Chinese Family Names
Chinese family names represent the history, culture, and family memories. Chinese names are structured differently from the Western names, since they usually come first and are one syllable long, while given names are either one or two characters long. According to the most recent statistics, 87 % of Chinese population share 100 surnames, which are therefore the most common. According to Bloomberg statistics in 2013, the most used Chinese surname was 李 Lĭ (6,93% of population), followed by 王 Wáng (6,49% of population) and 张 Zhāng (6,19% of population).
No wonder if you meet more than one Mr. Li in your future trip to China.
The Chinese with western names?
You may have got in touch with someone named Lily Zhang or Jason Wu: are those people Chinese or not?
Actually, in order to avoid confusion or misspelling of their names, Chinese who deal with Westerns may adopt an English or western name. Be careful as this name won’t appear on any official document but it has a function of smoothing contacts between the two parties.
There may also be another explanation for having a western name: it is fashionable and considered cool!
Last but not least, sometimes the Chinese adopt also the western style of putting their given name first, so we may have Zedong Mao, instead of the more traditional version Mao Zedong.
Westerners with Chinese names?
It is quite a common practice for Westerners who study Chinese to have a Chinese name; but how to choose a correct one without creating embarrassing situations and funny or ridiculous misunderstandings?
First of all, it is fundamental to understand if you prefer an homophonic short transliteration of your native name, i.e. Mary may be 玛丽. In this case, the name sounds correct, nice but clearly “western”. If, on the contrary, you would prefer to choose a more typical Chinese name, it will be necessary to have a Chinese person you trust to consult in order to get a real and comprehensible name which won’t sound weird. It would be nice to understand the meaning of the Chinese characters which compose your name. Generally, hanzi which in some way represents you and your personality or conveys a meaning you intend to communicate.
Once you have your Chinese name, you may think to print it on your business card or digital sign: this will be helpful to Chinese partners who may not feel comfortable using your original name.
How to address a Chinese person?
In China, just like in Europe, addressing someone just by calling them by his/her surname is considered rude. Therefore, you may use Mr. 先生 or Ms. 女士 after the surname, i.e. Wang Rongyi will be Wang 先生. Calling someone with his/her given name in China is not a common practice because even relatives in China use nicknames.
If you have a good level of familiarity with Chinese names, you know the common practice of 小 (young) and vice versa 老 (old) followed by a family name, i.e. 小 Wang. In this case, young and old do not have literal meaning, but actually convey a wider concept linked with Chinese culture. The Chinese have a deep sense of honour code and social respect which is also shown in verbal communication, therefore if you hear a person greeting someone "老Wang”, this does not mean that Mr. Wang is old, but it conveys a deep sense of respect because of his position i.e. in a company or because of his wide experience in a specific sector. Thus, if you hear "小Li", this means that Mr. Li is younger than his interlocutor, but this word conveys respect and is present even among friends.
Anyway, remember that the polite way to address someone is to use his/her professional title and surname (eg. "Director Chen"). Of course, in China the surname will come first!