Due to culture and language differences, Chinese names will differ slightly to Western names. In order to make sure you have a clear understanding of how Chinese names work, take the time to learn or brush up on the key components.
The modern Chinese name includes the surname (family) name and a given name. Unlike most Western cultures, the family name will come before the given name. This is important to remember when you are addressing others.
We will take the President of China’s name, “习近平 Xi Jinping” as an example. In a professional setting, you will say “Mr. Xi”. Most of the time, Chinese people are usually called by their full name. It is unlike an English name where it may seem awkward to always say the last name.
If you happen to be good friends, you could drop the surname and simply say “近平 Jinping”. This is because “习近平 Xi Jinping” is a three character name. However, if he had a two-character name like “习平 Xi ping”, you will still call him by his full name and not drop the surname.
Chinese Surname (姓 xìng)
There are a large variety of Chinese surnames, and most of them will come from history, occupation, or location. In Chinese, some characters are used more often than others for surnames. This is referred to as “百家姓 Bǎi jiā xìng” (literally translates as “Hundred Family Names”).
Common surnames that you may already be familiar with if you have Chinese friends include:
Chinese Given Name (名 míng)
Given names will usually be one or two characters with the rare occasion of three characters. These names are not differentiated into masculine and feminine and can often make it hard to tell the gender of a person.
There are some more obvious characters that can signify male or female, such as girls being named characters meaning beauty, birds or grace, whereas boys may be named after characters that resemble firmness, honour or strength.
Whereas in formal settings both surname and given name is used, in general, the Chinese culture will use nicknames in daily conversation. Parents will usually start calling their children a nickname when they are little, and is often derived simply from putting “小 xiǎo” (small) as a replacement for the surname. When the person gets older, nicknames will also begin to form within friend circles. It is common to put “老 lǎo” (old) for both older people or someone who deserves your respect.
It may take awhile to get used to the switch in order, but you should now have a clear idea of how and when to address people with their Chinese names!