Chinese Names: Generational Names, First Names, and Their Meanings

27 July 2023
by Ancestry® Team

Understanding Chinese names is a critical part of tracing your Asian heritage back through generations, but it can be daunting if the use of your family name is widespread. Interestingly, millions of people of Chinese descent share the same Chinese family names. In fact, approximately 30% of the Chinese population shares the same five most common surnames. 

The surname, or family name segment, of Chinese names signifies a connection to one’s family on the father’s side. Find out what your Chinese family name means and how you can use it to trace your roots.

How Do Chinese Names Work?

Chinese naming conventions lead to a different construction than Western names, with the family name coming first. The second name is assigned at birth by the family. 

Typically, the family name is one character and one syllable. This family name is passed down through generations to trace lineage and is often one of the many common Asian names that are shared among the Chinese population. However, there are a few occasional exceptions to the one character and one syllable rule, like the names Owyang and Szeto.

The given name is a unique signifier of a person’s identity and personality, but it can also represent the decade in which a person was born. The given name, which usually consists of two Chinese characters, always comes after the single character of the family name when written down. But when addressing a person verbally, you refer to them by their given name.

Ancient Chinese names came from clans in China at that time. Many Chinese use generational names, which are shared by people in the same lineage and generation. For example, all the male descendents of one person may be given the same first character of their names. However, each of these male descendents would be given a unique second character, and these names are often determined by a generational poem. 

An understanding of Chinese generational names can be helpful in determining whether people are closely related. If the two people share the same first character to their name, they’re likely siblings or first cousins. This information can be especially useful if you have access to a family tree book, known as a Jiapu or Zupu. 

Chinese Girls Names

Chinese mother, daughter and children in fine costume, ca. 1900
Chinese mother, daughter and children in fine costume, ca. 1900

Given names are chosen by the parents with certain considerations in mind. The visual appearance of the name’s characters, along with how it sounds when spoken and its meaning, all contribute to the choice. 

These are the most popular Chinese girls’ names given to newborns in China in 2021:

  1. Ruòxī (若汐): This name means “to resemble the night tide.”
  2. Yīnuò (一诺): This name means “promise” or “one promise.” 
  3. Yìhán (艺涵): This poetic name can mean “beautiful and elegant” or “mellow art.” 
  4. Yīnuò (依诺): A slight variation of the #2 ranking name, this name means “to keep a promise.” 
  5. Zǐhán (梓涵): The meaning of this name in Mandarin is “mellow catalpa tree.”
  6. Yǐmò (苡沫): This name can mean “bubbles” or “a splash of.”
  7. Yǔtóng (雨桐): This is a nature name referring to rain and a Firmiana Simplex tree found in China. 
  8. Xīnyí (欣怡): This name means “joy” or “happiness.” 
  9. Yǔtóng (语桐): The same pronunciation as the name ranked at #7, but when written in Chinese characters, appears slightly different and takes on a new meaning. This version only refers to the Firmiana Simplex tree found in China (not the rain).
  10. Yǔxī (语汐): This is a poetic name that translates to “speak night tide.”

While some of these Chinese female names appear similar when written out in this form, they come from very different Chinese characters and possess unique meanings. 

Chinese Boys Names 

Much like the Chinese girls’ names, these Chinese male names and surnames often resemble one another when spelled out in these letters. But when written in Chinese characters, there are nuances between them (for example, #1 and #3) that makes them two distinct names with different meanings and visual appeal. 

These Chinese boy names were the most commonly given in China at birth in 2021:

  1. Mùchén (沐宸): The most popular of names for Chinese boys means “to bathe in celestial abode.” 
  2. Hàoyǔ (浩宇): The second most popular of the Chinese male names given in 2021, means “vast universe.”
  3. Mùchén (沐辰): The slight variation in Chinese characters on this version of the name changes the meaning to “bathing in sun and stars.” 
  4. Míngzé (茗泽): This name means “tea leaf benevolence.” 
  5. Yìchén (奕辰): This name means “grand sun, moon, and stars.” 
  6. Yǔzé (宇泽): This name can mean “universe benevolence” or “elegant, bright light.” 
  7. Hàorán (浩然): This name means “awe-inspiring vastness.”
  8. Yìzé (奕泽): The name can mean “goodness,” “kindness,” or “grand benevolence.” 
  9. Yǔxuān (宇轩): This poetic name means “high universe” or “lofty universe.” 
  10. Mùyáng (沐阳): This name means “to bathe in the sun.” 

Chinese Names and Meanings

The trends in Chinese names and meanings have resulted in many similar characters, sounds, and letters in the most popular names for each gender. They are often inspired by beautiful sounds, things found in nature, or positive personality traits. Chinese names are considered the prettiest when they are visually and verbally pleasing and mean something beautiful or poetic. However, it’s important to note your Chinese ancestors may not have had the same names as the names listed here since they wouldn’t have necessarily been popular during the era they were born. 

The three most common Chinese last names and meanings are:

  1. Wang (王): This name means “King.” 
  2. Li (李): This surname means “Plum Tree.”
  3. Zhang (张 or 張): The name means “To draw a bow.” 

Popular Chinese Names and Trends

Children, China, ca. 1920
Children, China, ca. 1920

Since 2016, the naming trends for both genders in China have shifted due to the end of the one-child policy. Poetic character names containing “zé,” “zǐ,” and “mù” are trending. This is reflected in the current list of the top 10 Chinese names popular for both genders.

Common Chinese Names

China is a vast nation with 23 provinces, five autonomous regions, and two special administrative regions, and common names vary throughout the country. Within these different areas, names differ in terms of how common they are and where they originate. 

The top five surnames in China are:

  1. Wang
  2. Li
  3. Zhang
  4. Liu
  5. Chen

The top three names are associated with the Han dynasty and are more heavily predominant in the country’s northeastern provinces. Liu is most prevalent in China’s Jiangxi province. The fifth most common name, Chen, is most heavily found in the country’s southeastern provinces. 

Unique Chinese Names

There are some Chinese names unique in both sound and spelling. But while some Chinese names sound unusual when translated into English, it’s important to consider how they sound and what they mean in Mandarin to appreciate the name properly. 

For example, put the name Dēnglóng (灯笼) into a Chinese names generator, and you’ll quickly find out it means “Lantern.” While the pronunciation is unique to the English-speaking ear, it’s a beautiful name that provides cultural significance, as lanterns symbolize vitality and good luck. 

Discovering Your Chinese Roots Through Your Name

While many people of Chinese descent share the same generational name, it is still possible to trace your Asian heritage using your family name. The first step is to find out what your name looks like in Chinese characters, because each symbol can contain nuances that may set your Chinese name apart from other similar generational names. 

It’s also useful to know which dialect your ancestors spoke and have some information about the origin of your family or clan. For example, if you know your ancestors lived in northeastern China, this narrows down which clans you descended from. You can also consider DNA testing with AncestryDNA® for this purpose, as it can be used to find where your family may have lived, right down to specific regions or communities in China. 

However, it’s important to note that many Chinese immigrants between 1882 and 1943 were forced to resort to “paper names” to try claiming they were related to those who said they were born in America—which would make them U.S. citizens. Many Chinese Americans are descended from these “paper sons” and “paper daughters,” which can make genealogical research challenging. If your ancestors immigrated to the U.S. during this time, it’s important to talk to family members to determine whether these are really the family names. 

Build your family tree and learn more about distant relatives. Explore your Asian roots today with a free trial of Ancestry® and begin tracing your heritage.