How to Decipher a Chinese Name

How to Decipher a Chinese Name?

23 Mar 2017

Do you know how to read a Chinese name correctly? It is a big challenge for new arrivals. Chinese names are much more complicated than English names. There are no hard and fast rules but there are guidelines that I would like to share with you. 

Chinese names usually consist of three elements. A single Chinese character (pictograph) represents each element. Chan Tai Man (B) is an example. So, which is the surname, and which are the given names? 

The surname consists of a single character most of the time. Chan, Lee and Wong are typical examples. However, there are a few two-character surname combinations. Au Yeung and Sze To are examples, but these are the exceptional cases. 

The given name most usually consists of two characters, Tai Man from our earlier example. There are occasional exceptions of given names that consist of a single element. An example would be Chan Man with Chan being the surname and Man being the given name, but fortunately, these are unusual. 

The order that the three name elements appears is important. Chinese surnames usually come first, followed by the given name. In our earlier example, Chan Tai Man, Chan is the surname while Tai Man is the given name. In some situations, the order is switched around so that the surname comes last, and the given name (usually two elements, often separated by a hyphen) appear first. This is usually to accommodate English language oriented situations. The idea is gracious and considerate, but the result can be confusing to Westerners. 

Sometimes you will see one of the name elements in upper case letters. This is a helpful clue because that upper case name element will always be the surname. Our earlier example CHAN Tai Man would give us two hints. First, one element is in upper case. Second, it appears in the customary first position of a three-character name set For these two hints you can be highly confident that CHAN is the surname. 

In some three-character name such as Au Yeung Wah, it would be difficult to identify the first name and the last name. Even Chinese people need to guess whether Au Yeung is the surname while Wah is the given name or Au is the surname name while Yeung Wah is the given name. These are unusual so just ask and avoid any doubt. 

Things get complicated when a married woman adds her husband’s surname as the first element of her name. For instance, when Wong Mei Ling is married to Chan Tai Man, she can be addressed as Chan Wong Mei Ling. Other people may call her Mrs. Chan, others may call her Ms. Wong.

Don’t despair. The general rules I have described will apply to most situations you come across. If you are not certain, there is no better way than asking.