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.

 

BOYS

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!

16 Responses to “Names for Your Chinese-American Baby”

  1. kbro Says:

    I don’t know if I’m right or not but I thought Mai was “my” not “may”.

  2. youcantcallitit Says:

    You probably are right about that pronunciation. In which case, Maia could work beautifully.

  3. Nicole Says:

    You did a great job explaining the array of naming traditions within the Chinese culture. In our family, my husband’s parents picked Chinese names for our girls using the number of brush strokes that are considered lucky based on their date and time of birth. My husband’s name was chosen by his grandparents based on what elements he needed in the characters to “balance” him. He and his cousin (who is 4 months older) have one character in common signifying their “brotherhood.”

    It is very difficult to translate Chinese names into English without knowing Chinese, since they do not use the same sounds from Chinese to English. For example “An” is pronounced Ahn more similar to Ana then Anne. “Jia” is pronounced closer to Jah then Gee-uh because the two syllables are slurred together.

    Great post with some beautiful names.

  4. youcantcallitit Says:

    Nicole, I am so glad you read this and approve. That means a lot coming from someone who is the mother of Chinese-American babies! Good to hear my research paid off. Any favorites from the list?

  5. Nicole Says:

    Favorites… My husband is called An-An by his family. It is a pet name for him, so I am partial. I also love the way Bai and Cai sound. I won’t ever get to choose a Chinese name for my children so I don’t spend too much time searching for the perfect name. My in-laws have picked two very beautiful names for my girls so I can’t complain. Yihua (E-hwah) and Nifei (Nee Faye). Names like Li, Huang, Lin,and Jin are common last names in our social circle so I have never considered them as first names.

  6. youcantcallitit Says:

    Oh, I love An-An! I did read that a double name like that was often used as a pet name. It’s cute that your husband still goes by it with family. Do Bai and Cai rhyme with sky or hay? Cai seems to transition so well here, and sounds really modern. Love your daughters Chinese names, neither one of which of course are familiar to me but that probably goes without saying. They sound ethereal. Probably best you’re not given the task of choosing both an English and a Chinese name for your children. I say, leave it up to the experts! They’re clearly in very good hands.

  7. n. a. lim Says:

    hi.

    I really enjoyed reading this article and could not resist responding. I am a Chinese Malaysian and I have always been fascinated by the meaning behind Chinese names. I knew most of the facts you mentioned from my grandmother, and I still found this to be an interesting read.

    on a side note though, ‘Bai’ sounds more like ‘bye’ than ‘sky’. There’s also a high pitch emphasis on the long i sound. Same with ‘cai’.

    Jin is pronounced ‘Che ING’, with a hard C sound, rather than a J.

  8. annomous Says:

    Mei would be May

  9. Thanks Says:

    I was randomly doing research on Chinese American baby names (I’m 1/4th Chinese, 1/4th Japanese, 1/2 Caucasian) because I want to find a name for my future daughter. My Popo (grandmother) is Chinese American and named all her kids with American first names and Chinese middle names. I have no idea if she did the practice of figuring out what to name them but this site was very informative. My mother also named me with an American first name and my middle name starts with Mai. Hopefully after reading this I’ll be able to keep my heritage going and be able to figure out how to name my future girl. Thanks for the great post!

  10. Thanks Says:

    Also, I wanted to mention that we pronounce Mai like “my”. But I’ve also heard it pronounced “may” so that might just be a choice by parents. I know I prefer “my” over “may”.

  11. youcantcallitit Says:

    That means so much for me to hear you say that. I do hope this is informative. Admittedly I am not Chinese, so this information is all researched, but I always hope to help people find names that work in multiple cultures.

  12. youcantcallitit Says:

    Can’t wait to hear your list!

  13. Sarah Says:

    Thank you for your list, I am doing some research for a friend who wants her Chinese baby to have an “American” name and I think she will appreciate hearing some of these.

  14. Jeff Says:

    Im finding it harder to come up with a boys name that’s Chinese American than a girls name. Anyone have any suggestions. The only good idea we have is Renli.

  15. Amanda Says:

    I loved your site. I am trying to write a novel. A Chinese family are involved and I was battling to find names. You have been so helpful. Thank you so much.

  16. Alexandra Says:

    We gave my son a chinese middle name and it had to be one that his American dad could pronounce as well as be a 2 character name. We settled on E-Lai (Pronounced Eli) which means Justice Cometh in chinese.

    Other considerations were E-Wan and I-wen

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