Anecdotes & Reflections, Chinese Lessons, Mandarin Courses in Singapore

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Which is the given name?

Most Chinese have three names and some have two. The first name is the family name. The second and third names are all given names and should be used together. The second names/middle names were originally used to identify generations when a big family formed a village (villagers were not allowed to marry within the village to ensure healthy offsprings).  The middle names followed a family name rule, which was usually one meaningful sentence expressing a wish for a flourishing family. Each generation would use one of the characters from the sentence as a middle name. The third name was given by parents. The middle name rule is only partially practiced now in some families who give all the sons or daughters the same middle names. It becomes more an individual choice rather than a social rule. 

The Chinese put family names at the beginning for the same reason as Westerners put given names first. In Greater China, family names are expected to be used to address one another. Given names are used only among family and close friends.  Family names are usually common and easy to remember but given names vary. It’s not uncommon for a Chinese person to know another’s family name but not the given name, which is unusual for westerners.

Singaporeans extend the use of given names to colleagues and acquaintances because of the influence of English.