The Chinese people have their own traditions for names which carry their own characteristics. The biggest learning curve you will encounter when learning the Chinese language is the order of words. This is an object-verb language, whereas English is a verb-object language. This includes names. In Western society, we use first name, last name. In China, they use their surnames first. For example, where we understand someone’s name to be John Smith, they would use Smith John.
The Chinese surname is often a family name passed down from generation to generation, just like western society. Altogether, over 22,000 different surnames have been recorded and used, however, only 3500 remain in common use. Some have been reserved, and it’s not impossible to find someone with a rare surname still in use.
The three most popular surnames are Li, Wang, and Zhang, comprising between 7-8% of the population each. There are over 270 million people who carry one of these three names. The next grouping is the top 100 surnames in China, in use by over 87% of the population. Of these top 100, 19 are used by about 50% of the Chinese people. These names are Li, Wang, Zhang, Liu, Chen, Yang, Zhao, Huang, Zhou, Wu, Xu, Sun, Hu, Zhu, Gao, Lin, He, Guo and Ma.
Compound surnames also exist, comprising two characters. The complete list of compound surnames has 81 names in use. Some examples include Ou Yang, Tai Shi, Duan Mu, Shang Guan, Si Ma, Dong Fang, Du Gu, Nan Gong, among others.
The given name is unique and identifies the person. However, unlike western society where we try to come up with something popular or something that sounds appealing, they give names associated with blessings, birthplace, time of day, or time of year. Common given names include Jing (Beijing), Chen (morning), Dong (winter) Xue (snow), Zhong (faithful), Yi (righteous), Li (courteous) Xin (reliable), Jian (health), Shou (longevity), and Fu (happiness). These names embody characteristics in line with the birth of the child. The most interesting note about Chinese names is that each one is monosyllabic or containing one syllable. In the past, the names of newborn babes have contained two names. To avoid confusion in the modern day, tradition is being broken by giving them three names.
Modern society has seen the rules relax for child naming. Historically, the child has always been entitled to the surname of the father. Children today are not restricted by such rules anymore—they may take the surname of the mother if they wish.
Addressing people adds to the confusion. It is important to remain polite and respectful of their culture. Chinese people are addressed with their surname first, followed by honorific titles like Xian1 Sheng1 (Sir), Nv3 Shi4 (Madam) or the job position. Unless you know the person as a good friend, given names are not used. Nicknames are not appropriate; these are given to people in their childhood or by their confidants, i.e., a person with whom one shares a secret or private matter, trusting them not to repeat it to others.