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Chinese Personal Names
& Titles

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The Brief Story:

A modern Chinese usually has (1) a surname ("family name") or xìng and (2) a given name ("first name" or "Christian name"), or míng (or míngzi 名字), always in that order. Thus Dèng Xiǎopíng is Mr. Dèng with the personal name Xiǎopíng the same way John Jones is Mr. Jones with the personal name John.

Some Chinese writers in English reverse the order and put the family name last in order to conform to English usage: Xiaoping Deng. This confuses things when the surname and given name are not distinctive enough to be able to be sure which is which. For example, since both Chiao and Chien are possible spellings of Chinese surnames, it took me some years before I knew whether anthropologist Chiao Chien (Pinyin: Qiáo Jiàn) was Dr. Chiao or Dr. Chien. It didn't help that I saw it in both orders. In Europe, where surnames are often written in capital letters, it is less of a problem: CHIAO Chien is clearly Dr. Chiao.

Nearly always the family name (surname) is one-syllable long. The only common modern surnames that are two-syllables long are Ōuyáng and Sīmǎ. Occasional people have two surnames, usually written in English as two words: Wáng Xú.

Usually (but not always) the given name is two syllables long, and sometimes a group of siblings or even cousins will share the first (or sometimes second) syllable of their given names. Dèng Xiǎopíng, Dèng Liáopíng, and Dèng Guópíng, for example, would almost certainly be brothers or cousins.

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The Long Story:

  1. Multiple Names for Men (Xìng, Míng, Zì, Hào)
  2. More on Nicknames Mocking Names, Protective Insults, Servants' Names)
  3. Imperial Names (State, Year, and Temple Sobriquets)
  4. Women's Names
  5. Surnames
  6. Names Used in Families
  7. Titles Added to Names (Master, King, Lord, Duke)
  8. Clerical Names (Buddhists, Daoists, Christians)

Multiple Names for Men

In dynastic times naming was far more complex, and occasionally traces of the older system are still used. Chinese are far more likely than Americans to have pen names, nicknames, and so on, which have a respectability in China that they lack for English speakers.

For example:

Confucius' Chinese name was Kǒng Qiū 孔丘, where Kǒng was his family name and Qiū his personal name. In addition he had a zì , which was Zhòngní 仲尼, the name by which he is usually called in the Confucian canon. (The word zì means "written symbol," but in this special usage some sinologists translate it "style.")

Here is another example:

Chinese popular lore describes a group of five divinities referred to as the "Eight Immortals" (bā xiān 八仙). One of the most popular of these is popularly called Lǚ Dòngbīn 吕洞宾, or "Lǚ the Guest in the Cave." Lǚ is of course his family name. The Dòngbīn part is actually his zì (like the Zhòngní in Confucius' name), and the meaning of it clearly links him to the Taoist tradition of mountain hermits with which he is now associated.

His original name (míngzì, corresponding to Confucius' Qiū) is said to have been Yán (sometimes written ). That name would have been given to him by his parents early in life. (It actually means "crag," so even it points toward Taoism.)

Later in life, as he became ever more deeply involved with Taoism, he took a sobriquet (hào) of Chúnyáng 纯杨, which means "Pure Yáng," And he also apparently sometimes referred to himself by the title Huídàorén 回道人 "the man who returns to the Way."

Finally, religious followers of Lǚ Dòngbīn today sometimes refer to him as "Patriarch Lǚ" (Lǚ zǔ 吕祖).

Here is a list of some of the kinds of names a Chinese male might have at almost any time in Chinese history, although the details vary a good deal from time to time and place to place. The first four terms are the most important.

  1. xìng = surname (nearly always a paternal surname)
  2. míng or míngzì 名字 = given name
  3. = "adult name," "style," "epithet,""appellation," or "marriage name," taken at marriage or coming of age (formerly marked by a "capping" ceremony).
  4. hào or wàihào 外号 = "sobriquet," usually assumed by the person later in life, although sometimes conferred by friends. One can think of it as a rather formal nickname. ("Sobriquet" is not a common English word. But sobriquet is pretty much the commonest translation. It comes from the French and literally means "chuck under the chin," referring to a jocular or affectionate name. Not all Chinese hào are jocular, however.)

