English Names In China

Why do Chinese choose English names? From a quick, informal, non-scientific poll of my Chinese friends and coworkers, everyone wants a distinctive name. Many Chinese do it well. Kylie, Hunter, Lena, and Abbot aren't popular names, but they're not ludicrous or like someone threw a dart at a dictionary.

Most Chinese individuals either obtain their name at an early age from their parents or a good-natured English instructor and don't have much influence over it, or they chose a name later in life because it will be advantageous in their career. The latter has the most bizarre names. In a country of a billion-plus, that's a reasonable, though quixotic, objective. Do you want to be called iPad?


Many of my Chinese acquaintances chose their English names because they loved the sound.

Several claimed they liked a Chinese term and opted to adopt the English version, whether it's a real name or not. This is why you could encounter Chinese woman called Pretty or Beautiful or men titled Hero or Huge Muscles.

Lily for (li li), Ally for (ai li), and David for translate nicely from Chinese to English (da wei). All of these are plausible, so let's go on.

Any rose...

This is a Freakonomics concept. In their book, Steve Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner discuss the socioeconomic patterns of naming children, especially if having a “black” name like Roshanda or Shaniqua might inhibit upward social mobility owing to institutional stereotypes. (Their verdict was "no, kind of")

While this is a loaded theory affected by American racial prejudice, the main idea—"nominative determinism"—is worth discussing in our crazy Chinese people's English names thesis. If your name is Peach Fuzz or something like, it must damage your professional possibilities, particularly if you wish to work abroad. Foreign or Chinese businesspeople with a good grasp of English won't take you seriously. Chinese tread a narrow edge between having a strong, distinctive English name and tripping into the ludicrous, hurting their career choices.

Maybe I'm spouting nonsense. Hong Kong singer Angelababy drowns in money every night, so MoonKnight Chen might be next.

What's the point?

With more foreigners working in China and learning Chinese to play Chinese ball, would English names for Chinese people be necessary? A foreigner in contemporary China says, "Chinese names are too hard to remember!" Okay. Remember their Chinese names and quit being jerks. Four syllables at most.

Let's make it more acceptable for Chinese individuals to have Chinese names, even alongside foreigners. "But they have English names," you remark. "I'll remember that!" Fair enough, but there's no reason to expect a 55-year-old SOE sales manager to invent an English name he's never used.


This article is intended as humor. Wherever languages and cultures mix, there will be disagreements about whether names are "appropriate" or acceptable. This "crazy names" phenomenon isn't limited to Chinese selecting English names. I've known several Westerners with unusual Chinese names (looking at you, Mr Yi Ersan...). No hard feelings?

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