New trends in Chinese naming practices

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A few days ago, a new M.A. student from the PRC named Lisite Deng wrote to me asking about a course of mine that he wanted to audit and another one that he wanted to take in the fall.  Upon seeing his name, I did a double take and stopped breathing for a few moments, because trisyllabic Chinese given names are extremely rare.  Chinese given names are mostly disyllabic, though a considerable number are also monosyllabic.  As most people know, Chinese surnames are mainly monosyllabic, though a few are disyllabic. 

Seeing the name "Lisite Deng" was perplexing, to say the least, so I asked him how he got it, and whether the government and all of its bureaus could tolerate such an irregularity.  The student gladly told me the story of his unusual personal name.  Here is how it goes: 

My name in Chinese is Dèng Lǐsītè 邓李斯特 because my father's family name is Dèng 邓 and my mother's family name is Lǐ 李. Both of them are fans of a Hungarian pianist named Franz Liszt whose family name is Lǐsītè 李斯特 in Chinese. In addition, sī 斯 is a pronoun in classical Chinese that means "such" or "that" in English, plus my zodiac animal is the ox and tè 特 originally meant "big ox" in Classical Chinese.  [VHM:  You can see the bovine semantophore on the left.]  Thus, the last two characters of my given name literally mean something unique and it is a unique name for sure. I guess they must have had a big brainstorm to think of a name like that!  These are two reasons my parents gave a 3-syllable personal name to me. The government allows people to have a 3-syllable given name and more and more people from the younger generation in China start to have a name like mine by adding mother's family name to their personal names.

That reminded me of another intriguing Chinese personal name of an M.A. student from Singapore who took classes with me about ten years ago.  Her full name was Yilise Lin.  Somehow, her name sounded more English (Western)* than Chinese, so, although I was curious, I didn't ask her about it at the time.

*I thought perhaps that it was a variant or transcription of "Alyssa":

Alissa/Alisa and Elissa (Arabic: اليسار / ALA-LC: Alīssār; اليسا / Alīssā; عليسا ‘Alīssā; عليسة / ‘Alīssah) are variations of the name of Queen Elissa, the founder of Carthage, and is used in Middle Eastern countries.  The name Elissa is likely a variant of the Phoenician name Elishat, meaning "wanderer".

Alysa is an alternative spelling of Alyssa.


So, two days ago, I asked her whether she had a Chinese name beside "Yilise".  I noted that it is very unusual to have a 3-syllable Chinese given name, so I was assuming that Yilise is her English name, but that she also has a Chinese name.  I was right.

Yilise replied:

My Chinese name is Luō Yǔsī 罗宇思。It's a gender-neutral name as my Mom named me without knowing my gender (she wanted it to be a surprise). Yǔ 宇 comes from yǔzhòu 宇宙 ("universe"), and sī 思 comes from sīxiǎng 思想 ("thought")。 [VHM:  Hence "universal thought".]

I then asked Yilise why her surname in English is "Lin" but is "Luo" in Chinese, to which she replied, "Lin 林 is my husband's surname. I took it after marriage."

Then I pointed out that it is unusual for a Chinese woman to take her husband's surname after marriage, at least it is so in my experience with hundreds of Chinese couples with who I am familiar.  But perhaps it is different in Singapore.  I asked Yilise if it is a common practice for women in Singapore to take the surname of their husband after marriage.

She replied:

I think it varies and is a personal choice. I have friends that take their husband's surname and also friends who choose to keep their own surname. My mom kept her surname after marriage. For me, I knew that I would be moving to the States soon after marriage and felt that it'd be easier for people here to pronounce "Lin" vs. "Luo".

It is evident that Chinese naming preferences are in flux.  In Sinophone societies, they have remained remarkably consistent for centuries, although outside of Sinophone societies people of Chinese background tend to adopt local naming habits.


Selected readings


  1. Mark P said,

    March 19, 2021 @ 8:46 am

    Is it common for Chinese students to choose a Western name if they come to school in the US? In graduate school I knew a young man and woman from Taiwan who chose to be called by common Western names (which I have since forgotten).

  2. Victor Mair said,

    March 19, 2021 @ 10:22 am

    Of the hundreds upon hundreds of Chinese students I have taught over the decades, nearly all of them had Western names before they came to the United States, some of them quite whimsical, exotic, romantic…. I've written about a number of the more unusual ones in previous posts.

