How Do Chinese People Choose English Names?

"Hi, my name is Wang Rong but you can call me Emily."
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Have you ever met a Chinese person with two names? Many people have a Chinese name and an English name. This is a common custom in China but not as common in other Asian countries like Japan and Korea. Historically, there are many reasons why people in China also have an English name. Most recently, people choose an English name to facilitate doing business with international colleagues, reasoning that it's easier for colleagues to pronounce an English name. Other people think it is a status symbol of education and success, being smart and important enough to have an English name.

Parents all over the world put a lot of thought and time into choosing a name for their baby. Choosing your own English name, however, doesn't always require as much thought. Many people admit that their English teacher, friend or colleague gave them their English name and they don't know much about its meaning. Some people choose an English name that is related to the meaning of their Chinese name. A woman named 月 (Yuè, moon) chose the name Selena who was the Roman goddess of the moon. Sometimes, choosing a name based on the meaning of a Chinese character results in a non-standard English name, such as Alone or Season. Some people choose an English name that sounds like their Chinese name, such as a woman named 玲 (Líng) who chose the name Lynn.

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Another popular source for choosing an English name is celebrities. Many people choose the names of singers, movie stars, or characters they like. Many Chinese celebrities have English names so people choose the same name that their favorite singer or actor uses. Other people choose the names of American movie stars or even a character they play. Some people choose a name from their favorite book, either the author's or the main character's name. Other people simply choose a word or a topic they like as their name. They often don't check if it's an existing English name and instead, take pride in the unique identity of their name, such as a man called Hypnus which comes from Greek and is related to sleeping, an activity he really enjoys.


This article is part of our new online Chinese course. An efficient way to learn Chinese language for working and living in China.


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Sarah Johnson

Sarah Johnson is an expat from New York City who moved to Shanghai with her husband in 2017 and is falling in love with the Chinese culture and people. She is studying Mandarin, teaching English, and has tens of thousands of questions about language, life, and culture.