What's in a Name?
Chinese names consist of two parts, a given (first) name known as míng (名)，and a family (last) name known as xìng (姓). The family name always comes first and is followed by the given name, which is the opposite order of names in most other countries. When you speak to someone at work or someone you don't know, you should say their family name followed by their title. Such as Wáng lǎobǎn (王老板, Boss Wang) or Lǐ xiānsheng (李先生, Mr. Li).
Currently, there are 4,000 Chinese family names in use in China but only a few hundred are used by 85% of China's population. The 3 most common family names, Zhāng (张), Wáng (王), and Lǐ (李), cover over 20% of the population.
How long is a name?
There is much greater diversity in Chinese given names than family names. Most given names have two syllables, although before the Han Dynasty (202 BC), given names with one syllable were more popular. The Tang and Song dynasties (618-1279 AD) started the custom of two-syllable names. Modern Chinese names continue to evolve from ancient times. People born in the 1990s often have four syllable names so that their name is more unique. They might have their mother's family name as part of their given name or just a three syllable given name. For instance, a famous Chinese actor and singer is 易烊千玺, whose name consists of a one syllable family name yì 易 and a three-syllable given name yáng qiānxǐ 烊千玺.
How do parents choose names for their children?
Parents choose given names based on a variety of factors, including pleasing sound, positive meanings or beautifully shaped characters. One tradition is to name a child using one of the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. For example, I There are some websites where you can look up the meaning of Chinese given names.
What's your name?
In Chinese, the most common way to ask someone's name is Nǐ jiào shénme míngzi (你叫什么名字）?
You can also say:
Nǐ xìng shénme?
These two phrases are used to ask someone's family name. The latter is a formal expression which is usually used in a business setting and means, "What is your honorable name?".
This article is part of our new online Chinese course. An efficient way to learn Chinese language for working and living in China.