Changing fashions in Chinese names

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This morning, an instructor in Jiangsu province, who has been teaching Chinese Culture in college English classes for 12 years and has also been giving lectures on Chinese Culture to international students, wrote to ask about the possibility of becoming a visiting scholar at Penn for half a year.  She introduced herself to me as Lǐ Fǔluòwá 李甫洛娃.  Her name threw me for a loop.

Her surname, Lǐ 李, is not a big problem; it is one of the most common of all Chinese family names.  But her given name (if that's what it is), Fǔluòwá 甫洛娃, both sounds strange and looks odd.  I showed it to a number of native speakers of Mandarin, and they all though it was unusual.

First of all, three syllable given names are very rare.  I suspected that she might belong to an ethnic minority group, because their given names are sometimes transcribed with three or more syllables.  I also entertained the thought that she (or her parents) might have based her given name (Fǔluòwá 甫洛娃) on a Russian model, since the last two characters, or even all three of the characters of her given name, are often used to transcribe Russian names, e.g., the name of Anna Pavlova (1881-1931), the renowned Russian ballerina, is transcribed as Ānnà·Bāfǔluòwá 安娜·巴甫洛娃.  I even entertained the though that Lǐ Fǔluòwá 李甫洛娃's entire name might be a Russian transcription, thus Lǐfǔluòwá, which might conceivably be Rivlova.  That may not be a Russian name, but it sure sounds Slavic, especially Slovakian, to me.  Cf. the outstanding Russian Sinologist, Boris Riftin (1932-2012), who is well known in China by the transcription of his surname as Lǐfúqīng 李福清, but romanized to make it look like a standard Chinese name consisting of a one syllable / character surname and a two syllable / character given name:  1 (Lǐ) + 2 (Fúqīng).

In the past, there were many more compound surnames than there are now, especially those that derived from non-Sinitic sources, but few of them survive today.  Here are several examples:

Sīmǎ 司馬 (derived from a very old official title, "Master of the Horse; Marshall") — Sīmǎ Qiān 司馬遷 (ca. 140-86 BC), the famous historian

Duānmù 端木 (lit., "end; beginning; extremity + wood; tree; timber", an ancient surname [one of Confucius' disciples bore it]) — Duanmu San is a phonologist who teaches at the University of Michigan

One can also have a disyllabic surname with a monosyllabic or a disyllabic given name, hence Ōuyáng Xiū 歐陽脩 (1007-1022), the Northern Song statesman and scholar, and Ōuyáng Zìyuǎn 欧阳自远 (b. 1935), the geochemist and space advocate.

The historical phonologist and topolectologist, Zhèngzhāng Shàngfāng 郑张尚芳 (b. 1933), was originally named Zhèng Xiángfāng 郑祥芳.  He acquired his disyllabic surname in a non-traditional way.  When he was in high school, his parents asked him to take both their surnames, so he combined his father's Zhèng with his mother's Zhāng and became Zhèngzhāng instead of just Zhèng.  This is comparable to the hyphenated surnames that are well known in the West.  Incidentally, I have always found it rather difficult to pronounce his surname because of the succession of four final velars.  I was also intrigued by his personal name, Shàngfāng 尚芳, which means "esteems fragrance", leading me to think that he was a woman before I met him.

I told Lǐ Fǔluòwá 李甫洛娃 my thoughts about her name, and my interest seemed to please her.  She replied by telling me the whole story of how she got it.  Here I will excerpt only pertinent parts of her long message on the subject (with minor editing and links added by me):

I am afraid I have to thank my father for giving me such an unusual name which attracts the attention of both Chinese and Foreigners like you and my international students from Thailand and Central Asia. :)

Lǐ 李 is my family name.  Fǔ甫 is the generation name shared by all the members of my generation in our family.  Luòwá 洛娃 is my given name.

I am of Han ethnicity, age 35, and married, but I didn't take my husband's surname (women in China do not adopt the surname of their husband when they get married)….

In terms of traditional middle names or generation names, boys of the same generation often share the same one-character middle name following the family tree, but occasionally girls also do, like me.  In modern China, however, the family tree might be lost or not be taken seriously, which might lead to the omission of generation / middle names. And the given names could be of one or two characters with poetic meanings or parental wishes in them.

Most Chinese names (surname plus given name) have three characters nowadays, but there could be 5 characters at most in the household registration. In the past, people preferred two-character names because they were brief and easy to be remembered. But in recent years, it's encouraged to give 3 or 4-character names to babies in order to avoid similarity.

So here is a format of a Chinese name in Chinese order for reference:  Surname (1 or 2 characters) + Middle Name or Generation Name (1 character, sometimes omitted) + Given Name (1 or 2 characters) = A Chinese Name (2-5 characters), Li Fu Luowa for example.

As you can see, my name is not a traditional Chinese name. It has more characters than usual and even sounds like a Russian name, which usually ends with Luòwá 洛娃 for a female and Nuòfū 诺夫* for a male. Besides the surname, my father also allowed me to share the middle / generational name with my brother, which means we are equal in his heart, although some traditional families love boys more. As for the given name 洛娃**,my father wished me forever youth. So altogether I have four characters in my name which made you curious.

