01 July, 2007:
What's Your Name Again?
Before going into any detail about Chinese names, it is important to understand their structure. Surnames, 姓 xing4, are composed of one or two characters and Given names, 名字 ming2zi4, are composed of an additional one or two characters. A person could potentially have a four character name, although such a situation is exceedingly rare.
Possibly the most important point is that the surname always comes first when addressing someone. This rule applies to full names and respectful forms of address. It is interesting that some Chinese who achieve international recognition sometimes reverse their names in order to simplify matters for Westerners. For example, the movie director known in the West as Ang Lee is known in China as Li An, 李安. His surname is Li, 李, and his given name is An, 安.
A child can take the surname of either his mother or his father, depending on the family’s preference. It is also possible nowadays to combine the surnames of both parents. However, that approach is non-traditional, and is only gaining popularity because many names are commonly used.
Surnames are so important to Chinese that they never change. In the West, a woman will often take her husband’s name after marriage. In China, on the other hand, men and women always keep their own family name for life.
Given names are given based on their own set of rules. There are many more possibilities for given names than for surnames. The most basic rule for given names is that they are never the same as those of living relatives. Aside from this restriction, a given name can theoretically be any character or combination of characters.
Since there is no special punctuation, such as capitalization, to mark names in written Chinese, it is not always immediately apparent when two to four characters are a name and not a word. How do Chinese people distinguish names from other parts of text? In fact, the distinction is invisible, and mainly habitual. There are two big hints, though: first of all, the number of common surnames is so few that with a bit of familiarity they are easy to recognize; second of all, names usually don’t make sense if you read them as words.
Romanized spellings of Chinese have their own ways for dealing with names. In fact, there is a standard for each transcription system, and these conventions are generally followed. In Hanyu Pinyin 汉语拼音, The surname and given name are both capitalized, and separated by a space; if either name is composed of multiple characters, then they are written together with no space and no extra capital letters. Therefore, 孙中山 is Sun Zhongshan in Pinyin. In Wade-Giles, Surnames and given names are separated, but multiple character given names have a dash (-) between syllables, which makes 孙中山 Sun Chung-shan (although in most cases, this man’s name is printed as Sun Yat-Sen—the Cantonese pronunciation using Wade-Giles style formatting). These punctuation schemes are an easy way to identify the Romanization you are reading.