Some time ago I wrote a little bit about some of the quirky names my Chinese students chose for their English names, and a wee bit that I had learned about their Chinese names.
Daisy gave a more thorough presentation on Chinese names that shed deeper insight on this serious subject among Chinese. Chinese names generally consist of 2-3 characters (names): a surname which comes first rather than last like our Western names, followed by an Adjective name and then a Noun name.
It's often claimed that there are approximately 500 surnames in China. This belief seems to derive from a well-known book titled One Hundred Family Surnames, written by an unknown author during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). This book is widely used as a vocabulary text for students in old China, and it lists 507 surnames, of which 441 consist of one character and 66 of two characters. This list, however, is by no means exhaustive. At present, there are more than 5,000 Chinese surnames. They are derived from many sources, such as the names of ancient states or townships, official titles, given names, posthumous names, and specific localities, or trades.
The most common surnames in China, in descending order are Zhao, Qian, Sun, Li, Zhou, Wu, Shang, and Wang. In southern China, however, the most common names, in order of frequency are Chen, Li, Zhang, Huang He, Wu, Zhou, Hu, Ma, and Mai.
In old China, one's surname was revered because the individual bearing it was but a small link in the long history of an illustrious clan. One never changed a name, especially a surname. If a person did so, he/she had probably committed a grave or heinous crime and wanted to sever ties with the past through a name change. Such a person would most likely move away from home to start life anew.
People with the same surname shared a commonality and considered themselves relatives regardless of the number of generations removed geographical distance or lack of consanguinity. Since the commonality was derived from a common ancestor at some point in time, it was considered an insult when a person with the same surname disclaimed family or other close relationships. For the same reason, old Chinese customs prohibited marriages of couples with the same surname.
A Chinese person has many given names. One month after birth, an infant was given a 'milk name'. This name was used by family members, relatives and close friends. The name was usually selected either by the family elder or by a literate friend. Names for boys reflected the parents' wishes for his good health, longevity, prosperity, expected talent, virtues, diligence, filial piety, patriotism or intelligence. Girls were named after exotic flowers, pretty birds, musical instrument or jewels. Girls might also be named for feminine attributes such as beauty, grace, thrift and purity. In some families, however, girls were not given names but were simply referred to as the "oldest girl" or "second girl" or "third girl" and so forth.
Frequently, all the boys in one family would be given names that shared the same first character, or adjective. This was sometimes done with the girls in the family, as well. Since the two characters of the given name go together, they should be spelled together as a single word or occasionally hyphenated when the name is anglicized.
Another method for selecting a given name was based on the child's horoscope and its relationship to the "Five Elements." A fortune teller, after studying the month, day and hour of the birth, determined whether the infant had a full complement of the Five Elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth. If any elements were lacking in the child, a character with the radical or root of the missing element was used in the name to correct the deficiency and make the child "complete."