What’s in a name

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” So says Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Actually, in many parts of the world, people’s names are used and written in a way that probably could surprise Shakespeare. Allow me to explain from my own Chinese perspective:)

In China, Japan, Korea, and probably Vietnam, the terms last name and first name can be confusing, as they are not synonymous with given name and surname used in the West. In these countries, people use surname first, followed by his/her given name. So when somebody in China calls me, s/he would call me Ji Haidong, not Haidong Ji, because Ji is my surname and Haidong is my given name.

Chinese names usually are composed of 3 Chinese characters. Surname, in most cases, is just one character, whereas given name usually has 1 or 2 characters, with 2-character given name probably more common. Given name almost never has more than 2 characters. In my case, my given name is 海东.

Sometimes the first character of the given name indicates the generation of the person. This is more true in older times and is rarely practiced nowadays, probably only in rural or remote areas. If I were named that way, the first character of my given name would have been Guang 广, not Hai 海.

In translating names to English, different countries have different conventions, although they are not strictly enforced. Most Chinese names are translated into English following the English convention, given name first, followed by surname. My name is translated that way. However, sometimes famous people get different treatment;) Yao Ming is a good example. Yao is his surname. Ming is his given name. Mao Zedong is another example.

Mainland China translates names into English using the Pinyin system. (I think Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other Chinese speaking regions are probably doing the same now. They used a different system or systems before.) If a given name has more than one Chinese character, the translation of the characters will be combined to form one word. In my case, Haidong is actually the combination of Hai 海 and Dong 东.

Chinese women don’t change their last names to their husbands’ after marriage. Children usually use their father’s surname.

I believe Korean names generally follow the same rule. But it appears that when translating into English, the surname is still placed in the front, unlike Chinese name translations. For example, my personal favorite dictator is called Kim Jong Il. It is only fitting since he is such a sick person;) And South Korean president is named Roh Moo-Hyun in English publications. I could be wrong on this, because once again, famous people may get a different treatment.

Japanese names are usually written in kanji (Chinese characters). Like Chinese and Korean names, surname comes first. Based on my experience, the length, in terms of how many Chinese character it has, can vary quite a bit, usually from 3 to 5 characters.

I am not sure how a Japanese name gets translated into English. But I suspect the given name is placed first.

My name certainly sounds strange in the west. My last name is also kind of strange in China. It is not a common surname. That will give you an idea how special I am;)

32 responses to “What’s in a name”

  1. For Japanese names, it seems to depend on who’s using the name. Also, which name is used seems to depend, as well. The classic example is Ichiro. Suzuki is his surname. However, Ichiro is what is on his uniform. So unlike most MLB players, Suzuki Ichiro has his given name on his uniform. But note that his former teammate, Sasaki Kazuhiro, had Sasaki on the back of his uniform. This carries over into how the players are referred to in sportscasts. When they’re talking about Suzuki Ichiro, it’s always Ichiro. However, when they’re talking about Matsui Hideki, for instance, it’s always Matsui.

  2. Thanks for sharing that Brian. I didn’t know it.

    I guess there are a number of Japanese baseball players here. Baseball must be big in Japan, probably South Korea also.

  3. well, for Ichiro, it is more of a stylistic convention. Even in Japan, everyone calls him by his given name Ichiro. I’ve heard he insists on it, kind of like those Brazilian soocer players.

    As far as Taiwan, they mostly use a Wade-Giles hybrid system. The good news is that they don’t ban pinyin anymore. I wish they would go ahead and adopt it. What really annoys me are Western academics who insist on using Wade-Giles in this day and age.

    In HK they use a different system when transcribing Cantonese names and places, but they do use pinyin when dealing with Mandarin.

  4. Yup, I wish Taiwan use pinyin altogether, especially given that the ISO has a adopted pinyin as the standard romanization for Chinese.

    Wade-Giles bothers me a little also. Western publications should really follow the standard, which is pinyin nowadays.

  5. It would be interesting to know how the surname-given name thing works out relative to the degree to which a culture emphasizes individual identity.

    My impression is that traditional Chinese sees the Family as more of a unit, and individuals within that family are seen as parts of the family, THOUGHT of … conceived as existing, as parts of the family unit. So, the individuals … they are all Ji first, right?

    Whereas … liberal Western thinking emphasizes individuality … Danny is Danny first, and his family Howard is the secondary concern.