  5. bǐmíng 笔名 = "nom de plume" used by a writer
    (I have the impression that this is a rather modern term, not distinguished from any other kind of hào in earlier Chinese.)
  6. biézì 别字 = "distinguishing appellation" given by friends to each other
  7. chuòhào 绰号 = "nickname" (See below.)
  8. guānmíng 官名 = "official name" assumed by someone in government work.
  9. rǔmíng 乳名 = "milk name," given by parents
  10. shūmíng 书名 = "book name" (also called xuémíng 学名 = "study name"), given by the teacher when the child enters school
  11. shì = surname (apparently originally a maternal surname)

Chinese biographical dictionaries and other reference books tend to list people by their xìng and míngzi, but they are normally also quite meticulous in recording the zì of the people they write about, and various hào if they were much used. Some famous figures known to history by one or another zì or hào rather than by their míng.

Most Chinese today have only a surname (xìng) and a given name (míngzì), plus perhaps a nickname (chuòhào) or two. Occasionally members of the intelligentsia use a literary sobriquet (hào), continuing this old custom.

Fortunately, rarely is more than one form used when writing about famous Chinese in English, and in a context like a college textbook or this web site, a given individual is likely to be referred to only one way.

More on Nicknames

Mocking Names. In the informality of village life, there is a rich variety of nicknames both for children and for adults, although more so for males than for females. Some are merely a syllable from the person's míng plus the appended syllable "Ā" before or after. Others may begin as teasing reference to distinctive physical characteristics, such as "Fatso" or "Big Head or to an individual's distinctive behavior, such as "Great Shout" or "Wine Cup." Some may apply the name of an historical or folkloric figure based on some putatively shared characteristic. It is easy for a moment of rustic hilarity to become routinzed as a mere nickname.

Name Magic and Protective Insults. Traditionally personal names were selected with attention to their meanings —names often suggest good luck, good looks, good morals, or goodness in general. But attention was (and is) given also to the number of strokes that made up the characters of a name. Fortune tellers were often consulted about this to make sure that a child's name accorded well with his moment of birth. In traditional times, and occasionally today, names were created to protect a child from harm. By giving a baby a name that was impressively unappealing, it was hoped to avoid the notice of envious or malicious spirits that might seek to harm a conspicuously attractive child. It was perfectly possible to find small children named "Dog-Face" and the like. Little boys were sometimes given girls' names for the same reason, since girls were thought less susceptible than boys to spirit attack. This was nearly always a temporary expedient. Names like "Ugly Piglet" usually did not continue into adulthood.

Servants' Names. Another kind of familiar nickname (common for male servants or office workers) is composed of the word lǎo , "old," plus a person's surname. If two people in the same social network have the same surname, one may be distignated by having the word xiǎo , "little," prefixed to his surname and the other dà "big."

Arguably all such terms come under the general cover term chuòhào 绰号, but users seldom think much about their classification. They just talk.

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Imperial Names

There are additional complications when it comes to emperors. A special hào was taken by an emperor on accession to the throne and was used instead of his personal name, which was taboo. (In theory the taboo extended to both writing and speech, although habits die hard, and one imagines that the taboo in fact applied most rigidly to written works and to people in the imperial court.) But, emperors being emperors, the emperor did not take a single hào, but several:

  1. guóhào 国号 = "State sobriquet" was his state title.
  2. niánhào 年号 = "Year sobriquet" was the title of a period in his reign. It was not until the Míng dynasty (period 20) that emperors dependably kept the same niánhào throughout an entire reign. For emperors of the Míng and Qīng dynasties, history knows them by their niánhào. And it is the niánhào that one might find as a date on a piece of Sòng dynasty porcelain, for example. It doesn't work well for earlier emperors because they kept changing their niánhào.
  3. miàohào 庙号 = "Temple sobriquet" was the temple name selected by his successor for an emperor after death. Obviously each emperor had only one of these. For emperors before the Míng dynasty, history knows them by their miàohào, names they themselves never heard.

Women's Names

Chinese women's names were far less complex. Women seldom participated in public life, schools, and the like, and normally bore a single name throughout their lives. Historical records often name women using only a surname —either a natal surname or the husband's surname— with no given name. Like men, they had informal nicknames used in everyday village life.

