Chinese Names — Structure, History, Key Factors, Taboos, and Classic Examples 

Chinese Names

How a Chinese name is composed?


Since the early 20th century, a Chinese name consists of a family name and a given name. 


In history, a person usually had a family name, a given name, and a courtesy name. 


Why the surname comes first?


In a Chinese name, one's family name always comes first, and the most important reason is the Ancestor Worship ideology.


The most commonly used surnames today are evolved from Eight Ancient Chinese Surnames during the Matriarchal period.  


Click to read Origin, History, and Development of Common Family Names in China

What is the Courtesy Name?


Courtesy Name, or Style Name, was a name a person got on the Coming of Age Ceremony (male on 20, female on 15) in history. 


It was a name to describe one's virtue and usually connected to one's given name in some ways.  


A courtesy name usually consisted of one or two Chinese Characters, which was given by parents, respectable elders, teachers, or oneself.  


After a person has held the Coming of Age Ceremony, others would start to respect and treat him as an adult, an important way was to only call his courtesy name.


In ancient Chinese culture, calling someone's name directly was considered not polite. 


Hence, for an adult, only elders and superiors could call his given name. Oneself could use his given name too, as a gesture of modesty. 


Since the early 20th century, the courtesy name gradually disappeared in China. One still can have a courtesy name if they want, but most people don't use it anymore. 


What are the taboos of choosing a Chinese name?


The most important taboo is not to use characters from parents, grandparents, or other elders' names; in history, the emperors' names were not allowed to be used as well. 


Today, most people in China still follow this rule, though it is not as strict as before. 


Other taboo characters that are suggested to avoid: unlucky, vulgar, arrogant, with derogatory senses, too complicated, too rare, negative, and characters with weird pronunciation or homophony that would remind others of funny puns or bad meanings.  


Meanwhile, names of famous figures from history, legends, and novels are usually not suggested.


What factors are usually used and considered in Chinese names?


Besides choosing characters with auspicious meaning and nice pronunciation, or with beautiful hope, there are some other factors that Chinese people would take into consideration when naming a baby.


These rules have not been strictly followed by everyone, however, are important to many people. 


Generational Symbols

In ancient China, big clans would use some auspicious, meaningful quotes or poems, to identify people's generation. Today, many big families still follow this rule. 

This character usually lies in the middle of a common three-character Chinese name, right after one's family name. 

For example, two emperors of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Hou Zhao and Zhu Hou Cong: Zhu was their family name, Hou was their generational symbol. 



Zodiac Signs

Animals of the 12 Chinese Zodiac Signs have their special characteristics, which developed different rules in regard to numerology. 

For instance, Rat likes eating grain and digging holes; using characters that have "rice" or "hole" parts would be nice for people with the Rat sign.


However, Rat is usually afraid of humans and daylight, which characters with "people" or "sun" parts are not highly suggested.  


Five Elements and Birth Date

In Chinese numerology, it is believed that factors that may influence one's fate, such as composition and share of Five Elements, are hidden in one's birth date and hour. 

Therefore, using a name to balance, or supplement those factors, is a widely used method.  

For instance, if one's birth info lacks the element Fire, characters with the "fire" part might be good choices to use in his or her name.  


Chinese Character Strokes


The total number of one's name's strokes is a key factor in some methods regarding naming, though it is not a very influential part. 


What are two ancient books that are popular to choose classic names from?


There are two classics that have been frequently used to pick beautiful, elegant names from, till today:


The Book of Songs, or Classic of Poetry, or Shijing

It is the first existing poem collection in China, including poetry from the 11th to 6th centuries BC (early to middle Zhou Dynasty), compiled by Confucius.


In the 311 poems of this book, from royals' solemn worship odes, ritual court hymns, to folk songs, many aspects of people's lives during this period were described and documented.


Chu Ci, or Verses of Chu, or Songs of Chu

It is the first existing romantic poetry anthology, mainly included poems of Qu Yuan and Song Yu, two great scholars and politicians of the State Chu during the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC). 

Chu Ci introduces nature, landscape, history, and custom of the State Chu, as well as ancient mythology, legends, mythical beings, etc. 

There are as well some other ancient classics that are good to choose a beautiful name from, such as Lun Yu (or Analects of Confucius), Book of Changes (or I Ching), and brilliant poems of the Tang and Song Dynasties.  


Chinese Names for Girls and Boys With Meaning from Ancient Classics.


List of some beautiful, elegant names from Shijing (or the Classic of Poetry), for girls:

Zhenzhen 蓁蓁: peach leaf, exuberant plants. 


Jingshu 静姝: gentle, quiet, beautiful. 


Weitong 炜彤: tender, rosy, glorious.


Xunmei 洵美: extremely beautiful. 


Bangyuan 邦媛: the beauty of a state.  


Pengpeng 芃芃: exuberant plants, represents hope and vitality. 


Xiuying 琇莹: bright and luminous gem.


Deyin 德音: virtue, morality. 


Wenyin 文茵: tiger skin made seat cushion in a carriage, represents prosperity and wealth.


Qiongju 琼琚: exquisite jade pendant.

Unearthed Exquisite Jade Decoration (Yu Yuan) of Eastern Zhou Dynasty

Exquisite Jade Decoration (Yu Yuan) of Eastern Zhou Dynasty — Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Lingyi 令仪: elegant manner. 


Wentian 闻天: the singing of the crane could be heard in the sky, representing ambition or a well-established reputation.


Jiahui 嘉卉: beautiful flora. 


Yanan 雅南: two types of classic, elegant court music.


Sirou 思柔: delicate, mellow, and tasty alcohol. 


Yuzan 玉瓒: jade-and-gold made ritual wine vessel, used in the grand royal worship ceremony.  


Qichen 其琛: treasure, jewelry. 


Ruying 如英: beautiful as flowers, smart as talented people. 


Taotao 陶陶: happy, harmony. 


Huiyin 徽音: virtue, beautiful music, good reputation.

Unearthed Bronze Bell with Inscriptions Carved on of the Western Zhou Dynasty

Bronze Bell with Inscriptions Carved on of the Zhou Dynasty — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

List of some elegant names from Chu Ci (or Verses of Chu), for boys:


Zhengze 正则: fair-minded, righteous, truthful.


Xiuneng 修能: good appearance and ability.


Junmao 峻茂: exuberant plants.


Xinfang 信芳: innocent, pure, and beautiful heart. 


Shengzhe 圣哲: wisdom, virtuous people. 


Wangshu 望舒: the deity that drives cart for the moon in mythology, also represents the moon. 


Yunqi 云旗: flag decorated with patterns of cloud or rainbow. 

Lekang 乐康: happy, safe and sound.


Qiguang 齐光: as bright as the sun and the moon. 


Yuqiang 玉锵: the sound of the impact of the jade, represents resonant, strong, and deep.

Unearthed Jade Mythical Animal of the Warring States Period

Unearthed Jade Mythical Animal of the Warring States Period — The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

Jiming 既明: the bright sky. 


Chengyong 诚勇: sincere, honest, and brave. 


Baolu 宝璐: beautiful, valuable jade. 


Chengyu 承宇: floating clouds connect to the eaves on mountains.


Huaijin 怀瑾: holding beautiful jade, represents morality and virtue. 


Jiashu 嘉树: tall, beautiful trees.


Yiyao 翼遥: swinging wings, flying in the sky.


Kaifeng 凯风: warm, gentle wind.


Boyan 博衍: melodious music, far, broad. 


Xianrong 显荣: distinguished, glory, impressive, honored. 



Organized by Xia Lian.