Understanding Naming Conventions in China to Enhance Investigations

Chinese names typically are comprised of two parts:

  • Surname
  • Given name


Surname always precedes given name when written in Chinese; occasionally, some individuals may reverse the order of their name when writing it in Latin characters (e.g. Sun Sidong becomes Sidong Sun). Surnames are almost always a single character. There are a handful of two-character surnames, such as Sima (司马) and Ouyang (欧阳), but these are very rare.

While recent censuses indicate that there are over 4000 unique surnames in China, in practice the vast majority of Chinese people share a relatively limited set of surnames: as of 2007, the top 3 surnames accounted for 21.37% of the population of China, and the next 97 most common surnames accounted for an additional 63%. Moreover, there is significant regional variation in frequency of surnames (e.g. LIN 林 is the second most common surname in Taiwan, and only the 19th most common surname in Mainland China). As a result, surname alone is of little value in disambiguating individuals.

Given Name

Given name always follows surname when written in Chinese. While given names are typically two characters, single character given names are not unusual. It is theoretically possible for any of the tens of thousands of Chinese characters to be used in a given name, but in practice the vast majority of given names are comprised of a much more limited set of characters with positive meanings.

While any given character does not necessarily indicate the gender of the person whose name it is used in, some characters tend to be used more often by one gender than by another. For example, Li (莉, jasmine) is almost never used in male names;  Wu (武, martial) is almost never used in female names.

Familial Connections

The vast majority of Chinese people adopt the surname of their father. Married couples almost never adopt the surname of their spouse, although married women occasionally may be referred to by the surname of their husband followed by their name (e.g. Gu Kailai 谷开来, the wife of Bo Xilai, is occasionally referred to as Bogu Kailai 薄谷开来).

Siblings, or cousins of the same generation, may share a single character of their name. While this is less common today than it was in the past, it is still common. This shared character usually occupies the first character of the given name. For example, OFAC-sanctioned businesswoman Ma Xiaohong (马晓红) has siblings named Ma Xiaobo (马晓波), Ma Xiaojie (马晓杰), and Ma Xiaodong (马晓东).

    Romanization of Names

    While the majority of individuals from Mainland China today Romanize their names using China’s official Hanyu Pinyin romanization system, there are a wide variety of romanization schemes used in greater China and among ethnic Chinese communities around the world. This article provides a helpful table for comparing possible romanizations of Chinese surnames.

    Given names may be rendered together (e.g. Ding Ailian 丁爱莲), separately (e.g. Lui Wan Ching 呂雲青), separated by a hyphen (e.g. Wang Shin-sing 王新馨).

    Other Notes

    Minority ethnic groups: While some minority ethnic groups use Chinese characters in their names, many adopt Chinese names that are simply phonetic transliterations into Chinese of their mother language name. In some cases, these may be longer than 3 or 4 characters. Among ethnic groups that use Chinese characters in their names, some surnames are more common than in the majority Han population (e.g. the most common Korean surname, Park, is rendered in Chinese as Piao 朴).

    Common nouns as surnames: It is very uncommon for an individual to have a given name that is also a common noun, but the exceptions are notable. For example, the parents of a former senior aide to President Hu Jintao, perhaps inspired by a wish to display revolutionary zeal, named their children after political buzzwords:

    • Ling Jihua 令计划 – Jihua = plan
    • Ling Fangzhen 令方针 – Fangzhen = guidelines/policy
    • Ling Luxian 令路线 – Luxian = line (as in, party line)
    • Ling Wancheng 令完成 – Wancheng = complete

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