Challenge 3: Find Your Chinese Name

Chinese names tend to have two or three characters. Unlike us, the Chinese place the family name first (if you have Chinese friends they may have swapped them round for our convenience). So Mao Zedong would be “Zedong Mao” over here (though he never was).

When the Chinese choose names they do so very carefully as a lot of meaning is bestowed on them. The hopes of the parent can be incorporated into the name (so “success”, “peace”, “hard working” might be alluded to) and the overall harmony of the sound will be considered too. Seasons, zodiac signs and animals or plants may feature.

Getting your name

The Chinese often “translate” western names into Chinese characters based on the sound they make. For example, George W Bush was known as bù shí (布什).

Common names have ready translations. “Mary” is  玛丽, which is pronounced mǎ lì (“mah-lee”), and “David” is , pronounced dà wéi (“Dah-way”). As well as choosing the translations based on the sound, they are often made in order to mean something.

Mary in Chinese

David in Chinese

You have to be a bit careful when choosing your name. Emma is 爱玛 which is pronounced as ài mǎ (“Ai-ma”), and means… “love horse” – which might be fine by you. The Chinese don’t hear it as “love horse”, of course, but as “Emma”.

Emma in Chinese

Jonathan has two common translations. The most common it seems is 乔纳当, pronounced qiáo nà dāng, which means very little. The other, pronounced “jeeang-nai-shan” means “mountain in the river” which I quite like. So that’s mine.

Jonathan (fairly meaningless version)

However, you don’t have to keep a phonetic translation of your name. You could choose an entirely different name, just as the Chinese often do when they live or work in the west. Perhaps you know some Chinese who have western names?

So you could be “bright star” or “lucky tomorrow”… but do be careful as sometimes names can sound like something else. 興星 (flourishing star) sounds like 猩猩 (gorilla). So it’s always best to get some help if choosing a Chinese name.

So: your third challenge is to choose a Chinese name. Start with the translation of your own name and see if you like it. If not, think of a new name for yourself and ask a Chinese friend or fellow student to help you.

When you’ve got your name, learn it and practice writing it (paying attention to stroke order – this is important, so get help!) Upload your Chinese name in both characters (as an image like I’ve done – the website I’ve linked to will produce one for you) and pinyin when you’ve got it along with its meaning and your thoughts on it.


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