Four people stand outside the main entrance of the International Center at UC Davis in the shade. The first woman has long strawberry blonde hair and wears black pants and a blue collared shirt. A second woman has long light brown hair and wears a UC Davis Global Affairs dark heather blue T-shirt and black jeans. Next to her, Wesley Young wears a gray blazer over a light blue collared shirt and navy pants. He wears dark rimmed glasses and looks at the young man to his left who wears a light gray hoodie.
Wesley Young (second from right), director of Services for International Students and Scholars, speaks with students outside the UC Davis International Center.

How to Pronounce Chinese Names

A Two-Minute Lesson for Making Students and Colleagues Feel a Greater Sense of Belonging

Services for International Students and Scholars (SISS) staff serve international students and scholars from over 100 countries. In fall 2021, Chinese students accounted for more than 70 percent of all degree-seeking international undergraduates, and nearly 40 percent of international graduate students. As an Aggie community, we can help these students feel more welcome and deepen their sense of belonging by properly pronouncing their names. 

The system for Romanizing (i.e., using the Roman alphabet) Chinese names based on standard Mandarin pronunciation can make it challenging for English speakers to accurately pronounce some Chinese names. I have come up with four general rules to help you. My hope is that you will find these tips useful when addressing students, faculty and staff who come from the People’s Republic of China. It is important to note that these guidelines may not apply to those with Chinese names coming from other countries or who speak languages other than standard Mandarin.  

Let's get started.

Basic Name Structure

Names written in the western order include the given name (first name) followed by the family name (last name). However, keep in mind in China, this order is reversed with the family name first and the given name second. 

  • Traditionally, Chinese names are composed of three parts: the family name, followed by the generational name, and finally the given name. Modern names can have two or four parts. 
  • When the name is Romanized using a western alphabet, the generational and given names get combined, and they form what westerners interpret as a person’s given name. For example, 杨 怀 里 is Romanized as Yang Huaili, and in English, we would write Huaili Yang.  

Rules for Pronouncing Chinese Names

Rule 1

No name rhymes with Bang! In fact, there is no Chinese word that rhymes with Bang!

The "a" sound in family names such as Wang, Chang or Shang is similar to the "a" in "la dee da," not the "a" in "acorn." 

Rule 2

When a name begins with X, think “sh” as in “shower.” For example, the family name Xu is pronounced like “shoe.” 

Rule 3

When a name begins with Q, think “ch” as in “chilly.”  For example, the family name Qin sounds like “chin.” 

Rule 4

When a name begins with Zh, think “j” as in “jungle.” Remember the first rule above, and you'll recall that the most common Chinese family name, Zhang, also has an "a" sound like the “a” in “la dee da.” Phonetically, Zhang is similar to "jong."  

More Tips 

  • If the letter “i” follows zh, ch, or sh, it sounds like the letter “r.”  The name Shifan Wu is pronounced "Sure-fan Woo."  
    • Note: the “a” in Shifan again sounds like the “a” in “la dee da.”
    • When in doubt, just ask! It is alright to say, "I want to properly pronounce your name. Will you please say it for me so I can learn it correctly?" 
    • Practice! Say the name again to yourself, think of it in your head, and find ways to help yourself remember the sounds.
    • Remember, it's okay to make a mistake! Inviting correction can make you and the other person feel more comfortable: "Please tell me if I mispronounce your name."

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