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I know in Chinese people sometimes use other common words or phrases to tell people what characters their Chinese name has.

My Chinese name is Yuan Li Heng (袁禮恒)

For Li I can say Li Wu 禮物 and for Heng I can say Yong Heng 永恒. Yuan is a little harder because from I've heard, it's more just a common surname.

What's usually the best way to tell people what character it is in Chinese if the character itself doesn't really have any associated meanings?

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Just mention a famous person with that surname, e.g.

  • 袁紹 from the Three Kingdoms
  • 袁崇煥, patriot, martyr, and brilliant military commander who was instrumental in repelling the Jurchens for the Ming Dynasty
  • 袁世凱, first president of the Republic of China
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Referencing famous names is a good idea. But if it still doesn't work, you might have to describe the radicals.

For example, my surname is 张. I was often asked to clarify whether it's 立-早 章 or 弓-长 张, when I told them my surname pronounced as 'zhang'.

  • Ooo can you actually dive more into this? What would be an appropriate way to do that? I actually try to use 遠 and I want to say without that horse radical. What would be the appropriate way to do that? – aug Jan 19 '18 at 2:59
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    @aug What dan means is to break down the character into components, e.g. 袁 would be broken down into 土口𧘇, but 𧘇 is not a character so you'd describe it as e.g. "the bottom part of 衣". Btw, the left hand component of 遠 is 辵 or ⻍, not horse. – droooze Jan 19 '18 at 3:04
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    @aug, as long as you can get that clear to your interlocutor. The way you interpret 袁(I actually try to use 遠 and I want to say without that horse radical) is fine. And droooze's is fine too. – dan Jan 19 '18 at 3:10
  • @aug In your method I hope you're clear about the audience you're talking to, because trying to break down 遠 to simplified Chinese users won't work very well, since 遠 is written 远 in simplified Chinese, and they might misinterpret your surname as 元, which is a valid surname. – droooze Jan 19 '18 at 3:18
  • Ah sorry my radicals aren't very good >< thanks for correcting @drooze. And thanks for the info @dan! – aug Jan 19 '18 at 4:18

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