Why Do Chinese People Use English Names?

I’ve studied several foreign languages and I’ve had friends from lots of different countries. My Japanese teacher at University was called Etsuko, I had a Czech flatmate called Lenka and another from Quebec called Xavier. I’m pretty sure that if I had looked at their passports these are the names I would have seen.

Then when I was doing my masters and started studying Chinese I made a Chinese friend called Eva, but I very much doubt that if I looked at Eva’s passport I would see the name Eva. Chinese people seem to have this unique practice of choosing a so called “English name” (in reality their English names aren’t always English, I once had a Chinese student whose “English name” was Yuki).

Admittedly, my Latvian friend Kristiāns and my Polish friend Krzysztof both go by the name “Chris” but that’s an anglicisation of their names. It’s not a completely new name that sounds nothing like their actual names. So why so do so many Chinese people choose to go by a random English name that is unrelated to their real name?


apparently “Bruce” isn’t a traditional Chinese name

If you ask a Chinese person this question the most common answer is “foreigners can’t say Chinese names” or “foreigners can’t remember Chinese names”. Aside from that fact such comments could be seen as slightly racist, they’re also completely untrue.  I’ve never heard an English speaker say “I can’t remember the capital city of China because it has a Chinese name”. Similarly, I’ve never heard a Chinese person say “I’m from a City called ‘John’. Actually, it’s called ‘Shanghai’ but because foreigners can’t say ‘Shanghai’ I’ve chosen the English name ‘John’ instead”.

The “foreigners can’t say Chinese names” excuse also fails to explain why I once met a Mandarin teacher at Zhejiang university who went by the name ‘Sabrina’ or why Chinesepod used to have a Chinese host called ‘Jenny’. Are they so bad at teaching Chinese that they can’t even teach their students to say their names? And what about when you ask a Chinese person for their family name? I’ve only ever heard a Chinese person say a Chinese name when asked for their family name. So why do they expect English speakers to remember Chinese family names and place names but not given names?

The fact is it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. As an English speaker I do indeed find Chinese names difficult to say and remember. It’s not because Chinese names are inherently more difficult than other names, it’s because they don’t tell you their names. If I never told you my name you would find it very difficult to say my name too. When I was teaching English to students from Saudi Arabia I also had difficulty with their names at first, but because they all told me their real names I quickly got better at it and after a month it was no problem.

So why do Chinese people choose an English name? Below are what I believe to be the three main reasons.

1. The emphasis on ‘standard Mandarin’ in the Education system

Chinese primary school children are drilled on the phonology and tones of Mandarin. In many parts of China speaking a dialect or dialect-influenced Mandarin can signify a lack of education. Chinese people tend to place these same standards on foreign speakers, even when they’re speaking English.

This has been made clear to me on those rare occasions when I’m speaking English and say a Chinese place name (in English) but find my pronunciation corrected by a Chinese speaker because I said the place name in accordance with English phonology. Some Chinese people seem to think you shouldn’t pronounce Bejing as [beɪdʒɪŋ] even if you’re speaking English, you should still say [peɪtɕɪŋ] with those all important tones added.

The same applies to peoples’ names; Chinese people often think you either said it in the correct standard Mandarin way or you said it wrong. I don’t mind being called “Louis” when I speak French, or being called “Ruisu” when speaking Japanese, but most Chinese people don’t like doing this. There is no place for anglicisation of Chinese names and rather than hear a butchered up version of their Chinese name they’d prefer to just pick a completely different one.

2. It’s not part of Chinese culture to use given names

Maybe at school you were one of the cool kids who had a nickname. At my school most nicknames simply consisted of just putting the letter “y” at the end of a name. So “Scott” became “Scotty” and “Robert” became “Robbie”. Not very adventurous. But in China it is far more widespread for people to have a sort of nickname that is nothing like their actual name. So at high school “Mengqian” might have been called “Sasa”.

And that’s when Chinese people use names. It’s far more common for Chinese people to refer to each other by their relationship to one another. In the same way you don’t call your mum by her given name, Chinese people will often call each other “brother” or “sister”. In fact, they call each other brother and sister even when they’re not related at all and it’s just another person roughly the same age as them. Teachers are simply called “teacher” and landlords are called “landlord”.

Because of this it might be a bit strange for a Chinese person to be suddenly start using their given name just because they’re speaking English. They might even find it a bit awkward. It’s better to choose a different name. The idea of an “English name” is therefore similar to the idea of a “public name” that people in China would traditionally adopt. Confucius had several names that he went by depending on who he was being addressed by and was even given posthumous names. An English name is perhaps a continuation of this tradition of having multiple names for different social circles.

3. It’s cool to have an English name

Most Chinese people seem to view English as a classy language. Chinese people who can’t even speak English love to use those one or two English words they know, the same way a British person might try to impress by throwing out a French word (or a French person might show off by using a Latin one). That’s why you see so much English everywhere on stuff like shop signs, adverts and clothing.


not all English clothing looks classy

Having an English name (and thus implying you can speak English) is maybe a good way to seem educated. But for kids learning English it’s probably more about the fact they get to choose their own name, and it’s pretty cool if you can name yourself after your favourite pop star or movie character. One of my mates back in Britain asked me if I got to choose my own Chinese name and I told him it was just the closest approximation of the name Lewis that is possible using Chinese characters. “That’s boring” he said, “I would have called myself sword master!”

