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Chinese Names and Personal Branding for US Audiences

For most westerners, Chinese names are very difficult to figure out. They don’t know what is a family name, what is a personal name, the gender of a name, what order they’re supposed to go in, and especially for Americans, how to pronounce them. Given 1) that Chinese names are really the Chinese characters for the person, with the romanization only being an approximation, 2) there are two forms of the characters (Traditional: used in Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and other places of the Chinese diaspora, and Simplified: used in the People’s Republic of China) and 3) two forms of romanization (Pinyin: used in the PRC, and Wade-Giles: used in Taiwan), it’s confusing. This is why people think that they changed the name of the PRC capital from P’ek’ing to Beijing.  They are both actually pronounced the exact same way. They just changed from Wade-Giles to Pinyin.

This gets to be an issue with Chinese native speakers when they come to the west and the confusion about how to represent their names.  Many take an “English name” to help non-Chinese people (think of your “Starbucks name”, and you get it.). This name is like a nickname, but one that they tend to connect with and use all the time.  The problem is that I have seen many different ways that Chinese clients write it down, and in this day and age of search engine optimization and sourcing, it’s to the benefit of all job searchers to have one name they use consistently and is understandable to everyone.  For years, I have been giving suggestions to Chinese clients on a very simple way that they should put their names on their LinkedIn profiles, resumes, blog posts, social media, etc. so that it is obvious to readers what they should call them.  After many years of clients asking me to write it down, here it is.

One thing I have to say is that I do not believe that any person should feel like they have to take a new name. You deserve to be called by the name that you feel represents you, and that is 100% fine.  I’m not advocating for it one way or the other.  It’s a very personal choice. But if you do choose to take an English name and you want people to call you by that, you need to be clear to others what your desires are.

Let me go over standard naming conventions in the two cultures:

  • In most European-derived cultures, a person has three names, which we usually refer to as First Name, Middle Name, and Last Name.  Those really only represent the position of them, but that shows for us position is very important.  Your First Name is usually your “given” name, and the one that you want people to call you.  Your Middle Name is usually a second name that you can be called, but you don’t really tend to use other than on formal documents.  Your Last Name is your Surname or Family Name, and that is usually the name that you share with the rest of your family.
  • In Chinese culture, a person usually has a name consisting of three characters, although many only have two.  The first character is usually the Surname or Family Name.  The second (and third if there is one) is usually the Personal Name, and the usually are chosen so that they have a particular meaning.  For many Chinese, they will invert the order to comply with Western standards when they are here.  This is why journalists famously have made mistakes by calling PRC President Xi Jinping as Mr. Jinping, instead of the appropriate Mr. Xi.

I have seen Chinese clients write their names in all sorts of orders, using parentheses around their English Names, and this causes people to be really confused as to what to call people, because for Westerners, it’s all about the order of the names.  Therefore, I recommend that Chinese people do what many American-born Chinese people do, as many of them have an English and a Chinese name, and that would be:

  • Put the name you want to be called first. This could be your English Name or your Chinese personal name
  • Optionally, put your Chinese personal name as your Middle Name, as this way is it clear to people if they see your official government documents who you are, regardless of your English Name. I wouldn’t put an English Name in the middle, as if you don’t want to be called it, leave it out. You don’t need it!
  • Finally, put your Family Name last.

I’ll give an example using my own Chinese name. When I graduated from undergraduate school at Hamilton College, I left afterwards to live in Taiwan for a year, studying Chinese and teaching English. While there, I got a Chinese name that I could use.  In the style used in Taiwan, it would be Mah Chi-Juh (馬啟哲), but in the PRC it would be Ma Qizhe (马启哲).  They are both the same name and pronounced the same, but just represented differently.  The Family Name is the closest I could come to Mattsson, means Horse, and is a fairly common family name.  The two characters for my personal name translate roughly to something like “creator of new wisdoms” or “leader to new philosophies”.  I’d like to use this name as an example of how I would do this.

If I was a PRC resident named Ma Qizhe, and I chose the English Name of Kenneth, and I came to the US and wanted people to call me Kenneth (that’s more formal than Ken!), I would use it as I detailed above:

  • My First Name would be the name I would want people to call me: Kenneth
  • My Middle Name would be a legal name I would want them to see, but not want them to call me: Qizhe
  • My Last Name would be the Family Name: Ma

Therefore, I would use Kenneth Qizhe Ma (or Kenneth Chi-Juh Mah if I was from Taiwan) on my resumes, LinkedIn profile, social media, and anywhere that I would want to brand myself and have people be able to find me.  It also makes it easier on your audience to know what name you want to be called.  Granted, if I didn’t want to use an English Name, I would just list it as Qizhe Ma or Chi-Juh Mah.  They are actually a lot easier to pronounce once you hear them.

I’ve also seen some professionals successfully use the Chinese Characters along with their names on their LinkedIn profiles. An example is a former client, Jing Zhang, who is a marketing professional in Boston. Go check out her LinkedIn profile!

Again, the goal here is to be consistent and brand yourself so people can find you and make it easy on them to know how to address you.  Xie Xie! (謝謝!)

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