Names are more than arbitrary, random words used to identify individuals. The surnames can, and often do, indicate family relationships. The given names, although they can be arbitrary, also often indicate something about the parents’ wishes for and/or perceptions of their child.
In China today, 100 surnames dominate: making up 85% of the country’s total surnames. And remember, China has about 1.4 billion people. Compare this to the US where, according to the 2000 census, 151,00+ surnames make up only 3% of our population’s surnames! Think about how you feel when you meet someone with your same last name. There is a sense of connection. The same is true in China—although the connection may go back hundreds of years.
Traditionally and today, the Chinese put the family name (the surname) first and then the given name (personal name) second. So that, if a person is named Liu Xiao-lung à Liu is the family name and Xiao-lung is his personal name. In the United States, we would refer to this person as Xiao-lung Liu, putting the family name last. One way to figure this out, when you’re not sure, is to remember that in most cases the family name is one word. Often, although not always, the given name is two words—and usually NOT written with a – between the words, the way I have written Xiao-lung in this post.
What’s interesting about Chinese given names is that they often carry the hopes parents have for their children. The names are meaningful. Xiao-lung means Little Dragon and, therefore, symbolizes good fortune and success. Boy’s names are likely to reflect strength, good fortune, and whatever aspirations the parents have for him, for example, in intelligence or business success. For girls’ names, traditional parents may give their child a name which reflects a desire for her to be lovely in appearance or have a sweet, peaceful demeanor. For example, Xiang-lian would mean Fragrant Lotus Flower. This is changing for women today, however. I had a female friend whose given name was Xue-wen, Studies Literature (in the past, this was more of a boy’s name). And, indeed, she did have strong academic interests and abilities.
Therefore, as with names in the West, there are gender preferences. Xiang-lian is not a name a parent would give a boy, nor would Xiao-lung be given to a girl. No more than a typical American would name their girl child Stephen or the boy child Mary.
What about your name? What does it say about you and your family?