The Significance of Chinese Names

By P Chong                                                       Thurs. 2 September 2010

“Virtue” –  Chinese Calligraphy Wall Scroll

Unlike the West, where a person can adopt any name and surname as fancied without reference to past ancestry or even bearing the father’s surname, the Chinese pay particular attention to name giving. Chinese surname is always at the front of the name and bears reference to the clan or kin. Surname bears great significance and reflects one’s status in life. You don’t just pick up any surname you like and call yourself by it. It is something that you inherit, and that inheritance can be traced back for generations.

Since history began, Chinese have always believed in the significance of one’s name. They have developed a very comprehensive system of naming their children as it is believed that the name of a person strongly influences one’s destiny and fate. Astrologers, fortune tellers, academics and monks are often consulted when choosing a name for the new born. The other cultures, however do not really believe in it and tend to brush it off as superstition.

For example, the Chinese surname LEE (or LI) is associated with power and success such as Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Teng Hui (former Taiwan President), Li Peng ( China ‘s ex PM), Li Ka Shing (HK tycoon). It is also the most numerous amongst all surnames.

Speaking of generations, one can always tell whether one is of the same rank in the generation hierarchy by the second name. Traditionally, Chinese have two given names. The second name denotes the generation level. The last name is truly one’s own name. From the second name you can know your generation within the kinship clan. You must have known of cousins all bearing the same middle name – straight away you’ll know how to address each other & accord respect accordingly.

Particular attention is paid to names, because each Chinese character has a meaning. That meaning often spelt out one’s character and personality, even pointing to one’s destiny! The Chinese believe that a good meaning name will determine one’s fortune and future. Names are particularly important for the Chinese male. With the female, names are given to reflect such meaning as beauty, gentleness, softness and others. Once married, the Chinese female drops her own surname and adopts that of her husband, indicating that she becomes part of her husband’s clan.

Speaking from personal experience as an example, there are others I could refer to, our son, David whose Chinese name is Yew Chuan, bears significance to the above statement. His name means “complete” , and the Chinese character depicts “a king” sheltered or protected by the “people” and by virtue of this, he tends to have affiliation towards others than his own loved ones. To him friends always come first, an eminent character trait of his and which wins him lots and lots of friends.

Our second son Andrew is different in nature and character. His Chinese name is Yew Teik meaning “of noble virtue, moral excellence and goodness” . In Chinese writing, the name bears the significance of the word “heart” and how appropriately significant that he should possess such traits of character.

Believe you me, Chinese names are very significant and important, and that is why careful attention is always accorded to naming a new-born child.

Chinese names bearing only two characters (consisting of the surname & given name) are the exceptions. Nevertheless, they bear the same significance.

For those who are Christians, they usually adopt an additional Christian name. In Southeast Asian countries, where Chinese are a minority, they are required by law to have native names, which are normally Chinese names in camouflage . . . distinctly native but distinguishably Chinese. You’ll find names like this in Indonesia, Thailand & Philippines, e.g. Limianto.

Chinese attach great importance and pride to their names. They must in no circumstance be tainted by bad publicity or social stigma. Thus a jail sentence or a case of bankruptcy would mean “loss of face” which would bring to bear on future generations.


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