Comments: maybe you agree with me, or maybe you completely disagree. Let me know what you think in the comments section below.


10 thoughts on “Why Do Chinese People Use English Names?

  1. Quite an interesting piece. I’ve met and heard of Chinese people with very ‘interesting’ English names, ‘candy’ and ‘coconut’ are good examples. I think its mainly because association with the West is seen as cool for many, so having an English name is cool. And also to help foreigners pronounce their names, eg. its not uncommon for a Chinese name to have the letter ‘x’ in it, which is difficult to read for many Westerners.

  2. Its pretty interesting to learn what you think about this question, but I don’t completely agree with you on it.
    As a Chinese, I totally understand why people often say “foreigners can’t say Chinese names” or so. Well, despite the possible cultural effect that makes it sound like racism (ancient Chinese people often live in extended families and thus like to classify people as “natives” and “foreigners”, my apologies) , it is true that most foreign languages do not have some characteristics that Chinese does: typically the “zh” sound and the sound of that “u” with two dots on it, let alone the famous toning problem. I guess that you might find it easy to accommodate to it after a while, but if every time one introduces him or herself to others has to wait until they get used to it, well, that has a cumulative effect. Thus, the difficulty to pronounce many Chinese names objectively exists.
    In addition, many Chinese pick English names for the convenience of others. Name, after all, is more for others to use than for oneself. Me myself don’t even need to have a name to tell myself from others, and that is true for anyone. Just like the “nickname” phenomenon you stated above, most Chinese do not care what you call him or her as long as one knows that is him or her, and what you are calling does not sound inappropriate. Because of this, why don’t we provide others some convenience while it does not really hurt anyone?
    As for the standard mandarin system, yes, it has been enforced in the past several decades. However, this is changing as a “Renaissance” atmosphere spreads in recent years. Dialects are more and more cherished as a cultural treasure that our ancestors have left to us. You might find in eastern China though, especially in provinces around Shanghai, usage of dialect is far less common than in other parts of China. That is because in these most developed parts of China, communications with people who speak completely different dialect is so common that using mandarin becomes the most efficient way. Besides that, another important reason is that a large revolution took place a few hundred years ago in eastern China, where most people speak a dialect called “Wu”. The revolution has brought “Wu” people catastrophes, and the standard of the “Wu” language has been lost. Nowadays, you will even find people from two villages 10 miles apart in eastern China speaking different dialects: how could they communicate with each other without mandarin!
    Coming back to the Chinese name pronunciation. It’s not like people do not accept accents, it’s really just many people are not used to accents from many foreign places, such that when someone that does not speak very good Chinese call me, for example, I would very possibly think that he or she is probably trying to say something else to me. It might take a few seconds for me to realize that he or she is indeed calling me. Well, bro, why bother? Just call me something simpler, something we both understand, something we agree on.
    I have to agree that some people do feel fancy to have an English name, or simple want to show off that they know English. You cannot say everyone thinks like that but that is in many case true. Plus, many people get their English name they first day they go to an English class, which is indeed a weird convention. What I would like to say is that as time goes by, especially as China develops, the reason why Chinese people pick an English is really changing. And sometimes there is really no reason. They just get one.
    As for me, I did have an English name because my name also has that “zh” sound which many people can’t pronounce. But I gave it up as my professor often confuses my English name with my Chinese name, the one I have to write on my exam papers. “Who you really are” is the question he asked me most frequently. Who I am? I am who I am. Call me whatever you want.

    • Thanks for the comments. I think you’re completely right about the reason for picking an English name being different for each person and changing over time. I don’t completly agree with the point you make about pronunciation because every language contains sounds that don’t exist in other languages (the “u with two dots over it” sound that you mentioned does exist in many European languages). I guess my question is “why do Chinese people pick an English name but Arabic speakers don’t?” And my follow up question is “why do Arab speakers think it’s fine for me to pronounce their name according to the sounds of the English language but Chinese speakers don’t?” (You mention your name has the “zh sound”, which for most English speakers sounds like the “J” sound in English, but it seems Chinese people consider it wrong if you change the sounds of their name to fit the sounds of English.

      • Right, you mentioned the “j” sound, and I guess that is the point. It might be okay if you pronounce something wrong, but if you pronounce it LIKE SOMETHING ELSE it would cause lots of ambiguity and confusion. Especially when there is a “J” sound in Chinese, then it would be more or less unacceptable if you do not draw a clear line between “J” and “Zh”. Also I am not sure about European languages, but sometimes similar letters can have very different pronunciations. As you might know, “c” is never read as “k” in Chinese, it rather makes the “ts” sound.

      • Thank you for sharing your thoughts and helping to clarify some of the intricacies of Chinese phonology for me. It seems that you agree with my first point in the article. That is, Chinese people consider it “wrong” if a Chinese name is not spoken with standard mandarin pronounciation, even if they are speaking English (or another foreign language).

  3. Well, I agree with the point of view the english names sounds cooler, according to them. Might be, IMO, they firstly:
    1. Dont like their names or sound odd (sometimes people play with their chinese name, in terms of how the names sounded and pronunciated);
    2. As a new personal identity;

  4. Would love clarity on this “cannot pronounce zh” thing. Is that not the same sound in the word vision? (vi-zhun)? The same as the French ‘j’ as in “je suis heureux”?

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