What's Your Chinese Name?

How to Pick your Own

Living in China as a foreigner usually means you’ll pick a Chinese name at some point. How, though? Here are the options.

1 Do Nothing

You could of course decide to stick with the name you already have, a perfectly valid option.

2 Be Famous

Celebrities have it easy, at least when it comes to Chinese names. Because of their fame, other people will have chosen a Chinese name for them. Combinations of characters are chosen (by who? I have actually no idea) that approximate the actual pronunciation of their name. The results can be slightly humorous: Compared to English and other Western languages Mandarin Chinese is limited in how many different sounds are available, so the results aren’t always true to the original. Below are a few examples of famous foreigners and how their names have been translated into Chinese:

  • Barack Obama - 贝拉克·奥巴马 - Bèilākè Àobāmǎ
  • Kobe Bryant - 科比·布莱恩特 - Kēbǐ Bùlái'ēntè
  • Angela Merkel - 安格拉·默克尔 - Āngélā Mòkè'ěr
  • Silvio Berlusconi - 西尔维奥·贝卢斯科尼 - Xī'ěrwéi'ào Bèilúsīkēní
  • Britney Spears - 布兰妮·斯皮尔斯 - Bùlánnī · Sīpí’ěrsī

3 Pick a Famous Name

You could take the same name of a famous Chinese person or character, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Just as you would probably raise an eyebrow if a Chinese person introduced himself as ‘Harry Potter,’ the reverse will happen if you decide to call yourself, say, Xi Jinping (习近平 - Xí Jìnpíng) or Peng Liyuan (彭丽媛 - Péng Lìyuán).

4 Choose Something by Yourself

Certain names might have connotations with locals or might not even be of the right gender

Surnames are relatively safe. There are only so many Chinese family names, so as long as you pick one of those you should be good. Wikipedia has a good list of Chinese surnames.

First names are risky to choose by yourself. There is no way of knowing which combinations sound odd to native Chinese speakers. Names might have certain connotations with locals or might not even be of the right gender if not chosen properly.

5 Consult your Local Local

The Panda's Friend with Panda sneakers

The Panda's Friend with Panda sneakers

The safest choice of all is to ask a Chinese friend or your Chinese teacher to help you out. They will know what’s weird and what’s not.

6 Go Crazy

NBA star Ron Artest has a thing with names. In 2011 he decided he’d rather be known as Metta World Peace. And when he signed with a Chinese team this summer, he apparently wanted to go one step further still. He announced he wanted his Chinese name to be ‘The Panda’s Friend’, or 熊猫之友 - xióngmāozhīyǒu.

Kevin writes columns for the GoEast Blog on studying Chinese, Chinese culture, and life as a foreign student. He has studied China and Chinese for over five years, first in his home country the Netherlands, then in Beijing, and now attends Fudan University's Chinese Society department.

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