Foreigners using Chinese names is a custom dating back to the Tang Dynasty. We do it for the same reasons some Chinese use English names overseas — they’re easier for locals to pronounce and facilitate cross-cultural connections. In other words…when in Rome, do as the Romanians do.

Most of us live with whatever name our parents picked for us, way before they even met us in person. We might secretly wish for a different name, one which resonates more with how we see ourselves. Not everyone gets it right.

Here’s the Good News

Come to China and no matter how old you are, you have the golden opportunity to rename yourself! This with no risk of angering your parents back home.

Here’s a 3-step process most foreigners follow on how to choose a Chinese name:

  1. Find a Chinese friend with a good vocabulary whom you trust.
  2. Select a Chinese surname which sounds similar to your Western surname, e.g. Bell = Bèi, Garcia = Gāo, Maalouf = , Vincent = Wēn.
  3. Add two more sound-alike characters to reflect some positive aspect of your character. Stephanie Smith could become Shí Jìngyí 石静怡 (meaning stone, quiet and joyful) and Jason Sutherland could become Sū Jiéshèng 苏杰胜 (meaning revive, outstanding and victorious).

That’s all there is to it. Choose a Chinese name wisely and others will be unable to tell by name alone whether you’re Chinese or not. There are plenty of ways to run amok, however, such as trying to be cute with a novelty name. We’ll leave it to you to determine if the following westerners have succeeded or not:

EnglishChineseLiteral Meaning
DannyDǎ nǐ 打你Hit you (Not the best way to start a sales pitch)
EvaÀi huá 爱华Love China
FabioFā piào 发票The country's ubiquitous tax receipts
HunterHóng dēng zǒu 红灯走Walk when light is red (A popular habit)
JimmyJīn mào 金茂The Jinmao Tower in Shanghai
KeanuJī ròu 肌肉Muscle
LorenzoLiǎng mǐ gāo 两米高Two meters high
RobertoLuó bo tóu 萝卜头Turnip head preserved in vinegar
Rose Ròu sī 肉丝Slice of pork

It’s worth saying that a foreigner calling himself Jīn Mào in Shanghai is the equivalent of a Chinese in Paris calling herself Eiffel Tower. Kinda dumb, but at least memorable.

Whatever name you choose, you might find your Chinese friends and co-workers start calling you a name which begins with lǎo 老 (old) or xiǎo 小 (small). If someone calls you Lǎo Lǐ 老李, it doesn’t mean you’re old, just that you’ve come a long way, have knowledge to share and people can trust you. It’s a mark of respect. Just the same if someone calls you Xiǎo Wáng 小王, that doesn’t mean you’re small, inexperienced or insignificant. It just means you possess youth (compared with the person addressing you) and suggests a certain fondness. Hang in there and maybe someday people will call you Lǎo Wáng 老王. It’s all good.

China Simplified’s Newest Addition

Kaden Mah 马乐凯 (Mǎ Lè Kǎi) is the name chosen by our resident Chinese language expert Katie and her British-born husband Chris for their newborn boy. as a surname, from the father. For given names, Lè means happy, Kǎi means victorious. Kaden matches Kǎi. Attractive meaning, solid phonetics. Overall an excellent selection for a couple seeking to provide their child with paired eastern and western names.

Good luck, our dear readers, with your naming effort. Write us if you need help.

Congratulations parents Katie and Chris! And welcome to the world, Kaden 乐凯!

For more entertaining stories on people choosing their Chinese or English names (the good, the bad and the ugly) check out Chapter Six in our new book China Simplified: Language Empowerment.

Join the discussion 17 Comments

  • J
    Josie says:

    Can you help please to translate Josie Febiar and Nino Febiar. Thanks for your help.

  • O
    Olivia says:

    Hi I’m looking for help with a Chinese name my full name is Olivia Webb I have to thoughts for surnames
    微-Wēi or 文-Wén but everything else I am stumped

  • S
    Syingsying says:

    I’m searching for a chine name for my babygirl which has a meaning of legend or victory, victorious. Please kindly suggest the best and unique one❤️

  • J
    Jessica Caetano says:

    Hello!
    I’m trying to pick a Chinese name, but don’t know which one sounds better. I thought a surname like 唐, 田, 谭, 陶, or 覃 would be a good fit since the stressed syllable in my last name is “caeTAno” and not “CAEtano”, but maybe I’m overthinking it (?). I’ve generated a few with Pandarow name generator and the help of some friends as I’m a beginner in Chinese:
    柯静茜 , 柯静熙, 柯静曦 , 柯静夕 , 柯静惜 (some people told me to use 婧 instead of 静)or
    寇婧莎
    What do you guys think, which one is the best?
    I wanted to pick one that has a similar meaning to my original name, which Google says it means “God beholds, foresight” (in the Bible) and also “rich”, in the Shakespeare’s play.
    Thank you soooooo much in advance!

  • s
    syafiqah says:

    how about syafiqah ?

  • A
    Angel McLaughlin says:

    Does the Chinese word for Angel, 天使, make sense as a first name too? I was thinking of 孟天使.

  • J
    John Doe says:

    My 2.5 daughter will be starting Mandarin soon.

    She has a name that is related to the word for “water” (in a language other than English), and I think it would be neat if her Chinese name could be related to the word for “water” as well, “Shui.”

    Is it normal for a Chinese name to use “shui” in it? If so, can you suggest anything?

    • S
      Stew Beck says:

      Can you be more specific about your daughter’s names (current and proposed) in English and Chinese? That would give us and our readers some insight into the idea name.

      Oh, and maybe a real first name for you rather than “John Doe” ?

  • N
    Nina says:

    Thank you so much for this great article! I love the way Chinese names are given and chosen, it shows a lot of meaning and thoughtfulness. I’ve tried to come up with a Chinese name for myself – I’ve come up with 李窕川, because I like the meaning of a ‘gentle river’. Does this name make sense at all or – if it doesn’t – do you maybe have any suggestions to change it for the better? Thank you in advance 🙂

    • C
      China Simplified says:

      Thanks Nina — happy to hear you enjoyed the article.

      We think it’s a very good name, and well chosen. 李 is a Chinese surname and also similar to Nina. Gentle river is a good choice, because it means something to you and also sounds very pleasing.

  • V
    Vic says:

    Perhaps you meant Romania? 😉 When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

  • c
    carl says:

    Thank you! I will choose wisely when I m ready to get a Chinese name. I have many facets to me (like a diamond), so will choose a name that reflects one of my strengths!

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