“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.