Chinese Names

“名不正则言不顺,言不顺则事不成。”(ming bu zheng ze yan bu shun, yan bu shun ze shi bu cheng)

This famous saying by one of China’s most renowned scholars, Confucius, means, “When one’s name is not proper, one’s words will not be accepted. If one’s words are not accepted, one cannot achieve anything”. This saying expresses the great importance of a person’s name – it is the fundamental part of one’s identity.

Confucius Statue
Confucius Statue

Chinese Surnames

According to legend, the Chinese system of carrying on the family name was established by the legendary emperor Fu Xi (2852 B.C.).

It appears that from 2852 B.C. to 260 B.C., two categories of names (surnames and clan names) were in use. The first was shi, created for the clan, and xing for the family. 

After 260 B.C., only surnames or family names were used.

Sources of these surnames were from dynasty designation (e.g. Tang and Song), feudal territory, district, town, village, road station, direction (e.g. Xi Men), historical person, clan, official (e.g. Guan), title (e.g. Wang), trade, and object. Based on these, 10,000 different names were derived.

Presently, the five most common Chinese surnames are Chen, Li, Zhang, Huang, and He. The usual Chinese surname has only one character, but there are exceptions consisting of double characters like Ou Yang, Si Tu, Xi Men, Xia Hou, Dong Guo, Gong Yang, Gong Sun, and Shang Guan.

The Importance of Name

A person’s name is his identity and is subtly related to his self-esteem as well as to the way others regard him. If he is well-named he will feel justly proud, and in the same way, he may despise his name if it is meaningless and silly and causes him embarrassment.

Strange though it may seem, names generally do have a psychological effect. If a person has a name meaning strong and just, for example, then somehow others will expect him to possess those attributes. If his name connotes failure or deception, then the tendency would be to impute him with these characteristics.

It is also apparent that some names reflect the aspirations and dreams of parents for their children. Hoping to secure a bright future for the child, parents build favourable qualities into the name, such as Rong (honourable), Kang (healthy), Xian (virtuous), Zhi (wisdom), Miao, (excellent), Wei (magnificent), and so on.

Name and reputation

The Chinese character for name, ming, is the same as that for reputation. If you are famous you are said to be you ming. The importance of the name can be seen clearly in numerous Chinese proverbs.

When a person lives up to his good name or reputation it is said that he is “ming bu xu chuan” (his name is not just rumoured to be good). But when a person is unworthy or does not meet up to his reputation he is likely to be scoffed at as “ming cun shi wang” (his name merely exists in appearance without reality).

When his fame surpasses his actual capabilities one says that his name exceeds the reality, “ming guo qi shi”. If he happens to fail an examination “his name has fallen behind Sun Mountain” (ming luo sun shan). However, if he is famous one would declare that “his name is all over the world” (ming man tian xia).

Generation Names

A person’s full name in Chinese usually comprises 3 characters. 

The first will be his surname or family name, which has been passed down from his ancestors. For the other two names, one character may be a generation name. In China, in the olden days, the clan association decided on the generation name and the character selected had to differ from characters used by previous generations.

Generation names for the clan no longer exist, but the practice is adopted by the more traditional families. Names of cousins might share a common character, like Zhi Ming, Zhi Hui, and so on. Generation names help to reinforce the strength and unity of the family and are usually chosen by the head of the family of the patriarch.

What names Signify?

The first thing to remember is that Chinese names should always be looked at in totality. A person’s surname must harmonise with the other 2 names. Otherwise, the result may be a highly undesirable combination!

For example, the surname Qian should not be followed by Zhi. Qian means “money” or “wealth” and Zhi means “to stop”. 

Liu, Du, Li or Yang contain tree radical, so they should not be combined with characters like Shi or Tie, as trees will not grow on rock or iron.

The meanings of Chinese names can be extremely funny, even with common surnames like Zhou. If, for example, one has a name like Zhou Wei Gong, it would sound like the idiomatic Cantonese phrase meaning “wandering about aimlessly”.

Wang means “king”. It should not be combined with names like Dao Zong because they sound like “upside-down” and “ends” (dao zong).

Jin means “gold” and should not be followed by Huo (fire) or characters that conflict with metal such as Shao.

How to Choose an Auspicious Name

The Chinese believe strongly that a person’s name can affect his destiny, and even change his fortune. When parents are choosing a name for their child, then, there are various factors to consider. It should sound pleasant and be symbolically meaningful. Its yin-yang should harmonise. The combination of Elements in the name should be a favourable one.

Yin and Yang
Yin and Yang

The interaction of each character in terms of the Elements follows the Chinese concept of mutual production and destruction.  For example, Wood burns to produce Fire which gives rise to Earth in which Metal is buried.  Water appears as dew on Metal and helps Wood to grow.

In the order of mutual destruction, Wood covers Earth; Earth absorbs Water; Water destroys Fire. Wood is cut by Metal, and Metal is in turn burned by Fire.

When you wish to choose an auspicious Chinese name, it is important to follow a systematic approach. Analyse the date of birth and find out the missing Elements. Supplement by adding the missing elements in the name.

Then check the character and yin/yang of the surname. It is believed that the Eight Characters or Binomials of Birth are signs of destiny.

Therefore it is important to analyse the date of birth to find out if there is a balance or completeness in terms of the elements and in terms of yin and yang. 

If there is balance and harmony in his name the person will enjoy good luck and bring honour to his family. If not, he may be burdened by failures and even ill-health. Thus, it is important to search for an auspicious name that spells equilibrium and harmony.

For example, if the baby was born on the 10th of March 1943 at 4 am, we know the Elements of his birth were Wood, Water, Fire and Gold. It is good to bring in the Earth Element in his name. If his surname is of Fire, the best combination of Elements in his name would be Fire, Fire, Earth or Fire, Earth, Gold or Fire, Earth, Earth. (These desirable combinations of Elements have been recorded by Chinese astrologers many centuries ago). 

Once the desirable Elements are noted it is best to analyse the surname to find out its Element, Character (yin or yang gender) and the number of strokes that make up the word. To the Chinese all things, numbers and words can be classified into yin or yang gender. 

The yin and yang character of the entire name has to have equilibrium in order that the person grows up to be a balanced and intelligent person. Once the surname has been analysed then the first and middle names can be decided upon.

After the Elements and yin/yang gender have been determined and balanced, the total number of strokes in the entire name has to be examined to ensure it is an auspicious figure. Then it is a question of seeing if any radicals may be added to further enhance the name according to the horoscopes of birth because each Chinese lunar year is associated with an animal symbol that exerts influence on those born in it. Finally, the meaning of the name has to be checked which when pronounced should never sound ridiculous.

Nevertheless, the analysis of a name is not the be-all and end-all, for it should be realised that a person’s luck and life is not solely dependent on his name. In Chinese people’s mind, a person’s life is besides influenced by his fate, his yun (destiny), the feng shui of his living and working environment, his virtue and his educational background.

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