    But then, I may be guilty of making stuff up, and assuming that Chinese are more exotic than they really are. 🙂


  6. Heh, that’s an interesting idea that I never thought about, and I think there is some truth to it.

    I won’t take too much into it, though 🙂 mainly because it is a simplistic way of looking at things. In some regions of the world, there are people who don’t have a family name. And that does not mean family honor is not important to them.

  7. […] On the way out, I saw a bunch of school children on a field trip. They were very curious of me. A few children asked “What’s your name” and “How old are you?”. That was apparently something they learned from their English textbook. And they were eager to practice on this Chinese. There was no point in telling them my adopted English name, so I told them my name and age in Chinese. I then managed to say “Chino” while pointing at myself a few times. That seemed to make them even more curious. A few ran away and told their friends about it. A few more then came over and asked the same questions. Some also told me “My name is so and so”. I managed to count 1 to 10 in Spanish, just to amuse them a little bit. There were a lot of giggles and excitement among them. A good time was had by all. […]

  8. Jordan in Chinese is 乔丹.

    Hope your browser can display it. You may need Chinese/East Asian language support to read it.

    BTW, Mandarin is the standard spoken Chinese dialect. One can speak Mandarin, but cannot write in it 🙂

    Jordan can be a popular female name, but don’t be surprised that non-English speaking people assume it to be a male name, courtesy of that famous basketball player with a given name Michael.

  9. Yo… We have the same Character for a last name. I’ve never seen anyone with this same last name thats outside of my family. Out of curiosity, is 季 a rare surname among Chinese people?

  10. Hah, so we are 本家.

    Yes, 季 is indeed a rare surname in China, but it appeared to be a fairly old surname. For example, in Analects of Confucius (论语), one of Confucius’ disciples is named 季康子.

    I am assuming you are a Chinese-American. If so, I am curious to know which region in China are your ancestor from.

  11. …so what does Ji mean??? sorry if you or someone or whatever had mentioned in this… i just scrolled through everthing :p

  12. Thanks, Ms. K

    Ji’s original meaning is Season, as in Spring Season (Ji), Summer Season (Ji), etc.

    Like most cases in the west, the original meaning of Chinese people’s last name is not important anymore. People tend to spend more time in selecting one’s first name.

  13. There’s a whole village named 季 in Shandong Province, and for good reason… just about everybody there has that name. But I’ve never met anybody else with the name before. I was wondering if this website had to do with that village – guess not!

  14. Thanks for the comment Ji Dan.

    Sounds like there are more than one Ji Villages in Shandong province, I am from the Ji Village in Zaozhuang city, located in the southern part of Shandong. I was born and grown up there, that is why I named my site that way.

    I wonder which Ji Village you are referring to and which city it is at…

  15. Looks like there is more than one village! The one I’m talking about is on the northern coast, between Longkou and Laizhou. Still, I bet they’re connected at some point in the past.

  16. I am curious if you, or your parents, are from there then. Great to see another Ji here, I assume you are in the States.

    Drop me an email, if you don’t mind. I’d be happy to learn more about my clan between Longkou and Laizhou.

  17. I am a Ji by marriage so to speak – I use the surname occasionally. My father-in-law grew up there, he lives in Chicago now. I’ll send him your email address & see if he’s interested.

  18. Thanks Ji Dan. That’s great! I’d love to meet him.

  19. Dongji,

    This is an interesting site. In your previous post, you stated that Mandarin is a spoken language but you cannot write in it. I beg to differ. Mandarin has become the standard written language (vernacular) after the May 4th movement. Accordingly, it is also possible to write in Cantonese (no, it’s not just a spoken language). Written Cantonese, in general, cannot be understood well by Mandarin speakers (unless they know Cantonese) because the vocabulary, grammar and even some characters can vary wildly differently from Mandarin.



  20. Alex, I disagree with you. And it is a difference on the definitions of terms. The terms can be confusing.

    It is 白话文 (as opposed to 文言文) that became the vernacular after the May 4th and the New Culture Movement (新文化运动). Mandarin (国语, 普通话) is a dialect in the Beijing area, and became the official standard of spoken language.

    When one writes, one writes Chinese characters, just like I wouldn’t say an Aussie writes in Australian whereas an American writes in American. They are all English, although they may have some grammar or spelling differences, but they are English nonetheless.

