How to choose a Chinese name

A guide for non-Chinese people seeking a Chinese name to use in Taiwan. And how to avoid naming yourself “Euthanasia”…

An aisle of the Ri Xing Type Foundry, with floor-to-ceiling shelves of metal type on either side.
Rows of lead characters at the Ri Xing Type Foundry in Taipei. Photo: Zhen-Kang.

Mandarin Chinese is the dominant national language in Taiwan. With this in mind, I made a few assumptions when I decided to give myself a Chinese name:

  • It demonstrates my long-term commitment to Taiwan
  • It removes a barrier when meeting locals
  • It may be useful for forms and documentation that don’t allow enough characters for Western names
  • It’s cool

Given these factors, while attending a housewarming party in October, I made it all about me by co-opting Chinese-speaking friends to brainstorm name ideas.

I wanted a name that followed convention, and which would be “normal” from a Taiwanese perspective.

Chinese naming conventions

Chinese surnames comprise a single word. They come before given names, which comprise one or two words.

Two-word given names are more common than one-word given names in Taiwan.

Consider Tsai Ing-Wen (蔡英文), the president of Taiwan. Tsai (蔡) is her surname, with her given name comprising the words Ing (英) and Wen (文). In the West, she would be known as Ing-Wen Tsai.

When written in English, given names may be joined together (Ingwen), separated by a space (Ing Wen), or separated a hyphen (Ing-wen or Ing-Wen). Wikipedia suggests the former is most properly correct, but I suggest the latter is easier to read.

Although Chinese surnames have obvious family origins, parents can choose any one or two words for a child’s given name—not just conventional names, but literally any words—allowing for millions of possible combinations.

The danger of transliteration (and how to avoid naming yourself “Euthanasia”)

My surname, Smith, is commonly transliterated to the Chinese surname Shi (石), because it sounds broadly similar. This is a safe option for all Smiths, as it’s a common and neutral-sounding name that simply means “stone”. So when it came to choosing a surname, Shi was an easy and obvious (rock-solid) choice.

But choosing a given name was harder.

One friend, who’s a native English speaker but fluent in Mandarin, suggested transliterating my first name as well.

Thankfully another friend, who’s a native English speaker but more fluent in Mandarin, realized it sounded extremely similar to “euthanasia” (安樂死)—so we quickly killed that idea.

Choosing a given name

Some people choose a given name with spiritual or superstitious connotations; others may follow an idiosyncratic family convention, or simply pick words that sound nice together. But based on my near-miss with “euthanasia” and other horror stories, I don’t recommend transliteration.

Back at the housewarming party, as my friends bounced ideas around, everyone seemed to like “Zhen-Kang” (振康). It roughly translates to “rise up to good health”, which is fitting for a time of life change and personal growth.

It was important for me to know the name’s meaning because, apparently, Taiwanese strangers commonly ask the meaning of your name upon first meeting (along with your age, where you’re from, and whether you’re married).

And it’s trivial, but “ZK” is the registration prefix for New Zealand aircraft—a subtle nod to my home country, and something that appeals to me as a (very) former glider pilot.

Furthermore, the characters for “Zhen-Kang” are the same in both Traditional and Simplified Chinese (the writing systems used by Taiwan and China respectively). And although the spoken name is different in Cantonese, a friend confirmed it doesn’t have any negative connotations—death or otherwise.

So, “Zhen-Kang” it is!

Putting it all together

Shi Zhen-Kang (石振康) is now my Chinese name, even though I struggle to pronounce it.

I’ve been attending one-on-one Chinese classes over Zoom, and I had a new teacher yesterday. I introduced myself using my Chinese name, but my clunky pronunciation meant I had to write it in my notebook and hold it up the webcam before she could understand. That’s one complication I didn’t properly consider when choosing “Shi Zhen-Kang”: it’s a bit hard to pronounce.

“Shi” is said with an upward inflection, as if it’s the last word of a question. That’s relatively easy.

The “Zh” in “Zhen” is pronounced like the “j” in “jam”, but in a crashing downward manner. Like a patron snapping “gin!” at the bartender.

And then “Kang” has a high, steady tone (higher than would ever be used in normal English conversation). And it’s pronounced “kung”.

So while I can’t say my own name, I can at least write it in English and Chinese. And I assume that as my Mandarin improves, I’ll eventually be able to introduce myself without visual aids.

At least I won’t be known as Euthanasia in Taiwan.