperor in upcoming series The Imperial Age .

Miaohao 庙号 (Temple Name) 

The Temple name is the name of an emperor used to honor them in ancestral temples.   All the Emperors in the Song Dynasty are mostly called by their temple names (Song Zhenzong, Song Renzong, Song Huizong)

A temple name almost always consists of only two characters, with the first being an adjective praising the emperor, and the second one being either   (祖) or zōng (宗) (both mean ancestors) to indicate they are an emperor.   (祖) is usually reserved for founding emperors.  For example, the Emperor Renzong of Song means that he was a 仁 or kind and forgiving emperor (his advisors would argue so hard with him that he would get spit from their tirades).

Nianhao 年号 (Era Name)

Ming and Qing-dynasty emperors such as Jiajing and Kangxi are all most widely known by their era names or regnal titles chosen by the Emperor. It can be used to count the years and can mostly be anything the Emperor wants.   It’s the Chinese equivalent of “in the year of our lord”. ex. 1669 = The 8th year of Kangxi’s Reign.

Before the Ming dynasty, many emperors had multiple era names so we rarely refer to them by their nianhao.   In the Ming and Qing Dynasties, every emperor only used one era name, which is why they are often called by their era names such as Emperor Kangxi instead of their miaohao. The Republic of China still uses this system somewhat, with the era name being just The Republic 民国.

Shaolin Popey’s lead Ashton Chen goes by the name Shi Xiaolong, with Shi being  a name used by all disciples of the Han Buddhism. The film is produced by a company ran by ex-triad member Wu Dun, who went by 鬼见愁 or “Ghosts are Worried When Seeing Him” in real life jianghu.

Jianghu names in Wuxia 

In wuxia novels and dramas and for real-life gangsters, many characters would have a name they go by that usually indicates their abilities. It’s usually a cool-sounding nickname that either you come up with yourself or others give you. In real life jianghu,  a cool nickname is 鬼见愁 or “Ghosts are Worried When Seeing Him”  Wu Dun, a film major graduate turned triad member turned government assassin who now almost exclusively produces wuxia adaptations like the upcoming Handsome Siblings. Wu Dun worked under “dry duck” Chen Chu-li, the father of actor Chen Chuhe.

fa ming 法名  (Dharma Name)

Chinese Buddhists and Daoists are given new  xing and ming equivalents by their teachers upon joining. In novel Journey to the West, each of the monk Sanzang’s  four disciples are given new names that follow the same generational patter –  Wukong, Wuneng,  and Wujing. Sanzang himself is often called just Tang Sanzang, which means Sanzang of the Tang Empire.

Right now, all disciples main branch of Buddhists all take on the last name Shi, short for Siddhārtha.   So I read that Shi is reserved for people who actually become monks, but martial arts actor Shi Xiaolong uses this last name so I’m not sure what the exact rule is.

Some translators also translate Catholic Saint names into fa ming 法名 .

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For Hui Chinese like Ma Tianyu, their last name Ma is short for Mohammad.

Sinicization of names

Both Han Chinese and other ethnic groups are often “awarded” last names by the ruling class at the time. Others adopted last names to fit in.

For example, historical records show that the Kaifeng Jews were awarded the last names  Ai, Shi, Gao, Gan, Jin, Li, Zhang, and Zhao by a Ming Emperor.

Other minorities adopt the first character of their last names as their Han name. For example, Xibo actress Tong Liya and Manchu actor Tong Dawei’s last name Tong is  a common name for descendants of the Jurchen clan Tunggiya hala.  Many Muslims in China have the last name Ma (ex. Ma Tianyu) , which is short for a Chinese translation of Mohammad.  Bonus fact:  Madina Memet’s last name, Memet, is also a translation of Mohammad.

Dilraba or Dilireba? We don’t know, neither.

How does Cfensi translate Chinese names?

For celebrities, we usually follow standard convention for the region unless they’re already widely known by another name.  For Chinese names from the mainland, we use the pinyin system with Lastname Firstname (ex. Yi Yangqianxi) unless they have consistently promoted abroad using a different name (ex. Jane Zhang), in which case we use their preferred name in the title but Englishname Lastname Firstname in the posts in case Chinese speakers don’t recognize their English names. This includes non-mainland artists who debuted in mainland without other names (ex. Chinese-Canadian Song Yiren). Translations elsewhere sometimes separate the characters of the first names (ex. Yi Yang Qian Xi), but that’s confusing since it combines two translation systems, and makes it difficult to tell last and first names apart. Outside of mainland, we use whatever name they seem to use (ex. Jolin Tsai, Wang Ta-lu, Angelababy).

For historical figures in film and TV, we use whatever names they’re using in promotional items, synopsis, etc.

For translated names, we use whatever official ones they seem to be using based on either their weibo name or what collaborators call them in events. Sometimes they send mixed signals ( Dilraba or Dilireba? ) and we just go with whichever one comes first on Cfensi in a search.

11 thoughts on “Sinology Sunday: How do Chinese names work?

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  4. Thanks! This was so interesting. I had to read it twice to fully comprehend everything. LOL!

  5. A very insightful post. It’s always irked me when my Chinese first name was split into two parts after translation – it’s like calling Elizabeth Eliza Beth.

  6. Thank you for this…I’ve often found myself confused as to the variation of names. Also, (I hope this is not outside this discussion) that there are often individuals who are referred to by the role they have within the relationship (Master, Young Master, Elder), their birth order (Sixth Brother, Eldest Master), age cohort (Aunt, Uncle, Granny) and a special name within a relationship given by one to another that is associated with an event, behavior, or a character quality of a person, somewhat similar to an American nick name.

    • Depending on the Aunts/Uncles relationship to you(Paternal/Maternal) and where they are in the heirarchy will determine how you should call your elders/generation before you.
      As far as Shifu, that is when someone teaches you kingfu or other skills.
      Eldest Master is when a servant/Hired help calls their employer. Siblings, do.not usually call each other by name, they do refer to each other depending on the order that they were born.

      As far as others, Chinese kids do have a given name that are not in any official documents, but is still considered their name as their official names are not used until they go to school.

      And yes, sometimes friends will give you petnames or nicknames. Just like American people do.

  7. This is fascinating! Thanks for the detailed explanation. Also, an additional bit of trivia… Korean actress Gong Hyo-jin is another descendant of Confucius, but while younger than fellow actor Gong Yoo, she is of the prior generation.

  8. Thanks. I thought women never had Zi 字. Just looked it up – before Qin Dynasty female aristocrats and, later on, educated women might have zi.

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