    Cantonese, like Min Nan Hua (used in south east Fujian and Taiwan) and others, is a dialect that can have different grammar and tones in speeches. And each dialect may use certain Chinese characters while other characters don’t, although I doubt the number of those characters is high. When you put them on paper, they are Chinese characters, no matter which region you are from, and I’d say 99 percent of the time, the written language follows pretty much the same grammar rule no matter where you go.

    In the comment where I answered the question of “how do I write Jordan in Mandarin”, I pointed out that you need to write it in Chinese, just like I won’t ask the question of “how do I write my Chinese name in Australian”.

    — Haidong

  21. 季先生,你好!Hope i use the correct character as your Surname. I just want to ask something, you have said that nowadays that most people in China use Pinyin to translate their names into english name. So how about the others that that have the names like “Amanda Liu” which her name in Chinese is “刘瑾“。I am a Filipino working here in Qingdao Shandong, and the Chinese Government usually gives 外国人for every foreigner who have the Alien Emplyment Permit in order to work here in China. So how did they manage to give me “罗思科”as my Chinese name? My english name is Roman Francia, I know my Chinese name and English name have some thing in common if you are going to listen on how they pronounce it. And how about if my Chinese Friends wanted me to give them english names? Is it possible to have a translation for that?Not the literal meaning of the Character used in their names.


  22. Welcome to China Roman! I hope you enjoy your time in Qingdao and my home province!

    I think some Chinese give themselves English nick names for 2 reasons: 1. it is easier for non Chinese speaking people, 2. it is kind of cool. I named my alter ego “Alex” here in the US, so people can call me Alex if they find Haidong too hard to remember or pronounce.

    I’ve no idea why they translate your name to 罗思科. I think there should be some standard to follow when translating western names to Chinese. I don’t know what the standard is.

    罗曼 seems like a pretty close translation of Roman.

  23. wow, i never thought i would meet anyone else with my last name. this is really cool. hey there mr ji hai dong.

  24. Welcome Ken to my blog!

    Jis of the world, unite! One of those days I will build an overseas Ji association!

  25. How would my first name, Benjamin, and its short-form Ben, be translated as in Chinese (of course, to a Chinaman, he would read my full name as “Edge Benjamin” given the whole surname/given name thing there)? Also, what about my surname, Edge?

    Bear in mind my given name is of Jewish/Hebrew origin, and it means “son of the right hand” (I am right handed, indeed, so to speak).

  26. Hi Benjamin Edge, my son’s name is Benjamin too. It’s a great name, isn’t it.

    As to the Chinese translation, Benjamin is 本杰明, which sounds like Benjamin in English as well. The first character, 本, has the meaning of root, base. The second character, 杰, means excellent, impressive. And the third character, 明, means brightness. Ben is simply 本.

    Not too sure how to translate Edge. I will have to consult some translation guideline to come up with something. Most likely it will be mapped to a few Chinese characters that sound somewhat similar to Edge in English.

  27. hiya! just stumbled onto your website cause i’ve been really curious about my last name. i’m also a JI =) but i’m not chinese, i’m actually korean and part russian. lol, anyway, i was wondering if all ji’s regardless of regions were somehow related? and i’m pretty sure ji’s a chinese surname since it first originated from china. i don’t know many ji’s and it’s always very amusing to find other people with the same last name cause it’s so rare! i used to hate it cause it was kinda funky sounding, but i’ve grown to really adore it.<3 it's short, simple and unique. i'd really like to know more about the origins of this surname. thanks bunches!

  28. Hey Hana,

    Good seeing you here.

    Yes, we JIs are very special, aren’t we?! It’s great and important to feel good about one’s identity yet not being arrogant or feeling inferior, isn’t it?

    Well, I am sure we are related. In fact, if we trace back long enough, every single person in this world is related in that we probably all hail from Africa 🙂

    I am not sure if you could read Chinese, but this page provides some information that you may found interesting.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if your branch of JIs came from China. For example, one can find the surname 黄Huang in both China and Korea (among many others, 金,赵,李,郑, etc.). I read recently that the Huangs in Korea appear to originate from Henan Province 河南省, China.

    I am curious where you are from, ’cause outside of the Korean peninsula, there are ethnic Koreans in Northeast China, Japan, the US, and many other places.

    Cheers Hana, and good luck!

    PS. btw, I am amazed how a blog entry from almost 6 years ago still touches people today. Really kinda cool!

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