*VHM:  As in Luómǎnuòfū 罗马诺夫 ("Romanov").

**VHM:  Lit., "Luo [can be a surname, the name of various rivers, etc., here it is basically just a sound]-baby / child / doll").

So we can see that Chinese naming practices are somewhat in a state of flux.  Even the government is encouraging people "to give 3 or 4-character names to babies in order to avoid similarity".  It seems that no longer will the vast majority of Chinese names follow the old pattern of 1 (surname) + 2 (given name) characters / syllables.  I think that the government is wise to promote these changes.  One big drawback of the old 1 (surname) + 2 (given name) characters / syllables pattern for the overwhelming majority of names is that, in large, public gatherings or in the military, for example, when names are called out they often sound very similar, making them hard to distinguish one from the other.

On the other hand, the people would actually like to move faster and further in the diversification of names, but the government is holding them back.  Already before the founding of the PRC, parents have been trying to give their children roman letter names, and individuals have been trying to do the same for themselves, but the government sternly frowns upon this.  Yet, as Liu Yongquan, Mark Hansell, I, and others have repeatedly shown, the roman alphabet has long since become a part of the Chinese writing system, just as romaji are part of the Japanese writing system.  See, among other previous posts, the following (both with links to additional posts):

"Creeping Romanization in Chinese" (8/30/12)

"Zhao C:  a Man Who Lost His Name" (2/27/09)

"Lu Xun and the Zhao family" (2/5/16)

If, as Lǐ Fǔluòwá 李甫洛娃 says, the government is behind the move to increase the length of given names from 1 or 2 syllables / characters to 3 or 4 syllables / characters, perhaps in time they will also sanction the use of roman letter names, in accordance with the wishes of many citizens.

[Thanks to Wenkan Xu, Jing Wang, Fangyi Cheng, and  Yixue Yang]



  1. Bob Ladd said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 3:47 am

    China is not the only place to have to encourage new naming habits in order to avoid similarity in a growing population. The mainland Scandinavian countries made family names compulsory remarkably recently (20th century for both Norway and Sweden); before that they had only patronymics that changed with each generation, as still today in Iceland. And according to Wikipedia, both Norway and Sweden encouraged people not to adopt their current patronymic as the family name but to make use of other possibilities (e.g. ones analogous to the English surnames Hill, Wood, Fields).

  2. Gunnar H said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 4:16 am

    The mainland Scandinavian countries made family names compulsory remarkably recently (20th century for both Norway and Sweden); before that they had only patronymics that changed with each generation

    This is slightly misleading. Family names had existed in Scandinavia for hundreds of years, and became common in the second half of the 19th century. By the time they were made compulsory in the early 20th century, most people already had them.

  3. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 6:15 am

    Interestingly enough, my first reaction (as someone who has pretty much no knowledge of Chinese) was to presume that the name was in fact a transcription of the English word "Flower".

  4. Thorin said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 6:18 am

    I'm reminded of Lithuanian naming conventions, now that we've brought Scandinavian names into play. To use an example from Wikipedia, if a woman's father's name is Kulėšius, her surname will be Kulėšiūtė. Then, if she gets married or widowed, it becomes Kulėšienė if she keeps her own surname. Anyone familiar with Lithuanian names who can correct me on this?

    Naming also seems to be more convenient in Thailand than other parts of the world simply because, if I remember correctly, Thai surnames are unique to one family.

  5. Bob Ladd said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 6:20 am

    @Gunnar H. Thanks for the clarification!

  6. Guy_H said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 8:21 am

    I would have thought 郑张尚芳 was female too. In my parent's church, there are many Cantonese ladies of a certain generation with the "double barrelled" surname (owing to the British influence in Hong Kong I believe). Witness for example female politicians Anson Chan 陳方安生 or Regina Ip 葉劉淑儀.

  7. JK said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 8:30 am

    What a coincidence. Just this week I also noticed a name consisting of a very common Han family name followed by a space and three more obviously Hanyu Pinyin syllables. I can't recall having seen such a name before.

    "Even the government is encouraging people 'to give 3 or 4-character names to babies in order to avoid similarity'."
    As far as I can see, she doesn't say whether it's the government who's doing that. Is it your observation, your guess, or is it in the unquoted parts?

  8. Mark S. said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 8:54 am

    I have some tangential figures from about ten years ago on lengths of Han names in China: 85 percent of Han in China have two-syllable given names: report.

  9. Han Tian said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 6:52 pm

    It is true that most people I see today have a Chinese name of three characters, but I have never heard that it is encouraged by the government,at least not in where I live.

  10. liuyao said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 10:42 pm

    Many female politicians in Hong Kong use double surnames, but they are simply combining husband's surname with her own (as in HRC), not quite a double barrelled name.

    Combining parents' surname is indeed getting more popular, especially if the mother's side has no nephews to carry on the surname. One not-recent example is the Lubi 陸費 family (the second character has a special reading), known for 陸費墀 (1731-1790) and 陸費逵 (1886-1941).

