Apparently it is the custom, when you speak Chinese, to give full names as Family-Name Given-Name, unlike the European (and Arabic etc.) order. However, people with Chinese names interacting in English, with Europeans, sometimes reverse their names to conform to the common European practice.

My question is: When you see a Chinese name (translitered, of course) - how can you tell which name has been placed first (if that is at all possible)?


3 Answers 3


The most common type of Chinese name uses one character or syllable for the family name and two characters or syllables for the given name. E.g. MAO Zedong, ZHOU Enlai and XI Jinping. If this applied to all Chinese names, it would be easy to figure out which part is the family name and which part is the given name.

However, names consisting of one character / syllable for the family name and one character / syllable for the given name also exist, e.g. GONG Li, ZHU De, LI Ming and MA Yan. In this case, you need to know the most common Chinese family names that use just one character (e.g. Ma / 马). (This can be done more reliably in Chinese characters than in transcriptions.)

Finally, Chinese family names that consist of two characters also exist, for example OUYANG Yuqian and SZETO Kam-Yuen.

So if you want to be certain, you need to ask. Or you can hope that they wrote their family name in uppercase, as I have done in the above examples. (Or learn Chinese in order to learn to recognise common names...)

  • FWIW, the people I met in Hong Kong with two syllable family names were Szeto (Situ) and Auyang (or Ouyang?). I don't think there are many others.
    – Dennis
    Commented Nov 13, 2016 at 22:36
  • One-character names still abound. In fact it was the only type of name possible until about 1000 years ago. Also many Pinyin for surnames are also used widely in first names as well.
    – xji
    Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 21:49

I always write my family name first, but in capital letters. This way it should be pretty clear to people that is my surname.

Otherwise there's simply no reliable way to tell. One-character names are very common (in fact it was the only type of first name up to until about 1000 years ago, when due to influence from northern minorities two-character names were introduced). Also, Pinyin spellings for surnames can very well be used to mean some other characters that constitute first names. Some surname characters can even be routinely used in first names as well.

So no. There's no universal way to tell unless for example they write their surnames in capital letters. I really wish people would adapt a common standard. The current situation is just chaotic. It doesn't help that in the past 10-20 years for some reason English names were very popular for Chinese, at a time when most Chinese speak horrible oral English; it makes no sense and muddles the water further. Though from what I observe, in recent years there has been a movement to use original names once again and write surnames first in general, especially for Chinese living in the US at least.

  • Thanks for that perspective. The most embarrassing thing for me is when I've already asked someone which name is his/her first, and then I forget after a while and I just don't have the nerve to ask again :-(
    – einpoklum
    Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 22:02
  • @einpoklum It's actually not such a must in Chinese culture to call somebody by their first name. In fact it's very customary to call people by last name in work settings. e.g. an older person might call a young subordinate surnamed Zhang "小张" (literally little Zhang) instead of whatever name he might have. So I don't think you should feel so nervous about (mistakenly) calling somebody by their surname anyways. It's also customary between friends to just say the full name, in part since names are short in syllables and easy to pronounce.
    – xji
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 21:22
  • @einpoklum In fact basically nobody calls me by my first name only, since my first name has only one syllable, and also since my surname and first name combined is a word with meaning (auspicious) in Chinese.
    – xji
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 21:24
  • I actually want to be able to address them by the full name - but in the more appropriate/polite/(Chinese?) order.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 21:25
  • @einpoklum I wouldn't be very offended by people addressing me in the reverse order. It's very common for westerners to talk in such a name order anyways. If you're not sure, you may still continue using this order until he/she explicitly corrects you or you have a chance to notice the correct order.
    – xji
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 21:26

Well, basically you have to ask. But usually when they are speaking English they tend to give they surname last, but speaking in Chinese is easier because they always say the surname first. So you have to ask to be sure what the person's surname is. Besides that, you have a list of common Chinese surnames, and if you see them then you know those are surnames. Examples are MA, SUN, CHUN, ZHANG, etc.

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