What the most popular given names of each decade say about the evolution of modern China
Earlier this year, Qimingtong, a “name consulting company,” released a report which listed the top 100 popular names in China (yes, these kinds of companies exist and people do actually pay money for advice on naming their child). According to the report, the people with the most popular surname and given name combinations currently make up over 10 percent of the population.
For newborns, the most popular given name for boys is currently 浩然 (hàorán), which is a word from Mencius describing an upright, noble, generous, and brave personality. The most popular name for newborn girls is 梓萱 (zǐ xuān), with 梓 (zǐ) meaning catalpa tree and 萱 (xuān) meaning tawny daylily.
The second most popular male name is pronounced exactly like the most popular girl’s name: 子轩, with 子 (zǐ) meaning “son, little, or seed” and 轩 (xuān) meaning “window, or high.”
As in the West, pop culture is often to blame for the overabundance of certain names. For example, after the time-traveling TV show Treading On Thin Ice hit the screen in 2011, a lot of female babies were named as 若曦 (ruò xī), after the heroine of the show.
Popular names in previous decades also provide many clues to the culture of the time. Let’s take a look:
1950s: patriotic names
In 1949, Chairman Mao announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China, which set in motion a chain of political and patriotic sentiments. It’s common to see a person born in the 1950s carrying a name with the character 国 (guó, nation, country, state) . The most popular ones are 建国 (jiàn guó, build the country), 卫国 (wèi guó, guard the country) or 爱国 (ài guó, love the country.) Let’s just take some famous actors as example.
Chen Baoguo (陈宝国), born in 1956, has a name that’s a homophone of 保国, meaning “protect the country”; Zhang Guoli (张国立), born in 1955, whose name 国立 means “the country is founded”; Tang Guoqiang (唐国强), born in 1952 as 国强, meaning “the country is powerful.”
In 1958, the Great Leap Forward (大跃进) began. It was an economic and social campaign led by the Communist Party to change China from an agrarian society to a modern industrial society in just five years. Though the campaign later caused famine and brought chaos to the country, the concept itself was exciting enough at the time for many people to directly use the word 跃进 (yuè jìn) as their child’s name.
1960s: Revolutionary names
In the 1960s, the Cultural Revolution was in full swing, and with its widespread ideological movement came new names. You may be familiar with the name Wendi Deng, a Chinese-American actress, producer, businesswoman, and the third wife of News Corporation chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch. But maybe you didn’t know that her birth name was 邓文革 (Dèng Wéngé). 文革 (Wéngé) is short for 文化大革命 (Wénhuà dàgémìng), the Cultural Revolution.
The character 红 (hóng) and 兵 (bīng) were also very widely used for names in this era. This is most likely due to the influence of the 红卫兵 (Hóngwèibīng, Red Guards).
Late 1970s: single-character names
After Reform and Opening Up, economic development spurred people to pursue wealth, which made the word 富 (fù) become a new favorite. At the same time, more and more people became interested in a concise and modern style, so their children’s given names just used one character.
1980s: double-character names
In this period, people became less political. Given that they had more contact with the outside world, Western-style names appeared. A girl surnamed 苏 (Sū) might be named 苏珊 (Sū Shān), which is apparently borrowed from Susan; and 安娜 (ān nà) is just adapted from Anna.
Double-character given names, where the same character is repeated twice, are another popular type. These are usually for girls and meant come across as lighthearted and “cute.” To increase the cuteness to sickening levels, siblings could also have themed double-character names. For example, a set of twins might be named as “欢欢 (huān huān)” and “乐乐 (lè lè)” respectively, because 欢乐 (huānlè) come together, they become 欢乐, meaning “happy, joyous and fun.”
(Incidentally, this is also how panda cubs are named. Can’t you feel the cuteness?)
It’s easy to find celebrities with double-character names, such as 冰冰 (Fan Bingbing), born in 1981 or刘诗诗 (Liu Shishi), born in 1987.
Post-1990s: parents’ surnames
In China, people usually adopted the surname of their father. But many think that mother’s name should be also passed down to their children. There was an obvious solution here: use the mother’s surname (or given name sometimes) as the child’s given name. If it doesn’t sound good, you may add another character between or after them, or find a homophonic character to replace it.
As people became more individualistic (and competitive), the composition of names became more and more creative after this era. Many parents even selected rare characters to name their children in attempt to avoid duplication. For example, 易烊千玺 (Yi Yangqianxi), a member of the teenager pop group TF boys, has a four-character name, and many people even can’t read his name correctly the first time. 易 (yì) is his family name, 烊 (yáng) means “welcome” in his home dialect, and 千玺 (qiān xǐ) is a homohone of 千禧 (millennium), because he was born in the year 2000.
Cover image is of a naming service, taken by TWOC