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Today, most Chinese have only one name, but in feudal China, it was not uncommon for women to have two and for men to have at least three different names; Sun Yat-Sen had four in addition to his surname and one added after his death (姓孫、 名文、 字德明、逸仙、 號中山樵、 諡國父). The practice was condemned as outmoded by the May 4th movement of 1919, but it is important for a Westerner studying Chinese history to realise that the same person may be called different names by different people.

Perhaps because the words that are used in Chinese names are often also words that may be used in everyday language, the Chinese have an obsession with names that is entirely alien to the Western mind.

Although this is already common knowledge, it is worth pointing out that Chinese surnames come first, before the personal name.

姓氏 xìngshì Surname

China originally had two types of surname, called 姓 xìng and 氏 shì. Although the two terms are now used interchangeably, they were originally different things. Xing were originally tribal names, and shi were clan names within each tribe. Xing generally had the word for woman (女) within it, e.g. 姬 Jī and 姜 Jiāng. 許 Xǔ is an example of a clan name within the Jiang tribe.

míng True name or formal name

A child's true name is usually chosen by the head of the family (not necessarily the child's parents). This was then his or her true name, i.e. the name that was entered into the family or clan records and which will eventually go on the gravestone. Men did not use this name in everyday life, but women were usually called by their true names.

Most women had only a true name. Most modern Chinese have only a true name and no other name.

Sun Yat-Sen's true name was 文 wén ('cultured').

乳名 rǔmíng Infant name

A child is sometimes given a name at birth (literally a 'milk name') which was what he he or she would be known as within the family. This name would not be used when the child reached adulthood except perhaps in private among close family. It is considered rude to call an adult by his or her infant name.

Familiar name

This is the name that a Chinese man would use in everyday life. When being introduced, this is name that he would offer. It is the name used by his friends and by his family. In Singaporean legal documents, this is called an alias and is abbreviated @.

Sun Yat-Sen had two familiar names, 德明 démíng and 逸仙 yìxīan. The second of these is pronounced 'Yat-Sen' in Cantonese.

hào Courtesy name

It is difficult to translate 號 into English: it is an like an English nickname in that it is often selected in the same way that English nicknames are, yet it is often used when the situation demands a little more formality. A courtesy name may be chosen by a man's friends, but may equally be chosen by the man himself and it may have a self-deprecating flavour.

Sun Yat-Sen's courtesy name was 'The Woodcutter of the Middle Mountain' (中山樵 zhōngshānqiáo) and this is why in mainland China he is usually known as 孫中山 Sūn Zhōngshān.

shì Posthumous name

It was usually only emperors who were given posthumous names, but Sun Yat-Sen was given the posthumous name 'Father of his Country' (國父 guófù).

法號 fǎhào Buddhist name

A man or a woman might leave home (出家) to become a buddhist monk or nun. When doing so, he would take another name to reflect this. The new name often had words in it suggesting emptiness or enlightenment. His old name was discarded and called his 'muddy name' (混名 húnmíng).

The Tang dynasty monk Xuánzhuàng (玄奘) was originally named Chén Yī (陳禕).

道號 dàohào Taoist name

A similar rule applied to Taoist priests and priestesses, except Taoists did not entirely discard their old name and would also use their surname along with their Taoist name.

Yáng Guìfēi (楊貴妃) also used her taoist name of Yáng Tàizhēn (楊太真). The Jīn dynasty (金代) Taoist Qiū Chǔjī (丘處機) was given the Taoist name 'Son of Eternal Spring' (長春子 chángchūnzǐ) by his teacher.

筆名 bǐmíng Pen name

Modern Chinese writers often choose a pen name instead of publishing in their own name. The term biming is a twentieth century one and is a literal translation of English into Chinese. Pen names can be in the style of familiar or courtesy names.

Hán Sùyīn (韓素音, author of 'Love is a Many Splendoured Thing') is the pen name of 周月賓 Zhōu Yuèbīn: her name is styled like a familiar name. 金庸 Jīn Yōng is the pen name of Chinese martial arts novelist, Louis Cha (查良鏞 Zhā Liángyōng), and is styled more like a courtesy name.

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