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Chinese People’s English Names – Is There a Method to the Madness?

Dec 02, 2015 By Bo Brennan , Comments (42)     Add your comment Newsletter

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During my first year in China, I taught children at a training school, and occasionally those kids would come in with some fairly off-the-wall names. While it was novel at first, the thrill of having a student named Watermelon or Seven in your class would eventually subside, and you’d just pack away another “China story” to tell the folks back home. Then, one day, a father brought his son into the school for the first time, and as I talked with him, he casually mentioned his son’s newly acquired English name.

Student’s Father: Teacher Bo, my son’s name is Semen.

Me: Ah, you must mean Simon. It’s a common pronunciation problem, my friend. There is no possible way that you’ve just named your son Semen.

Teaching Assistant: No, no, Bo. He said Semen, not Simon.

Student’s Father: Yes, his name is Semen.

Me: Just curious, why would you name your son Semen?

Student’s Father: You know, like David Seaman, the English footballer who played in the Premier League in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Me: Ah! Well, now I feel like a jerk. Honest mistake. You still can’t call your kid Seaman or Semen though. Henceforth, your little one shall be named Simon. Let us put it into stone and rejoice and sing it from the mount.

Moral of the story—For little Simon, I have irrevocably altered the trajectory of his English-language life arc for the better. Alas, my good deed will probably go unnoticed, but I can go to my cold, unforgiving grave knowing that I prevented a little Chinese boy from being called Semen.

While this is an extreme example, it’s interesting to think about why Chinese have such a bountiful cornucopia of crazy English names. Although most of the time in the China expat blogosphere this topic descends into one big Crazy English Name Jamboree, I’ll try to dig a little bit deeper into the jumble of vowels and consonants to examine the underlying causes and potential implications of this phenomenon.

Hello! My Name Is sticker

Finding the perfect name

So, why do Chinese people pick an English name at all? From a brief, informal, not-at-all-scientific survey of my Chinese friends and colleagues, the consensus seems to be that everyone is aiming for a unique name. It’s a noble intention and many Chinese pull it off quite well. Names like Kylie or Hunter or Lena or Abbot aren’t exactly common names, but they’re also not ridiculous and don’t sound like someone simply threw a dart at their dictionary and picked whatever turned up.

What I noticed from my remarkably amateur surveying skills is that, for most Chinese people, they either get their name at a very young age—from either their parents or a good-natured English teacher—and don’t have much control over it anyway, or they try and pick a name later on in life because it will be useful in their work. The latter is usually where you’ll find the really outlandish names. They want to be unique, and in a nation of a billion something people, that’s an understandable, if not somewhat quixotic, goal. Really though, do you want everyone to remember you because your name is iPad?

好听 (It sounds good)

Proving that not everything is life needs a complicated answer, many of my Chinese friends told me that they picked their English names simply because they liked the sound of it.

Alternatively, several of them said that they had a particular affinity for a word in Chinese and decided to stick with the English translation, regardless of whether it can be used as a proper name or not. This is probably why you’ll occasionally run into Chinese girls with names like Pretty or Beautiful or meet Chinese guys named Hero or Huge Muscles.

Also, there are a surprising amount of names that translate fairly well between Chinese and English, to wit: Lily for 丽丽 (li li), Ally for 艾丽 (ai li), and David for 大为 (da wei). These are all perfectly reasonable and acceptable, and therefore fairly boring, so let’s move on.

A rose by any other name…

This is piggy-backing off of one of the ideas discussed in the book/blog/movie, Freakonomics. In their book, Steve Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner talk about the socioeconomic patterns of naming children, specifically whether having a typical sounding “black” name in the United States, like Roshanda or Shaniqua can hinder ones upward social mobility due to institutional prejudices. (Their conclusion was “no, but sort of”, by the way).

While this is certainly a loaded hypothesis, and is greatly influenced by racial discrimination quite specific to American history, the core idea itself—fancy name: “nominative determinism”—is worth mentioning in our wacky Chinese people’s English names thesis. That is to say, if your name is Peach Fuzz or something equally unique-but-ridiculous sounding, it must affect your career prospects, especially if you plan on working in a foreign company. In a business setting, any person, foreign or Chinese, who has a reasonable command of the English language, is just not going to take you very serious. It’s a thin line Chinese walk between trying to have a strong, unique English name and stumbling over into the absurd enough to hurt their employment options.

