What can we tell from the evolution of Han Chinese names?
by Isabella Chua
“What’s your name?”
It’s an ordinary question that gets asked millions of times a day, not least by strangers, teachers, and foreign-language class students.
For anyone who goes by a Chinese name, their answer is quietly extraordinary. Not because of its content, but because it made the cut. After all, it was chosen out of more than 220 million options, mixed and matched from 14,872 Chinese characters.
Chinese names go like this: their syntax starts with a surname (conventionally inherited from the father’s family), followed by a given name made up of one or two (though sometimes up to four) Chinese characters. Each character also has a tone (indicated here as 1,2, 3, and 4), which tells you its pronunciation. For example, the Chinese equivalent of “John Smith”—a common English name in the United States—would be 王俊杰 (wang2 jun4 jie2).
Common sense helps eliminate millions of characters by excluding the downright rude and unpleasant ones. But the pressure to bestow a “good” name remains. For one, Chinese superstition suggests that a name can determine one’s lot in life.
Even for the non-superstitious, picking a Chinese name still requires care, as each character represents a self-contained word with its own specific meaning. So, while few would know offhand that my English name, “Isabella”, means “promise of God”, anyone with some proficiency in Chinese can tell that my Chinese name—欣蕊 (xin1 rui3)—means “to admire flower buds”.
Put simply, names encode the wishes parents have for their children. So, what were these wishes? For answers, I turned to the Chinese name database, which covers the surname and given-name characters for almost all 1.2 billion Han Chinese—the ethnic majority in China—individuals born between 1930 and 2008. I’ve focused only on given names here rather than surnames; given names are subject to parents’ discretion, whereas surnames are inherited.
The data came split into six birth cohorts—pre-1960, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s—which was important to my analysis. After all, names are not created in a vacuum, and parents draw inspiration from current events and what’s trending at the time. Seen in this way, it’s clear that names reflect the changing zeitgeist of China’s recent decades.
First, a quick primer on how Chinese characters work.
Most Chinese characters are pictophonetic, meaning they have (1) a picture-like radical that clues one in to the character’s meaning, and (2) a component that hints at its pronunciation. Take the character for “mother” (妈, ma1), for example—the character combines the “woman” (女, nv3) radical with the “horse” component (马, ma3).
Instructions for desktop user: Click on the character tile to see which decades the character appears in.
Characters that have been popular across all six cohorts conform to what we consider typical feminine and masculine traits.
Sons should be “open” and “forthright” (明, ming2), “ambitious” (志, zhi4), and “cultured” (文, wen2). Daughters, on the other hand, ought to be “beautiful” and “pristine” (玉; yu4). Other popular characters for women also invoke the idea of beauty: “plum” (梅, mei2), “fragrance” (芳, fang1), and, quite literally, “beautiful” (丽, li4).
However, popular characters for men and women are getting more gender neutral over time. After the ’80’s, babies sport gender-neutral radicals with meanings such as “water” (氵, shui3), “bird” (鸟, niao3), and “green” (青, qing1). Even radicals with gendered connotations are applied more loosely across the sexes after this decade. Daughters too are expected to be “excellent” (佳, jia1—with the “man” radical), “knowing” (晓, xiao3), and “cultured” (文, wen2), as women’s position in society rose with China’s modernisation.
Understandably, male names still do not sport the “woman” radical (女, nü). 女 explicitly refers to women, whereas the “man” radical (亻, ren2) is more flexible, as it refers to humans. However, we start seeing the “roof” radical (宀, mian2) appear from the 1990s on, in the “house” (家, jia1) and "universe" characters. Does this hint at a greater acceptance of more family-oriented men? That’s up for debate.
All that’s well and good—but we’re dealing with broad observations here. Let’s take it a step further. Are there trends in names that are emblematic of each birth cohort?
