I often get tripped up when reading names of Chinese people, and trying to work out if they are male or female. Is there a good rule of thumb to follow to determine which is which?
In a previous post "How do we choose the correct characters for a westerner name?", I listed some characters that I think are popular in names nowadays. Remember, characters don't express the gender, so there are only some "rough clues" to guess the gender of the person.
One example would be “芳”, which means "fragrance,good smell".It's very common to be seen in a woman's name as in 梅艳芳(a last female singer from HongKong) and 谢杏芳(a famous female badminton player). However, I few cases, it appears in a man's name. I.e. 单田芳(a famous Pingshu performer. Note: here 单 pronounces shàn as a family name)
I agree with point 1 in 景洛弘's answer, that meanings could be a clue, but I don't agree with point 2, because in chinese, many characters share the same sound.
Counterexamples to point 2:
ye. There is a famous actor 刘烨(liu2 ye4).
li. li could be “力(li4)", which means "strength". There was a famous linguist 王力(wang2 li4).li could also be "莉(li4)",and “茉莉” means "jasmine". There is a famous actress 牛莉(niu2 li4).
hong. Hong could be "宏(hong2)“, which means "huge". There is a famous comedian 黄宏(huang2 hong2). Hong could also be "虹(hong2)", which means "rainbow". There is a famous actress 陶虹(tao2 hong2).
In my experience, it mostly depends on two things:
What's the meaning of the characters? Flowers, plants, beautiful things in general are used for women's name. If the radical of one of the characters is 女, that will give you another clue. While characters with a meaning related to strength and power (and possibly wealth) are usually for men.
How does the name sound? Names that sound "light" or delicate (yi, ye, li, ling, etc.) are often for women, while rough sounds are more commonly used for men (mou, zhang, hong, etc).
There is a computer library ('Wudi gender guesser') to predict the gender of a Chinese name, based on statistics of the use of individual Kanji caracters in Male/Female given names. This approach accounts for both for the meaning and the sound.
There is an online version here http://namesorts.com/2014/03/27/chinese-name-gender-guesser-api/
Sadly there are no such rules since customs varies from parts of China to other parts. And in different times, there were different trends.
So there are no strict rules to follow. There are just patterns which loosely apply but with many exceptions.
For example, 红(red) is thought to be more common in female names when it is the last character of a name. But in the early years of the PRC, there were many male whose name contains the character.
Another example is that I have a classmate in high school whose name is 王男, 王(wang) is surname, 男 is given name and it literally means man/male. But she is a girl. She said that because the name is given by his grand father and he wanted a boy.
I don't believe there is a rule of thumb on this. Some characters used as names can be misleading, even for native speakers of Chinese. For example, I've met women named 帥 (meaning handsome, though it can also mean commander) and 虎 (tiger), both of which Chinese people would assume were male names due to their masculine connotations.
Still there are some names that are commonly given to male and female babies, e.g.
Common male names: 偉, 磊, 軍, 傑. Common female names: 芳, 秀英, 琳娜, 靜, 麗, 秀蘭.