The Name Game: 3 Fascinating Facts About Chinese Names

From the world's most common surname to why some names are dying out

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7:07 PM HKT, Tue March 2, 2021 3 mins read

We know you’ve had it marked on your calendar for months now, but March 1 was Fun Facts About Names Day. Yep. But wait, wait, before you get out there and start belatedly celebrating this most important of days, let us hit you with some Chinese name knowledge.

Wang is the World’s Most Common Surname

An incredible 76 million people share the surname Wang, making it the most popular family name in the world. Here’s one of our favorite Wangs to tell you more and to tell you why you really shouldn’t be getting the pronunciation wrong:

Aside from Wang, you’re also likely to bump into someone whose surname is Li, Zhang, Liu or Chen in China, as more than 433 million people or 31% of the country’s population fall into this group.

Some of these groups are even bigger than they first appear as well, as MyChinaRoots — a site that helps you trace your Chinese ancestry — points out, a Chinese surname can have as many as 30 different spellings thanks to different romanization systems and dialects: “Huang, Wong, Ng, Ong, Vong, and even Oei can all refer to the same Chinese surname: 黄.”

Perhaps thanks to the commonality of surnames, people can get pretty creative with first names. From historical to poetic to astrological choices, parents often want to name their kids in the hopes of a better future. The most commonly-used characters to name newborns last year in mainland China were 梓 Zi (a catalpa tree), 子 Zi (seed), 宇 Yu (universe), 辰 Chen (time), and 一 Yi (one and only).

You Can Track China’s Development Via Names

Although naming conventions got a little spiritual and poetic in 2020, that’s not always been the case — far from it. In fact, to some extent you can trace the changes that have affected modern China by looking at the most popular names from various years.

The 1950s: Patriotic Names

A whole generation was named to commemorate the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, with common names such as 建国 Jianguo, 建华 Jianhua, and 国强 Guoqiang all referring to the inauguration of the new China and hopes for a prosperous country. Today, more than 960,000 Chinese people share the name Jianguo, among which about 24% were born between 1949 and 1959.

Another major historic moment, the Korean War (1950-1953), gave tens of thousands of babies names such as 援朝 Yuanchao (support North Korea), 抗美 Kangmei (resist the US), and 卫国 (guard the homeland).

The 1960s: Revolutionary Names

Similarly, the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) ensured a host of people named 卫红 Weihong (protect the revolution), 卫东 Weidong (protect Chairman Mao), and 文革 Wenge (cultural revolution). The third wife of News Corporation Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch, Wendi Deng Murdoch, who was born in 1968, was originally named Wenge Deng.

The 1980s: Single Character Names

As China initiated its economic reform and one-child policy in the late ’70s, Chinese names became more diverse and less dependent on conventional naming rules.

Traditionally speaking, all members of a generation in the family share the same first character in their given names, as chosen by the ancestors. After the one-child policy was introduced, fewer and fewer people were born in the same generation, thus many young Chinese have a one-character given name. For example, 1982-born tennis legend Li Na has a very common first name 娜 Na, which means graceful.


The 1990s: Playful Names

In an attempt to avoid duplication and demonstrate individuality, Chinese names became more and more creative during the ’90s. Two or even three-character given names became more common — 90% of Chinese people have two-character first names now — and sometimes rare characters were carefully selected.

Jackson Yee, a member of phenomenally popular Chinese boyband TFBoys, has a classic cool millennium name: 易烊千玺 Yi Yangqianxi. Yi is his family name, Yang means welcome in his home dialect, and 千玺 qianxi is a homophone of millennium 千禧年 as he was born in the year 2000.


Some Rare Names are Going Extinct

Yet not all rare names are prospering like Jackson Yee’s. Although many parents are keen to insert an obscure or unique character into a child’s name, some are discovering that can cause unanticipated difficulties in the digital age.

In 2017, there were about 32,000 Chinese characters coded into computer systems, leaving 36% of characters still to be coded or simply left out. Therefore, up to 60 million Chinese citizens had trouble when it came to travel, ID checks, and insurance claims due to their names having characters that were often unrecognizable by digital devices. Many people have thus changed their names for the sake of convenience, which in turn is pushing certain characters to the brink of dying out.

Not got a Chinese name? Here are some quick-fire tips on how to pick out your Mandarin moniker:


Cover photo: TianTian

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Q: What’s the weirdest celebrity nickname Chinese netizens have come up with?

霉霉 (méi méi) - ‘moldy’ Taylor Swift

麻辣鸡 (málà jī) - ‘spicy chicken’ Nicki Minaj

舌婊 (shé biǎo) - ‘tongue bitch’ Miley Cyrus

甜茶 (tián chá) - ‘sweet tea’ Timothée Chalamet

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