Calling China’s transformation from the 1930s to 2000s “great” would be a grave understatement. Even “epic" doesn’t quite cut it. In the span of 70 years, the Chinese people endured World War II, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the transition from revolutionary communism to a free market economy. These are all defining, cataclysmic events that affected practically all aspects of people’s lives—including what they name their children.
We look at the top 15 given names in each birth cohort to find their parallels with China’s historical happenings. Single-character given names such as 军 (jun1; army) are excluded to show given names in their full context—for example, 建军 (jian4 jun1; build army). Our analysis also does not focus on unpacking generation names, in which family members and relatives share a single character in their given names, as they too reflect the zeitgeists of each cohort.
That said, do keep in mind that given names are generally meant to be taken symbolically. Naming a child 海军 (hai3 jun1) doesn't mean that one literally wants them to become a navy soldier, although that’s possible. It’s more likely that one hopes that they will embody the traits associated with being a navy soldier and, perhaps, also serve in the armed forces in the future.
After decades of instability and humiliation under Japan’s colonial rule during World War II, China was getting back on its feet in the late ’40s and the ’50s. Mao Zedong’s Communist Party led the way; his First Five-Year Plan focused on rapid industrialisation and was a huge success. With communism at its core, China was healing and rebuilding itself.
How to read the chart: The first character of the given name is on the left, followed by the list of second characters linked to it in bar form. Click on the bars to see how many people had a particular name in each birth cohort. Click on the up and down arrows on the side to scroll through the text.
Following the success of the First Five Year Plan, Mao introduced the Great Leap Forward in 1958, meant to advance China’s innovation and economic output by reorganising rural production.
Unfortunately, it was a disaster which resulted in widespread famine and millions of deaths. To restore the people’s faith in socialism and protect his own standing, Mao aggressively promoted the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soon after.
From 1963, Mao called on all Chinese people to “learn from the PLA”, declaring the soldier communist as a model for the nation’s second- and third-generation leadership. This momentum continued with the spontaneous emergence of the youth-led Red Guards (红兵, hong2 bing1), who, empowered by Mao’s endorsement, fanned the flames of revolution in often reckless ways.
China was being pulled in two opposing directions during the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976. The Gang of Four, led by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, wanted China to revert to its revolutionary roots, whereas Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping believed that China had to modernise to succeed.
After Mao’s death in 1976, the Gang of Four was purged, and Deng’s Four Modernisations plan shot up the country’s agenda. It was a new and exciting time—China opened its economy and established diplomatic relations beyond the Communist bloc for the first time.
The 80s generation had it good. Termed the “little emperors”, they were born into a rapidly modernising China and were the only child in their families, after Deng mandated the one-child policy in 1979—although there were exceptions to the rule.
The one-child policy saw single-character given names peak in the 80s. It had been common for people to share a generation character with their siblings before this—three siblings, for instance, might be named 瑞奇 (rui4 qi2), 瑞林 (rui4 lin2), and 瑞杰 (rui4 jie2). With the one-child policy, many parents opted for a more direct single-character given name.
This was short-lived, however. Two-character given names became the norm again after the 1980s, after people realised that many others shared their names. It did not help that many Chinese characters are homonyms—distinct characters that are pronounced the same way. A generation of people thus grew up with “market names”—a colloquial term describing how calling out a common name can turn many heads in a crowded market.
Nevertheless, we can still glean interesting observations about this decade from its two-character given names.
After the events of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest, the CCP started a clean slate by ushering in the third generation of leaders led by Jiang Zemin. Jiang furthered Deng’s economic system of socialism with Chinese characteristics with his own macroeconomic reforms, elevating China’s economy to new heights.
The turn of the 21st century heralded a more confident and self-assured China. No longer an outsider to global superpowers, China earned its place as a world leader with how it dealt with the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and SARS pandemic, even as it joined various international organisations such as the World Trade Organisation and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
It’s hard to pinpoint which event will be immortalised through names during this decade—simply because too many important things were happening in China then. What’s more, thanks to the acceleration of globalisation (especially with the internet), the influences on names can come from anywhere in the world.