  11. K. Chang said,

    October 31, 2016 @ 9:25 am

    Interesting that the given name had expanded to two characters, on top of generation name.

    I am with the Guo 國 generation as my father's generation is 家. My dad had once said (probably passed down by grandpa) the Guo generation was sorta made up on the spot in order to accommodate a death in the family. Apparently when they put up the ancestral tablet of the dead family member they just realized they ran out of words in the generation poem, and the ancestral tablet need to name 3 generations ahead.

    Guess there won't be any more generation poem in my family. (sigh)

  12. Chris Godwin said,

    October 31, 2016 @ 3:04 pm

    My wife has a nephew called 刘李畅和, which has a similar structure to the typical Hong Kong married lady's name ; in this case father's surname + mother's surname + two-character given name. it's unusual enough to arouse comment when he's introduced.

  13. K. Chang said,

    October 31, 2016 @ 4:22 pm

    The part about having two surnames brings up the naming convention of Spain/Portugal and South America though… Most Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries have folks with two surnames, but generally they only use one for common reference.

    Ayrton Senna is actually Ayrton Senna da Silva for example. He's born in Brazil, and he prefer to go by Senna as he considered "da Silva" to be too common (as per Wikipedia ref)

    So having two surnames will eventually lead to simplification?

  14. Eidolon said,

    October 31, 2016 @ 8:59 pm

    Her explanation makes sense, but I have yet to see a growing pattern of giving children four character names among my contacts & associates in China. I have noticed, however, a break down in the traditional practice of naming usually described in books on Chinese history and culture. Generation characters are increasingly omitted and replaced with either nothing, as in two character names, or simply another given name character, as in three character names. This could be a side effect of the one child policy. With no one else to share their generation character with, parents of the loneliest generation may have simply decided to avoid it altogether.

  15. Alex said,

    November 2, 2016 @ 10:46 pm

    My sons have different last names.
    My older one is Wang Jia Yi, My younger one is Ming Dong Jia Qi.

    This is because my Mother's side (ming) had only girls and I wanted to continue the line. It wasn't hard to do in China. In HK it was very hard since they insisted that he take either parents Surname. "dong" is my wife's surname.

    This is not why I bring it up. I am now wondering about pinyin names. For the word qi even with yinbiao there are so many words with the same biao.

    I have often in conversation hear people say which mei or which exact word their name represents. However this "description" might be lost when kids write their names purely in Pinyin. Though I guess names like Huang Xiao Xi – Xiao xi for small brook stream could be guess by context. I wonder the percentages of names that can be guessed by context. I really don't have any idea. Perhaps if pure pinyin were to be used the naming of children would change.

    What's interesting is our staff works with many international companies. Some staff used pinyin to liase, some chose Western name like John/Grace , others chose nouns. Sky, Moon, River etc.

    I still consider the pros of pure pinyin far outweigh any cons but as I discover things I like to ask for feedback and opinion.

  16. Jongseong Park said,

    November 3, 2016 @ 2:18 pm

    Like Jean-Sébastien Girard, my initial reaction was to wonder if the name was meant to be an adaptation of "flower".

    The explanation is even more interesting for me in that she gave her generation name as separate from her given name. Generation names, or perhaps more accurately generation characters (항렬자 行列字 hangnyeolja), are widely used in Korean names, but as far as I know are always used to make up given names and are never considered separate from them. For example, 김영수 金永秀 Kim Yeongsu and 김영철 金永哲 Kim Yeongcheol of the Kim family might share the generation character 永 Yeong, but their given names are 영수 永秀 Yeongsu and 영철 永哲 Yeongcheol, never 수 秀 Su and 철 哲 Cheol alone. It is completely new to me that a generation name could be separate from a given name.

  17. liuyao said,

    November 5, 2016 @ 2:37 pm

    "It is completely new to me that generation name could be separate from a given name"

    It depends on how you transcribe the names. It was the norm to treat each character as a name among early Chinese Americans, and they often went by the two initials (e.g. T. V. Soong, I. M. Pei). Wade-Giles orthography actually demands hyphenation, and pinyin orthography omits the hyphen (though Chinese students that came out in the 80s used hyphens). In Southeast Asia, they still separate their name as three names (e.g. Lee Kuan Yew).


    As you know, you could name your children with any characters from the dictionary (there used to be taboos or 諱 like emperors' names and your own ancestors' names). So it is impossible to write down a name upon hearing it with complete certainty. Even for your example of Xiaoxi, the most common character for xiao is actually 曉 (which is not to be taken literally to mean "dawn" or "to know") and xi could be 希, 熙, 曦, 奚, even if the parents had in mind the sound of Xiaoxi as brook or stream.

    In fact, if not for personal names, inputting full-sentence Chinese by pinyin (or speech, as the technology is advancing rapidly) would be as fast as typing in English. I do a lot of (historical) name inputting, and I run into esoteric characters all the time. Even today, qi and yi are especially notorious for having numerous characters in common use.

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