Recently I've asked "How do we choose the correct characters for a westerner name?", and now, I'm facing a similar, yet kind of different problem, which I think applies to any westerner or Chinese student at a beginner level.

There are two exercises that ask to translate some sentences, which are not that hard, thanks to the glossary, but I've faced a small, nonetheless daunting difficulty, which is the translation of Chinese names.

When I have to translate a sentence like "Mr. Hu/Huang/... is a lawyer", how do I know which character corresponds to that name? Are there any guidelines for selecting the right character (apart from asking the person directly)?

  • That information is missed if characters are not provided. The family names can be found in 百家姓.
    – Kabie
    Commented Dec 16, 2011 at 19:38
  • 10
    In general, if there is no way to go back and contact the person, and you don't have the correct characters, you can add (音) behind the name to indicate the name presented may not be accurate is only based on phonetics Commented Dec 17, 2011 at 2:17
  • @YiJiang易江 That's very good to know!!! Thank you! You could post it as an answer as well. :)
    – Alenanno
    Commented Dec 17, 2011 at 11:54

5 Answers 5


This is actually a common problem in newspapers and television in Singapore, where the original report may have been filed by a reporter who did not or cannot use Chinese. In these cases, the author simply chooses phonetically matching characters to fill in the name of the person, then add (音) or (译音) to indicate that the name shown is only a phonetic translation of the person's name and not the actual characters.

An example can be found in this article from the local newspaper 《联合早报》


  • Thank you for the insight about the 译音. It's very good to know. I guess there's no way to know but to ask or guess. :)
    – Alenanno
    Commented Dec 21, 2011 at 18:32
  • Sorry for the off-topic, but in addition to Hanzi is Chinese (mandarin or other) used in Singapore?
    – Petruza
    Commented Jan 10, 2012 at 19:48
  • Wow, really good answer!! Commented May 17, 2012 at 4:13

To elaborate on Kabie's comments:

In general, the answer is that you never know for sure what is the right translation without further information but only a Pinyin of the name.

However, the clue for guessing the right family names comes from experience in real life for native speakers. E.g. Li is highly probably to be , Wang for , Zhang for , Liu for 刘, etc. Because you gradually gain this knowledge when you meet people around you who have different family names.

This can be a difficult task for foreigners, so as mentioned by Kabie, the 百家姓 is a great source for you to learn the statistics and major family names.

In the English wiki page, I did not find a statistics, but found in the Chinese wiki page. As shown, the top 10 (full list in the page) family names in Mainland China are:

in form of Rank. Family name Population(million)

01.王(Wang) 92










This will help to get the clue.


Usually people ask. Like people asking if a person's name is spelled a certain way, most Chinese people ask if it is a certain character. E.g., Your surname is 'Li'? Is that 'Li/李' as in plum (李子) or 'Li/理' as in reason (理由) ?

There are commonly used names, but it's usually better to ask if you don't know. For exercises, the picking the actual character is arbitrary. As long as it sounds right it should be fine.

  • I'm not asking how to locate a name in a speech, but rather how to translate a name written in pinyin, considering we don't know the character.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Dec 16, 2011 at 21:24
  • My bad, usually people ask. Like people asking if a person's name is spelled a certain way, most Chinese people ask is it is a certain character. E.g., Your surname is 'Li'? Is that 'Li' as in plum () or 'Li' as in reason () ?
    – Krazer
    Commented Dec 16, 2011 at 21:42
  • Don't worry. I think you should edit your answer, sometimes they get down-voted when they don't answer the question. :)
    – Alenanno
    Commented Dec 16, 2011 at 21:45

You clarified your question in a comment that your starting point is the Pinyin. I'm not sure why this would ever be a starting point in real life for a Chinese name, but the analogous situation in spoken Chinese is quite common. There is no general solution, of course, since syllables as pronounced do not map to unique characters. So if you don't know you have to ask or guess. For family names, of course, the 百家姓 is the best reference, and provides an educated guess. For given names it's very common to refer, when introducing a name, to external uses that specify the character. My daughter, for example, is named Nora. Her Chinese given name is 南蕊. She can introduce herself in Chinese by saying 我叫南蕊,南京的南,花蕊的蕊. This is unambiguous so long as someone knows the external reference.

In your exercise with Huang and Hu, you should just pick the most commonly used surnames for each.

  • In real life it happens in spoken Chinese or, as in my case, where a grammar exercise just gives you the pinyin.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Dec 21, 2011 at 13:38
  • It also happens in real life when you watch CCTV 9 and the speakers names are given only in (toneless) pinyin. Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 18:01
  • Google led me here. I am a (mathematics) professor in the US with many native-born Chinese students, studying Chinese for fun. I get emails from Chinese students and I would like to respond with a few sentences in Chinese. But the From: line of the email only gives an untoned Western form of the name. It sounds like the best advice is (a) guess or (b) ask. Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 16:04
  • @MatthewLeingang yes, and I would recommend asking before guessing. It's common to ask even in Chinese when introduced orally.
    – GTK
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 2:38

The other posters have already answered the meat of the question: in most cases, there isn't a way to tell except by asking.

As GTK mentions, one way of solving this ambiguity is to reference another use for the character. Another common strategy that hasn't been mentioned yet, though, is to describe the character by radical. (This is true not only of proper names, but of all character questions in general.) For this reason, it's useful to know the colloquial names for common radicals.

For instance, the radical 氵, which appears on the left side of many water-related words, comes from the character 水 (shǔi, "water"). As such, this radical is called "三点水" (sāndiǎnshǔi, "three dots of water"). Someone trying to describe the character 鸿 (hóng, a common character in boy's names) might call it "三点水的鸿" ("the hóng with the water radical").

This document (pdf) lists several common radicals and their colloquial names; if you can read Chinese, the Chinese wikipedia's page on radicals has a more complete list.

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