Only one way to find out—dive into the data.
Understanding why certain given names wax and wane makes for an interesting historical study—but it is, by nature, retrospective. These names are not so useful for current or future parents naming their kids, unless they want to be hipsters by naming their (unfortunate) children 建军 (jian4 jun1; build army), the top male name in the 1970s.
Luckily, every Chinese character has at least one self-contained meaning, and Chinese given names reflect the art of combining these characters. Here’s a chart of randomly selected 100 Chinese characters, scored by how much they connote warmth and competence. It’s a subjective rating by ten Chinese people, but it still gives an idea of the qualities that rank favourably.
I applied these character ratings to the top ten characters of each birth cohort, and found that the characters in the pre-1960s and 1960s scored slightly higher in competence than warmth. Characters from the 1970s onwards, in contrast, scored much higher in warmth than competence.
The ratings largely follow common sense. For instance, loyalty (忠, zhong1) scores high on both competence and warmth, whereas violence (暴, bao4) scores low on both. But does this mean well-meaning parents should avoid characters in the bottom left quadrant at all costs?
Counter-intuitive as it sounds, some parents deliberately choose “bad” characters for their children’s names. Because Chinese characters can be combined to form a phrase, two negative characters are sometimes used to neutralise each other’s negativity. Consider the name 莫愁 (mo4 chou2), which combines the characters for “not” (莫, mo4) and “worry” (愁, chou2). Parents may also juxtapose characters such as 松 (song1; loosen) and 仇 (chou2; hatred) which changes or inverts a “bad” character’s meaning entirely.
In the past, some parents would give their children “little names” to prevent evil spirits from taking their child away prematurely (i.e., the child dies young). The idea is that by lying low, their good and precious children will fly under the radar and live long lives. These little names don’t need to begin with the character 小 (xiao3; small); they could literally use anything small as a character. For instance, the grandparents in the 1994 movie To Live named their only grandson "steamed bun" to protect him from dark spirits.
We like to think of birth as a new beginning, one filled with endless possibilities. Perhaps this idea of endlessness is just too vast for a single, small person—so parents, our first guides to this new world, use names as compasses to show us the kind of people we should aspire towards becoming.
Concealed in each name, then, is a universe of stories. What leads each child’s parents to choose their characters from thousands of others? When we gather enough of these names, we begin seeing patterns—until eventually a tapestry of a nation emerges, evolving in time.
If all this talk about Chinese characters is making you curious about your own given name, type your characters into the search bar and compare their uniqueness against the contemporary Chinese corpus. These characters become less common in names as one reads from left to right, top to bottom.
Don’t have a Chinese name? Here’re some suggestions:
Jackie Chan (成龙, cheng2 long2), Fan Bing Bing (范冰冰, fan4 bing1 bing1), Jay Chou (周杰伦, zhou1 jie2 lun2), Lu Han (鹿晗, lu4 han2).
Update (10 April 2021): We updated the mobile version of the visualisations titled “Top 20 characters in male given names” and “Top 20 characters in female given names” to include corrections of Chinese characters.
Special thanks to Han-Wu-Shuang (Bruce) Bao for answering clarifications about the data and for his insights, with acknowledgements to 中国科学院心理研究所 · 人格与社会心理研究中心 (Center for Personality and Social Psychology, Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences) and 北京美铭科技有限公司 (Beijing Meiming Science and Technology Company).
Isabella loves to dig beyond what is ‘commonsensical’ or ‘natural’ to us, by looking at the larger forces (or even accidents), that may have structured these beliefs. A writer at Kontinentalist, she's particularly interested in social issues—religion, crime, identity, and food. While she strives to stay curious about the world by listening to podcasts and taking classes, she's happiest when eating pastries, cakes, and drinking tea.
Suri is a freelance vis developer currently living in Beijing. She enjoys using data and visuals.