Then again, maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about. There is that singer in Hong Kong name Angelababy and she drowns in a sea of money every night, so maybe MoonKnight Chen might just be the next big thing.

Is this all even necessary?

With more and more foreigners working in China and many more learning to speak Chinese in order to play Chinese ball, are English names for Chinese people even going to be that necessary in the future? In a distance corner of modern China I hear some foreign dude saying “Chinese names are too hard to remember!” How about this? We just stop being jerks and remember their Chinese names. It’s, at most, four syllables!

Let’s just all make it more culturally acceptable that Chinese people have Chinese names, even when dealing with foreigners. “But, they already have English names,” you say, “Of course, I’m going to remember that one!” Fair enough, but there is no reason to expect the 55-year-old sales manager at an SOE to dreg up some English moniker he’s never used just so you can remember his name.

Closing thoughts

In case anyone out there is offended, this article is meant all in good fun. Wherever different languages and cultures intersect, there are bound to be some differences of opinions between sides on what names are considered “proper” or acceptable. And though I didn’t get a chance to mention it above, this “crazy names” phenomenon is by no means exclusive to Chinese choosing English names. I’ve known plenty of foreigners here that have chosen similarly outlandish Chinese names (I’m looking at you Mr Yi Ersan…). So no hard feelings, okay?

Now then, let the Crazy English Name Jamboree begin! I’ll start. Here’s a top five of my all time favorite unusual English names I’ve heard in China:

1) Semen (see above)
2) Bacon
3) Genius
4) Haze
5) Blues (“like the music”)

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Keywords: Chinese people’s English names Chinese people choose English names

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42 Comments ( Add your comment )


You do not understand the concept right ? You can not name yourself by other people family name. It is really bad idea.

May 30, 2013 10:26

Nice, I also had one neighbour, owner of shipping company named Genius. and all sort of Fish, Rainbow and don't know what all funny names.

May 30, 2013 10:28

If it's any consolation, the Chinese names that laowai's use can be pretty suspect too, inadvertently or not.

Dec 03, 2015 18:12

I've met Alcohol, Easy, Banana, Monkey and of course a number of Lincolns and Edisons))

May 30, 2013 11:03

There is a money at my work

Jun 10, 2013 17:48

The main issue about Chinese names is that there are fairly FEW of them. I worked at a company that had 3 people with the exact same name, right down to the characters, that were not related. In Chinese, people just added "da, xiao, and zhong" to differentiate them by age - but the xiao guy was pretty big, and the "da" guy was short and scrawny, so this was just silly. Having an English name - with the massive variety available - makes sense when even names with different characters can sound exactly the same.

May 30, 2013 16:48

you gotta be kidding... how many Chinese names in total have you encountered?

May 31, 2013 06:51

70% of the people in China use the same 45 surnames. Then, there is a list of the 50 most popular names - which are fairly common. I'm sure you've met a Zhang Wei - I've met like 20 at least. Never met that many John Smiths. I work with a Li Wei, a Liu Wei, Liao Wei, and Wang Fei and Wang Fei (different characters for Wang), etc. Of course, NOONE calls them that, they all have "nicknames" when people are speaking to them, so one may be called "Xiao Wei" another "Wei Wei", etc. But then someone will refer to them by their "professional" name and have to draw their family name character on their hand. I'm sorry, but "Bob", "Dave", or "Steve" is MUCH easier.

May 31, 2013 10:41

I'm speechless... how long have you been in China? I guess it doesn't take all THAT long to figure out that same Wei could have some 30 different characters under it, all under the glory of 4 different tones... Just because you hear a "wei" doesn't mean that it's the same name (and pronunciation sometimes) to a Chinese person. Lost in translation is all I could see in this situation. and give you a basic crash course in Chinese names. Xiao (ie. Xiao Wei) usually refer to someone younger, and Lao (i.e. Lao Wei) usually a respect to the older generation. And Weiwei could be a young girl's nick name (not many adult man would go by a repeated character in his name, not that I have encountered). And like in anywhere in the world, in any business or formal sitting (this include your mother yelling at you), a person's entire name should be pronounced. And yes, when I was in high school, there were 5 Chrises in my class of 30 people... If you live in China, I'd suggest you to learn some language, it doesn't kill you!