  3. Theophylact said,

    March 19, 2021 @ 10:59 am

    Peter Hessler, who taught English in Sichuan, writes interestingly in River Town about his Chinese students adopting Western names.

  4. John Rohsenow said,

    March 19, 2021 @ 3:50 pm

    Following up on the comment about Peter Hessler's students in Sichuan taking English names (forgive me if you have already heard this story of mine): Way back in the late 1960s when my wife and I were teaching English in Taipei, it was required at 'Soochow Univ'.out in Shihlin where she was teaching that the students adopt English names, at least in class (probably for the convenience of the many non-Chinese spkgs native English speakers who were hired), which they dutifully wrote on her seating chart so she could call on them. Among the many Lilly's, and Daisy's there was a Floosie, who turned out to be a Flossie (Victorian novels had been assigned), and in addition to "Hitler' and "Stalin" Chen, was "Stif Wong'.— When she queried him after class, he explained that he greatly admired the then famous American actor "Stif McQueen", who had just finished filming THE SAND PEBBLES in Taiwan. As with Floosie, my wife corrected his spelling w/o further comment and moved on. :-)

  5. Laichar said,

    March 19, 2021 @ 6:50 pm

    Women in China used to take their husband's surname before PRC, when the practice was considered a relic of anti-individualist family values and fell out of use.

    The practice persisted for a longer time in Hong Kong, an example of which is Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor 林鄭月娥. As late as 2006 birth certificates/hospital documents for newborn babies included the father's surname in the mother's name.

  6. Laichar said,

    March 19, 2021 @ 8:07 pm

    On another note, Could Yilise be of any relation to Ilse?

  7. John Swindle said,

    March 19, 2021 @ 11:34 pm

    I'm surprised that Lisite Deng's mother's surname ended up counting as part of his given name. In Hawaii and maybe in Taiwan I've seen Chinese women's names in the form husband's surname, own surname, given name, and always thought the first two remained surnames.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    March 20, 2021 @ 6:08 am

    @John Swindle

    That's exactly what caught me up short when I encountered Lisite Deng's name. I've seen double surnames formed from the combination of father's and mother's surnames, case in point being the noted historical phonologist Zhengzhang Shangfang (1933-2018).

    On the other hand, it is extremely rare for the mother's surname to become part of an individual's given name, as with Lisite Deng.

  9. Peter Taylor said,

    March 20, 2021 @ 8:02 am

    @Mark P, I attended an English boarding school which had a lot of students from Hong Kong. In general they were obliged to use an English name, but one classmate of mine somehow dodged this requirement. Maybe Cina, unfortunate as it might be considered (I'm not sure what the tones were supposed to be, but most people pronounced it as a homophone of non-rhotic sinner) was regarded as "easy enough" to not require substitution.

  10. BL said,

    March 21, 2021 @ 7:01 am

    I'm a teacher in Singapore and the trend of trisyllabic given names among students from China is definitely increasing (but still quite small). Without exception they have all asked me (and their friends) to call them by the last two characters, which leads me to think that it's actually a double surname. I'm not sure why the second surname and given name are concatenated – perhaps it's an artefact of whatever computerised system they were entering their names into, perhaps it's to distinguish it from two-character surnames like Ouyang.

  11. Alexander Browne said,

    March 21, 2021 @ 9:40 am

    Could "Yilise" be a variant of the name Elise? Some pronunciations (mostly American?) have a [i] vowel for the first syllable.

  12. John Swindle said,

    March 21, 2021 @ 9:55 pm

    Governments have a habit of trying to regulate their citizens' names. Maybe the Chinese government requires that family names be assigned according to family relationship and allows greater leeway for given names. In other words, maybe Lisite Deng's family name HAD to be Deng; and his second family name, however he and his friends or family may regard it, could only be registered as part of his given name. Not because of technical limitations, but because of custom enshrined in law. Mind you, I'm just making this up. With apologies to your student for belaboring his example.

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 23, 2021 @ 1:45 pm

    John Rohsenow: It's common, or was in my day, for students in American foreign-language classes to get names in the language we were learning. When I switched from one school to another, I went from Gérard to Jérôme. In Hebrew school I of course was called by the Hebrew name my parents gave me, Yitzhak (or whatever transliteration you like), יצחק

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