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If you’re planning on traveling extensively in China or living there, it’s a good idea to choose a Chinese name. English is not widely spoken in China, and people there often have a hard time pronouncing English names. There are a few routes you can go when choosing a Chinese name. We’ll take a look at the most common in this post and give you some examples.
The most common way to choose a Chinese name is simply by phonetically translating your English name. When an English name is written in a Chinese newspaper or read out on TV, this is the way they do it. As a result, people in China are very familiar with many English names already – it’s just that they’re familiar with the Chinese phonetic translation and not the original name.
Most men in China will know exactly who you’re talking about if you say “勒布朗 詹姆斯” (lēi bù lǎng zhān mǔ sī), but will give you a blank stare if you say “LeBron James.” You can simply type your name into an English-Chinese dictionary to find the phonetic translation. Let’s take a look at some girl and boy names so you can get an idea of how this is done.
Here are some common English names for girls translated into Chinese:
Now, here are some common English names for boys in Chinese.
For those of you who are considering a more long-term stay in China, it’s not a bad idea to choose your own Chinese name. This is best done with the help of friends, teachers, classmates, or colleagues. Just as choosing a name for your child in English, there are many cultural and linguistic elements to consider. It’s not a bad idea to choose a common Chinese family name, especially if you can find one that relates to your name somehow. Then, you can be counted amongst the “old 100 names” (老百姓 – lǎo bǎi xìng) – a Chinese expression meaning “the common people.”
Some choose a serious, perhaps even philosophical name. My wife’s name is Rachel, which is super hard for Chinese people to say. After many changes, she finally settled on Gu Xiao Yang (谷晓阳 – gǔ xiǎo yáng). “Gu” is a play on her family name, while “Xiao Yang” comes from the original meaning of her name (Rachel means ‘little sheep’ in Hebrew). To actually have a Chinese name meaning “Little Sheep” would be silly, so friends helped her choose two characters that have the same pronunciation but make for a better name.
Others choose one simply because it is easy to say/write. I fall into this category. My Chinese teacher way back when helped me choose the name Tian Le (田乐 – tián lè). “Tian” is a common Chinese surname and is one of the easiest characters to write. “Le” means “happy” and is also used in the word for music. Since I’m a happy, music-loving dude, it sounded good to me! People always get a kick out of my Chinese name, and it’s a great conversation starter.
Some just joke around and choose a silly Chinese name. Perhaps the most famous lao wai in China went this route. Canadian actor and comedian Mark Roswell goes by Da Shan (大山 – dà shān), which literally means “Big Mountain.” It sure has worked for him, as he’s a bona fide celebrity in China. I once had a buddy in China who had people call him Bai Guan Jun (白冠军 – bái guàn jūn), or “White Champion.” Another went by Da Feiji (大飞机 – dà fēi jī), meaning “Big Airplane.” It’s a play on words that is not appropriate for this family-friendly blog, but let’s just say he got a whole lot of laughs when introducing himself.
Whatever route you go, being able to introduce yourself in Chinese with a Chinese name will make you much more accessible to people right off the bat. Just as you probably have a hard time with Chinese names, people there will have one with yours. A good idea is to use the phonetic translation at first, especially if you’re just visiting. If you decide to stay longer, you can enlist the help of people you know to choose an original Chinese name.