Foreigners using Chinese names is a custom dating back to the Tang Dynasty. We do it for the same reasons some Chinese use English names overseas — they’re easier for locals to pronounce and facilitate cross-cultural connections. In other words…when in Rome, do as the Romanians do.
Most of us live with whatever name our parents picked for us, way before they even met us in person. We might secretly wish for a different name, one which resonates more with how we see ourselves. Not everyone gets it right.
Here’s the Good News:
Come to China and no matter how old you are, you have the golden opportunity to rename yourself! This with no risk of angering your parents back home.
Here’s a 3-step process most foreigners follow on how to choose a Chinese name:
Find a Chinese friend with a good vocabulary whom you trust.
Select a Chinese surname which sounds similar to your Western surname, e.g. Bell = Bèi, Garcia = Gāo, Maalouf = Mǎ , Vincent = Wēn.
Add two more sound-alike characters to reflect some positive aspect of your character.
Stephanie Smith could become Shí Jìngyí 石静怡 (meaning stone, quiet and joyful) and Jason Sutherland could become Sū Jiéshèng 苏杰胜 (meaning revive, outstanding and victorious).
That’s all there is to it. Choose a Chinese name wisely and others will be unable to tell by name alone whether you’re Chinese or not. There are plenty of ways to run amok, however, such as trying to be cute with a novelty name. We’ll leave it to you to determine if the following westerners have succeeded or not:
It’s worth saying that a foreigner calling himself Jīn Mào in Shanghai is the equivalent of a Chinese in Paris calling herself Eiffel Tower. Kinda dumb, but at least memorable.
Whatever name you choose, you might find your Chinese friends and co-workers start calling you a name which begins with lǎo 老 (old) or xiǎo 小 (small). If someone calls you Lǎo Lǐ 老李, it doesn’t mean you’re old, just that you’ve come a long way, have knowledge to share and people can trust you. It’s a mark of respect. Just the same if someone calls you Xiǎo Wáng 小王, that doesn’t mean you’re small, inexperienced or insignificant. It just means you possess youth (compared with the person addressing you) and suggests a certain fondness. Hang in there and maybe someday people will call you Lǎo Wáng 老王. It’s all good.