Personal names in Chinese culture follow a number of conventions different from those of personal names in Western cultures. Most noticeably, a Chinese name is written with the family name first and the given name next, therefore "John-Paul Smith" as a Chinese name would be "Smith John-Paul". Chinese people commonly address each other with full names instead of given names (especially for names consisting of two characters in total). Family names are never used alone without any salutation. For instance, the basketball player Yao Ming should be formally addressed as "Mr. Yao", not "Mr. Ming", and informally addressed as "Yao Ming" instead of "Yao" or "Ming".
Some Chinese people who emigrate to, or do business with, Western countries sometimes adopt a Westernized name by simply reversing the "surname–given-name" order to "given-name–surname" ("Ming Yao", to follow the previous example), or with a Western first name together with their surname, which is then written in the usual Western order with the surname last ("Fred Yao"). Some Chinese people sometimes take a combined name. There are two main variations: Western name, surname, and Chinese given name, in that order ("Fred Yao Ming") or surname, Chinese given name, followed by Western name ("Yao Ming Fred").
Traditional naming schemes often followed a pattern of using generation names as part of a two-character given name. This is by no means the norm, however. An alternative tradition, stemming from a Han Dynasty law that forbade two-character given names, is to have a single character given name. Some contemporary given names do not follow either tradition, and may in some cases extend to three or more characters.
When generation names are used as part of a two-character given name, it is highly inappropriate and confusing to refer to someone by the first part of their given name only, which will generally be their generation name. Instead, the entire given name should be used. This should be the case regardless of whether the surname is used. For instance, referring to Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as Hsien or Hsien Lee would be confusing as this could just as easily refer to his brother. However, this does commonly occur in Western societies where the first part of the given name is frequently mistakenly used as the first name when the given name is not hyphenated or adjoined.
A majority of countries in Eastern Asia adopted the Chinese naming system. Today, there are over 700 different Chinese family names, but as few as twenty cover a majority of Chinese people. The variety in Chinese names therefore depends greatly on given names rather than family names. The great majority of Chinese family names have only one character, but there are a few with two; see Chinese compound surname for more information.
Chinese family names are written first, something which often causes confusion among those from cultures where the family name usually comes last. Thus, the family name of Mao Zedong is Mao (毛), and his given name is Zedong (traditional: 澤東, simplified: 泽东).
Traditionally, Chinese women usually retain their maiden names as their family name, rather than adopting their husband's. Children usually inherit the father's family name. However, some married women add the husband's surname to their full-name (this is popular in Hong Kong but rare in Mainland China), but rarely do they drop the maiden name altogether.
Historically, it was considered taboo to marry someone with the same family name — even if there is no direct relationship between those concerned — though in recent decades this has no longer been frowned upon.
Generally speaking, Chinese given names have one or two characters, and are written after the family name. When a baby is born, parents often give him or her a "milk name" (奶名) or "little name" (小名), such as Little Gem (小寶 / 小宝) or two characters that repeat "Ming Ming" (明明). The given name is then usually chosen later and is often chosen with consultation of the grandparents. In China, parents have a month before having to register the child. The parents may continue to use the nickname.
With a limited repertoire of family names, Chinese depend on using given names to introduce variety in naming. Almost any character with any meaning can be used. However, it is not considered appropriate to name a child after a famous figure and highly offensive to name one after an older member among the family, or even distant relatives.
Given names resonant of qualities which are perceived to be either masculine or feminine are frequently given, with males being linked with strength and firmness, and females with beauty and flowers. Females sometimes have names which repeat a character, for example Xiuxiu (秀秀) or Lili (麗麗, 丽丽). This is less common in males, although Yo-Yo Ma (馬友友 Mǎ Yǒuyǒu, 马友友) is a well-known exception.
In some families, one of the two characters in the personal name is shared by all members of a generation and these generational names are worked out long in advance, historically in a generation poem (banci lian 班次聯 or paizi ge 派字歌 in Chinese) listing the names. Also, siblings' names are frequently related, for example, a boy may be named pine (松 Sōng, considered masculine) while his sister may be named plum (梅 Méi, considered feminine), both being primary elements of the traditional Chinese system of naturally symbolizing moral imperatives. Depending on region and family, female children may not be entered into the family tree, and thus will not be given a generation name. A frequent naming pattern for female offspring in this case could share the same last character in the given name while varying the first character (in place of the generation name). A well known example of such system can be found from the names of the main four sisters in the novel A Dream of Red Mansions, where they were named 元春 (yuan chun), 迎春 (ying chun), 探春 (tan chun), and 惜春 (xi chun).
Chinese personal names also may reflect periods of history. For example, many Chinese born after 1949 and during the Cultural Revolution have "revolutionary names" such as strong country (強國, 强国) or eastern wind (東風, 东风). In Taiwan, it used to be common to incorporate one of the four characters of the name "Republic of China" (中華民國) into masculine names.
People from the countryside may have names that reflect rural life, for example, large ox (大牛) and big pillar (大柱), but these names are becoming less common.
Also, some decades ago, due to the traditional Confucianism, when a family gives birth to a female baby, the parents may name her comes a little brother (來弟), invites a little brother (招弟) or hopes for a little brother (盼弟). Some other female names of this sort includes: 望弟 (hopes for a little brother), 牽弟 (brings along a little brother), 帶弟 (brings a little brother), 引弟 (attracts or leads along a little brother), 領弟 (receives a little brother), and even 也好 (it's all right, too (to have a girl first then a boy later)). The parents may feminize the character '弟' (younger brother) to '娣' with the same pronunciation, but different in meaning (it literally means "wife of a younger brother," but more recently it is used to transliterate western female names). These names show the traditional sexism or male chauvinism in the older Chinese society where having a boy (who can inherit the family name and continue the family line, which is an honour to the ancestors) is better than having a girl (who can only be another family's daughter-in-law, carrying on the family name of others).
A recent trend has swept through greater China to let fortune tellers change people's names years after they have been given. These fortune tellers claim that the name leads to a better future in the child according to principles such as Five elements (五行 wǔ xíng).