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Chinese Names According to Old Tradition

The first character of a Chinese’s name is the surname. It belongs to the family. The second character is to indicate the seniority within the family or clan. The third character is, finally, the name. This is the name given by the father at birth. It is also known as ‘Major Name’ (大名)

That is why there is this old saying in Cantonese, “What is your Privileged Surname and Major Name?”

Major Name is not to be used causally. In one’s childhood, nickname is used among family members and relatives. For example, Little B, Nu-nu, Tiny Mozzie, Big Head Boy etc.

When one starts to go to school, he will acquire a Name for Instructor (訓名) or Study Name ( 學名). This name is for used by the teachers.

Upon becoming a grown-up, one is then allowed to assign himself an Alternative Name (字) . To indicate one’s ambition or belief, one can also pick a combination of characters as Sign (號).

Only family members of more senior ranking can call someone by their Major Name. Everyone else must use the Alternative Name; not even the Emperor is exempted from this rule.

Among friends and peers, only Alternative Name is used.

Since female is normally not considered as an ‘individual’, they do not have any Major Name. They will only have nicknames.

In a marriage a female will only be known in the format of, for example, ‘Wong Door Li Clan’ (Wong the surname of the family of the husband side; Li the surname of wife’s family). She shall remain nameless literally.

Mencius’s mother is only known as ‘Mencius’s Mum’ or 仉氏. For


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