Names that work in multiple cultures fascinate me. With the Chinese language and culture so different from our own (I write from the United States), this proves to be an interesting challenge. Because the language is tonal, the same English sound may have multiple meanings in Chinese. This applies to names as well, and almost any character with meaning may be used as part of a name.
With the Beijing Olympics now underway, I’ve put my mind to names that might work in English and Chinese. Some of these are a slight stretch, and pronunciations are approximate. I do not speak Chinese, so if you know more about this ancient and venerable culture, please don’t hesitate to bring comments, suggestions, and corrections to the table. Below I give some Chinese names, their meanings, and their assonant equivalent in English.
Yet this may be all for naught. The customs surrounding Chinese naming practices are vast and complex. Some families look to the grandparents to choose the name in honor of generations past or historical poetry to remind the family of its interconnectedness. Some people take into account the number of strokes a child’s name has. An increasingly common practice is to name a child after a celebrity or event, though this is largely frowned upon. It was also popular to use generation names for brothers and sisters when the Chinese had brothers and sisters.
Evidently, you can call it “it.” When Chinese families did have more than one child, many girls went completely without names and might be referred to merely as “five” or “six.” Another family of three girls that I read about named their daughters for things they hoped for the family: ”Bringing Son”, “Bringing Gold”, and “Bringing Silver.”
Most traditional namers take into account the child’s time, date, and place of birth, and aspirations for that child and for the family. The Chinese would never choose a name prior to the birth, for it wouldn’t be specific to the child, and could even draw bad spirits. In fact, before the birth a child is often given a false name with negative connotations to throw off the spirits. Then once the child is born, a family may consult with a feng shui name specialist, who will help determine what will be the best choice. The Chinese have five elements that balance one another: Metal, Wood, Fire, Water, and Earth. When a child is born, their birth chart is taken into consideration. They may have a lot of Fire, Metal, and Earth, but be lacking in much Water and Wood. The name can play an important role in bringing harmony, or yin yang, to the individual.
The list below may be of some assistance if you are looking for a similar sounding name in both Chinese and English. It does not take into account feng shui or the birth chart, but perhaps if you are adopting a child from China whose exact time of birth is unknown, a familiar sounding name with a pleasant meaning might be the next best choice. Admittedly, this is a tiny sampling from a strictly Western perspective and one has thousands of characters to draw from. Please be careful when pairing two characters so as to not make a new unintended word with unpleasant connotations. Be sure to check with a native Chinese speaker before bestowing a new name on your little one, as I would have liked to have done before publishing this post!
An- “peace”/ Anne- “grace”
Bai-”white, pure”/ Bay- Body of water
Chai Yenn- “rainbow” + swallow”/ Cheyenne
Da-Xia- “big hero”/ Daisy- White flower
Fen- “fragrance” / Fin- Which might work as a nickname for Finnuala, Finola, or Finlay
Jia- “beautiful”/ Gia- Italian short form of Giovanna, “God is Gracious”
Jiang- “river”/ Jane “God is gracious”
Jin- “golden”/ Many possibilities here: Jen or Gen, short for Jennifer/Genevieve “fair, white”, Virginia “virgin” after Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, Ginevra “white, fair” and “juniper”
Jun-”good-looking”/ June- Summer month named after the Roman goddess Juno.
Lan- “orchid”/ Lane or Lana
Lei- “flower bud”/ Leila, Leilani, and Lorelei can all yield Lei
Li- “beautiful”, “logic”/ Leigh, Lee- “meadow”
Lian- “a graceful willow”/ Leann- combination of Lee and Ann, “meadow” + “grace”
Li Li- “beautiful”/ Lily- like the flower
Lin- “fine jade”, “forest”/ Lynn- Welsh, llyn meaning “lake”
Li Na/ Lina works in three languages, Chinese, Arabic “palm tree” or “tender”, and Sanskrit “united”
Liu- “flowing”/ Lou-anything: Louise, Louisa- from the Germanic, Hludwig, “famous warrior”
Luan- “uprising”- LuAnn- Combination of Lou and Ann
Mai- “ocean” or “elegance”/ May, Mae- from the month and the Roman goddess Maia
Mei- “plum”/ May, Mae- see above.
Mei Xing- “beautiful star”/ Maisie- diminutive of Margaret and Maireed, “pearl”
Mei Zhen- “beautiful pearl”/ You could go with compound, Mae Jeanne, or Maisie, with the same “pearl” meaning!
On-”peace”/ Anne, Ana, Ona, all meaning “grace”
Shan- “coral”/ Shaun- ”consecrated to God”
Teegan- “beautiful”/ Teagan- Irish surname, “descendant of Tadghan”, which means “poet”
Wen- “culture, literacy”/ In English Win might be a nickname for Winifred “friend of peace”. Wren like the bird, would also be lovely.
Wing- “glory”/ Wing, like a bird’s wing
Yi-Min- “smart”/ Yasmin- Persian for “jasmine”, which has particular relevance to the Chinese and symbolizes happiness, affection, and beauty.
Yi-Ze- “happy”/ You might translate this to Lizzy with the classic and universally recognized Elizabeth (“consecrated to God”) on the birth certificate.
Bai- “cypress”/ Bay- Bay is both nautical and culinary
Bo- “precious”/ Bo, Beau- “handsome”, both are slightly nicknamey though I have known several with each as their given name.
Cai- “fortune”/ Cai, Kai- Another incredibly cross-cultural name, Kai means “keeper of the keys” in Welsh and “sea” in Hawaiian. The Ancient Roman Caius nn Cai is another fantastic option
Deshi- “virtuous man” / Desi could also be used as a diminutive for Desmond.
Enlai- “appreciation”/ The Germanic Henry “home ruler” and the Hebrew Adlai “God is just” are attractive possibilites.
Gan- “adventure”/ Gannon is derived from the Gaelic for “fair-skinned”
Huang- “rich”/ Juan “God is gracious” could work well for you Sino-Hispanic baby.
Jin- “gold”/ Jim is pretty outdated these days, but James ”supplanter” will likely never go completely out of fashion.
Li- “strength”, “logic”/ Lee “meadow”
Quon- “bright”/ Quinn “counsel”
Shen- “deep thinker”, “spirit”/ Shawn, Sean- “God is gracious”
Tai- “great extreme”/ Ty or Tyler ”roof tiler” would work well in middle America
Wen- “culture, literacy”/ Wyn- Welsh, “blessed, fair”
Xiao- “early morning”/ Joe and Joseph “he will add”
Zheng- “just, proper”, “government”/ Zane may be an equivalent of John, and it’s nice to keep the Zs consistent.
Zhong- “model brother, second brother”, “devoted”, “honest”/ John “God is gracious.” Versions of John prove to be pretty versatile when looking for an English equivalent of a Chinese name!