Today, like Hispanic women, a married Chinese woman usually adds her husband's surname to her original surname. Thus Dù Guō Xiùměi 杜郭秀美, is Mrs. Dù née Guō, with the personal name of Xiùměi. A formal, although rather old fashioned, way to say this is that she is simply Dù Guō shì 杜郭氏 or Dù née Guō.(The word shì was number 11 in the list given earlier.)

This is a bit stiff, however, and in many contexts — probably most contexts, although I know of no count — the husband's name is omitted.

For wives of prominent men, the title fūrén 夫人, usually translated "madam," is appended to the husband's name: Jiǎng Fūrén = Madam Jiǎng.

Married women today usually use their full name (surname plus míng) or, in more formal contexts, surname followed by a title. (See below.)

In my experience, in the far less formal world of village life, women, like men, are called all sorts of things, and nicknames are by no means unknown, although I have the impression that the nicknames involved are fewer and less often grotesque than for men. That was probably always the case, although I know of no study of the subject.

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Surnames do not seem to go back quite to the beginning of Chinese history, and it is still open to debate exactly what the two words for surname, xìng and shì , meant in the Bronze Age. (Click for More About the term shì.)

Names Used in Families

As noted in the "short story," above, it has always been common, though not universal, to assign related names to a group of sisters or brothers (or sometimes a wider group of same-generation cousins) such that each member of the group shared a common character in his or her míng. For example, if Wèi Guāngqǐ 魏光启, Wèi Guāngchūn 魏光椿, Wèi Guāngtǒng 魏光统 were part of the same social circle, they would almost certainly be brothers or cousins.

Within families, names were rarely used traditionally, either in direct address or as terms of reference. Instead, kinship terms were used. Just as American children would not normally address their parents or grandparents by name, so a Chinese would address a sibling as "elder sister" or "third younger brother." A child might be addressed as "second son."

Today names may be used for addressing family members junior than oneself, but it is by no means universal. (I recall a petite high-school girl who addressed her younger brother quite unselfconsciously as "little brother" even though he was well over six feet tall and looked like a sumo wrestler —hardly little.) Chinese kinship terms are a study in themselves, since there are great many distinct terms that allow very precise indication of the relationships, and since there is some regional variation, and a difference between literary and colloquial usage.

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Titles Added to Names

Titles, in addition to names, were (and are) used. There are the usual Mr. and Mrs. In contrast to English, rules for Romanized Chinese provide that such titles not be capitalized, by the way: "Mr. Chén," but "Chén xiānshēng." The commonest titles, simply appended to surnames, are:

These may be replaced by occupational titles —teacher, engineer, physician, &c.

However, the titles you are most likely to encounter while reading about traditional China are not those, but rather terms used for philosophers, gods, members of the bureaucracy or nobility, and so on.

"Master." Ancient Chinese philosophers are usually given the title zǐ , which is sometimes translated "master." Thus you will read of Mèng zǐ 孟子, Xún zǐ 荀子, Zhuāng zǐ 庄子, and so on.

(Most editors regard the zǐ as a suffix, for unclear reasons, and spell it as part of the name: Mèngzǐ. This usage is endorsed by the official standard in the case of philosophers judged prominent, while for obscure philosophers the zǐ is supposed to be written as an uncapitalized, free-standing word, like other titles.)

Curiosum: Confucius is usually called "Master Kǒng" or Kǒngzǐ 孔子. The English name "Confucius" is a Latinization of the slightly longer Chinese title Kǒng fūzǐ 孔夫子. The neo-Latin spelling was originally devised for a Latin translation of part of the Confucian canon called Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, Sive Scientia Sinensis, Latine Exposita, which appeared in Paris in 1687. In the late XIXth century some English writers tried to extend the spelling "-cius" as a general translation of zǐ. If they had extended this as a suffix for all philosophers we could have had Western names like Wittgenstein-cius, Hume-cius, and Russell-cius, but the idea never really caught on.

"King"/"Lord" Another title that tends to bleed into English is wáng , which means "king" and is sometimes left untranslated as a suffix to the name of a king. However the term was not always applied to an individual we would think of as a king, and in many cases the translation "king" can be a bit misleading, and something more generic like "lord" is to be preferred. (The link at the top of this page will take you to more information about royal titles.)

