Given names are an extremely important personal asset. No matter where you go and what you do, you take your given name with you. Names are given by family members, and sometimes a family may choose to draw in a professional to help with naming.
A given name can consist of either one or two characters, both of which come after the surname. Single character names are called “单名 dan1ming2,” and double character names are called “双名 shuang4ming2.” In China today, Single character dan1ming2 are increasingly popular.
In many cases, especially in older generations, a double character name will include a character that is not unique to the individual. That character is shared by an entire generation of a family. In other words, all of the brothers, sisters and cousins of a single generation will share a character in their name, which is determined by the grandfather. In families that follow this tradition, the first character of a name (the surname) indicates the family, and the second character indicates the generation. The last character is unique for each individual.
Girls and boys receive different types of names in China. As in the west, someone familiar with Chinese can often tell by the name whether its bearer is male or female. Male names are supposed to indicate strength and predict a fruitful life. They should represent the yang2 阳 side of nature—the strong, bright and masculine side. Some male names include: 雷 lei2, thunder; 虎 hu3, tiger; 海 hai3, ocean; and 山 shan1, mountain.
Female names are supposed to represent the darker, feminine, yin 阴 side of nature. Female names are less connected to the fate of their bearers, and more often than not are meant to be pretty. Girls might be named for flowers or beautiful scenery. The following are possible girl names: 芳 fang1, fragrant; 花 hua1, flower; and 风 feng1, wind.
Names are intimately connected to a person’s fate, 命运 ming4yun4. One professional baby-namer in Beijing points out that “nowadays when you meet and exchange business cards you can see [from a name] very clearly a person’s situation, assets and abilities.” Of course he says that in order to do a better business. Nevertheless, business cards, 名片 ming2pian4, are a serious matter in China because they carry your name. Cards are almost always exchanged during an introduction, and they are always given and received by both hands.
Not only are names connected to fate, but they can also change it. A name is given based on the year, day, and time that a person way born. Much care is put into choosing the most appropriate character. The same Beijing based giver of names recalls in his pamphlet a folk saying, “美名终受益，好名一生平安 mei3ming2zhong1shou4yi1, hao3ming2yi4sheng1ping2an1.” This saying means “A pretty name is beneficial, but a good name brings a lifetime of peace and harmony.” So much care is put into choosing a good name that it may be months before a name is finally chosen.