Jun 10, 2013 02:08

While an English teacher at a kindergarten in China, one class had three Yankees. The teacher of the class decided that one child would continue to be called Yankee, but the others were renamed Doodle and Dandy.

May 30, 2013 23:06

I got students with the names Cat, Umbrella, Rice, Noodles, Dumpling, Mister, Rain, Summer, Spring etc.

May 30, 2013 23:20

But Summer, Spring, and Rain are actual names.

Dec 14, 2015 22:11

I used to have students named Fish, Rice, Gold, Metal. I also had a boy named Rocky... but never met a Rambo. LOL

May 31, 2013 04:57

I tried to explain to my students that an "English" nameis very important and is actually a legal name that can be used for international travel, but to no avail they still use undesirable or unacceptable names. for instance: Cloud, Seven, Eleven, WXS or CHS (not sure about these),Sarry, Even, Potatoe?, Rock, YoYo, Snow, Ceemon, Man, Bear, Fish and Kinky. Most said that their foreign teachers "gave" them their names when they were in middle school and others chose them themselves. My favorite so far is "Na Na" after I explained it afectionately means grandmother. I don't know much about the true history of Chinese traditional names but I believe it is similar to Native American tradition. Any help on this subject would be appreciated. thanks.

May 31, 2013 09:29

Oh, I had a Seven and Eleven in my classes too!

Jun 06, 2013 08:06

I had Eleven and his friend was Twelve. Same class has a Left and Right. lol

Jun 16, 2013 05:42

I just can't get over all the sweet, shy, wholesome girls who have inadvertently gotten stripper English names. Candy, most notably.

Jun 01, 2013 13:44

Lol, please tell me you made Pussy up.

Jun 09, 2013 09:17

I can't get over Americans named Randy. Haha.

Jun 16, 2013 05:42

I am pretty much under the belief that they can chose whatever name they want and I really don't care about how much anyone teases them later. I knew this one girl named Spooky, it was given to her by her English teacher. I must say she was!

Jun 02, 2013 10:35

Simba, Win-Win, Deer, Fleason, Package, Kings, and a thousand Angels and Candy's.

Jun 05, 2013 23:51

Atom, Rabbit, Apple, Pete(fart in Chinese),dolphin. Hummel was my husband's English name before he came to America, it was the name of the general from "The Rock". He had is name changed by an American guy he knew to Bob because his Chinese name started with a "B" because people could say his name right and then settled on Robert because he didn't like Bob.

Jun 06, 2013 08:03

name for human represent the person and from the name can know the culture background. if not i dont think its a nice name. people need to maintained they own culture if they dont want to lose it in the future(our responsible). im not hoping some day all my country name in chinese or in english or any others. i think they need to hold on they own culture name. if somebody cant accept your name, its not your name fault. its their fault.if they cant accept your name how they can know you more better and accept you? that my opini, no hurt feeling!!!

Jun 06, 2013 19:19

Oh yeh, I had one named Human, too.

Jun 16, 2013 05:44

If you are introduced to someone, surname Li (pinyin: Lì) without getting to see the character in their name, is it 郦, 酈, 栗, 厉, 厲, 莉, or 利? These are all pronounced exactly the same, with the same tone. I am not an inexperienced westerner, I'm stating a very valid point. You can, and I have, meet different people with different characters, PRONOUNCED EXACTLY THE SAME. It's like meeting Stacy, Staci, and Stacie. "Go talk to Stacy" "Which Stacy?" Stacy with the Y, I, or IE?" "Um, big Stacy" "Oh, you mean the fat one?" "No, the older one" "I can't tell which one is older." "Just call out big Stacy" Seriously, noone else has had an experience like this?

Aug 05, 2013 18:27
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