"Duke" The title gōng in ancient texts is usually translated "duke", and the Confucian texts speak of the "Duke of Zhōu" or Zhōu gōng 周公. In later times this gōng was conferred routinely on gods and occasional national heroes. (It also evolved into a prefix corresponding to "male" when referring to animals.) As with the title "king," it is often better to render this simply "lord" and let it go at that.

Today gōng is a postmortal title of highest possible honor. For example:

After his death, Chiang Kai-shek 蒋介石 (Pinyin: Jiǎng Jièshí) was given that title by the ROC government in Taiwan, to whom he was extraordinarily venerable. Between his death and the end of martial law, references to the late president were therefore to Jiǎng gōng 蒋公. (Jièshí was Jiǎng's zì.)

(The "Kai-shek" used in English, by the way, is the Anglicization of a non-Mandarin reading of his zì. He hailed from Zhèjiāng Province, and I assume "Kai-shek" represents a Zhèjiāng local pronunciation of Jièshí.)

Chiang Kai-shek's míng was Zhōngzhèng 中正, so the full post-mortal formula (in Taiwan) was Jiǎng gōng Zhōngzhèng 蒋公中正. If you really wanted to be reverential, you left a blank space before the first character of the phrase. (The ultimate level of reverence, not merited even by Jiǎng, was to force a new line before his name, so that the surname character was always the first character of the line.)

There is no obvious way to render this compactly into English. Perhaps something like "The much revered Chiang" would be closer than looking for a title as such. (The English reverential term sometimes applied to him is "generalissimo.")

Chiang Kai-shek also had a school name, Zhìqīng 志清, but "of course" you wouldn't combine that with the title gōng!

(He also had a derrogatory title, fĕi , "bandit," used by his Communist enemies, who called him Jiǎng fĕi 蒋匪, "Bandit Jiǎng." In Taiwan the same title was used when referring to Máo Zédōng 毛泽东, who was of course Máo fĕi 毛匪, "Bandit Máo." Like "Great Satan" or "Supreme Leader," such titles seem silly unless your government enforces their use until they are become threadbare enough to be inconspicuous.)

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Clerical Names

Buddhists. Buddhist monks and nuns discontinue use of their original names when ordained and assume new religious names. Typically the first syllable is shared by all disciples of a single master, and the second syllable is individual. Within the world of monastic Buddhism, surnames are not used. In interaction with the lay world, monks and nuns use the dummy surname Shì , the first syllable of the Chinese transcription of the name of the Shakyamuni Buddha, Shìjiāmóuní 释迦牟尼.

The commonest polite title both for priests and for nuns is "Dharma master" (fǎshī 法师), and the normal term of address is "master" or "teacher" (shīfù 师父), which is the generic form you should use when addressing such a person. Both in polite reference and in direct address it is usual to use a cleric's religious name plus shī , "teacher/master."

Daoists. The term "Dharma teacher" is often also used for and to Daoist adepts, despite the seeming Buddhist flavor of the term. More common (and more appropriate) is the use of the Daoist's surname plus the word dàoshì 道士, "gentleman of the Dào."

Christians. Protestant ministers are addressed by surname plus mùshī 牧师, "shepherd-teacher"; Catholic priests are addressed by surname plus shénfù 神父, "spiritual father."(A Catholic nun is called a xiūnǚ 修女, but I don't know if the expression is used in direct address. Does a reader happen to know?)

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Sources and Resources:

This was discussion inspired by a similar but far briefer one in

Mary Lelia MAKRA
1961 The Hsiao Ching. New York: St. John's University Press. Pp. 43-44.

For a very useful and full discussion of Chinese naming practices with excellent reference to the names used by Chinese outside of China, the following work by a former member of the Immigration Department in Malaysia is extremely interesting.

1997 Chinese names: the traditions surrounding the use of Chinese surnames and personal names. Selagor Darul Ehsan: Pelanduk Publications. (ISBN: 967-978-619-6).

For an analysis of the names of famous people with an eye to developing names for modern Chinese children (or names to be adopted in Chinese by foreigners), the following is very informative:

LUO Tong & CAO Jia Wei
2005 500 Famous Chinese names. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish.

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