Chinese Names - General Information
Choosing a Chinese name requires deep familiarity with Chinese culture and some creativity. Basically, one has to be a native speaker raised in one of the Chinese speaking countries to be able to make up a meaningful name that sounds pleasant and contains no negative connotations.
Chinese name culture is much more sophisticated than it might seem to someone from the western world.
A full name consists of:
One or two surname characters.
One or two first name character.
The surname always comes first. For example, Chairman Xi Jinping's surname is Xi 习 and Jinping 习近平 is his first name.
Most surnames are single-character, although you can come across two-character surnames, for instance, in hitsotrical TV dramas. Not every Chinese character can be part of a surname. In fact, there are only about a hundred such characters.
First names usually consist of two characters. There is more freedom as to what characters can be part of a first name than in the case of surnames. Of course they can't be chosen randomly as they need to agree with each other in tone and meaning, and complement the surname.
A carefully thought-out name is like a concise poem full of meaning and dulcet tones.
Names Tend to Be Unique
Parents want their children's names to stand out and instead of picking a name from the list of 100 most common Chinese names they prefer to create a new one themselves. They combine characters denoting the qualities they want to see in their child and reflect on how this particular set of characters would complement the surname and how pleasant the full name would sound.
Many parents consult with fortune-tellers, have them compile their children's horoscopes and follow those in the hopes that the name will bring luck and ward off evil spirits.
It also matters when and where the name is to be given. There are some trendy names, like 张伟 (Zhāng Wěi), which is now the most common Chinese name. But trends go out of fashion as quickly as they come in and a few years from now another name might become the most popular one. Besides, many parents surely want something more special for their son, so they will avoid names such as 张伟 (Zhāng Wěi). In either case, you need to feel the current cultural context if you are to give someone a Chinese name.
Mandarin vs Cantonese
There are two major dialects of the Chinese language.
Cantonese is spoken in some southern provinces of China, Hong Kong, and Macau.
Mandarin is spoken pretty much elsewhere. It is the most popular Chinese dialect.
The most remarkable thing about these two varieties is that even though they are mutually unintelligible in oral form, the written form and grammar are the same all over the Chinese world, which allows for 100% mutual intelligibility when people communicate in writing.
But what about names? In theory, they are also the same. Of course, they sound different in Mandarin and Cantonese, but by and large, a name that is valid in one dialect is also valid in the other. However there are exceptions. For example, one of the characters may interfere with its slang meaning in the other dialect, which results in the whole name being perceived as inappropriate in that dialect's region.
When choosing a Chinese name for a foreigner we also take into account how the name is going to be perceived by native speakers of both Mandarin and Cantonese.