Yesterday, while I was waiting to sign up for a genealogy course, I was inspired to work out how to type Chinese on my computer. I’ll provide the methodology below, but what I’d like to do is share with you my discoveries about the names of my family.
The Chinese name – the essentials
Before I get started, let me share with you some basics:
- Names in Chinese can be surname first or surname last. If the name is historic and in Chinese, it’s most likely surname first, to designate the important of family first. If the name is on a record in the New World, the order might follow the convention of surname last, given name first, thus showing in one move the cultural differences of family first or individual first.
- Chinese names may have 2 characters or 3 characters. If there are 3, the name in the middle is likely to be the generational name, given to all siblings of the same sex and generation. Put another way, the females of a family will receive a different generational name than the males, and the female generational name is not likely to be a part of the generational poem.
- During the Cultural Revolution, many Chinese dropped the generational names, influenced by the pressure to drop Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas, together known as “the 4 Olds”. [NOTE: Thanks to Douglas for his explanation here.]
- The English version of a Chinese name is likely not the Chinese name in pinyin (Chinese words spelled in English characters). For example, my name is Yip. In pinyin, it’s Yè. For more on pinyin, see How to find your surname in Chinese.
- The English name and spelling of your name is more likely to be how your ancestor chose to spell his name in accordance to how it sounded in his native language and its pleasing array of letters: Cantonese, Fukkien, Toisanese, Hakka, Mandarin, etc.
- Your ancestor’s English name may have similiar sounds to the name in Chinese. For example, my father’s given name was Wing See. The family chose Cecil.
- Chinese names frequently have meanings, but not all do.
- It was traditional in Chinese family trees to list only the males.
- For women, it is common to find 2 characters at most. These will be her family name, following with shi, or 氏. This means wife from the famly of . In English, shi is more commonly spelled Shee on historic documents, e.g., Chan Shee, Yee Shee, Wong Shee. It’s like being known as “Mrs. Robert Brown”. For more, see my post All Chinese wives are called Shee.
- Chinese characters could be written in either traditional or simplified Chinese. This is my surname in traditional: “葉”. This is my surname in simplified “叶”.
- Chinese names could be comprised of compound characters: more than one character in a name.
Things you can do with the characters
- Add the proper names to your family trees so that you will come to recognize them: the surnames, sure, but also the given names, married names, and honorifics
- Search Chinese language sites in Chinese, then use Google Translate to read them
- Work out the meanings of the names
- Identify the generational name, which is a clue to the generational poem
Introducing: my Yip family
In this section, I’ll give you the names of my direct Yip line from parent to great-grandparents: their Chinese characters and their names in pinyin. Again, remember that pinyin is the English word for the name in Mandarin.
As for the meanings, please bear with me. I’m new to translating and Chinese words have multiple meanings. These are my best guesses and I am happy to be corrected.
Yip Sang, my great grandfather
葉 Yè – green leaf
春 Chun – spring
田 Tian – field
Meaning: Green Leaves in a spring field. (I think this is a metaphor for rice, itself a metaphor for food and having enough to eat.) A rural name, suitable for the son of a farming community. According to Dr. Timothy Stanley, Yip Sang later chose Yip Loy Yiu (in pinyin: Ye Lairao) as his style name. (Sigh. What is a style name and where can I find a copy of Yip’s in Chinese…!) [Update 14 Mar 2021: From Tony King, “字 (zì) – school name, style name, or courtesy name, given at age 20 during a Coming of Age Ceremony.” See below for reference.]
Chin Shee, my great grandmother
隗 Kuí – a surname, Zhou Dynasty vassal state
氏 shi – wife
Meaning: Wife from the family of Kuí. Kuí doesn’t have a meaning – it’s a surname. In ancient days, it meant person from Zhou Dynasty vassal state.
Yip Kew Sheck, my grandfather
Yip Kew Sheck, my grandfather, born in the New World:
葉 Yè – green leaf
求 Qiú – request, strive, seek, try, demand, or a surname
鑠 Shuò – to melt, bright / shining, to fuse
Meaning: I’ll guess Green leaves striving brightly. Or Striving Brightly. (Striving, the generational name, feels right for the 19 sons of Yip Sang.)
Chew Wai Ming, my grandmother
趙 Zhào – a surname, generally from southern Hubei Province
慧 Huì – intelligent / bright
明 Míng – sight, justice / righteousness, to know, to reveal or make clear, bright, distinct, open, clear-sighted, above-board or honest
Meaning: I’ll guess Double Brightness, from Hubei Province.
Cecil Wing See Yip, my father
葉 Yè – green leaf
荣 Róng – honourable or glorious, prosperous / thriving / flourishing
樹 Shù – a tree, to plant or cultivate, to set up or establish, or uphold, or a surname
Meaning: Could be Green leaves Prosperously Planted, or perhaps Flourishingly Established. The generational name Róng means a lot of things from honourable and glorious to prosperous and flourishing. Definitely a good name for the many 3rd generation grandsons of Yip Sang.
How this was done
Let me begin by explaining my technical setup. Your experience will be different based on whether you’re Mac or PC, carry an iPhone or other, etc., because translation tools are not the same across the platforms.
Here’s what I use:
- MacBook Pro 2020, with Microsoft Word for Mac v.16.39
- iPhone 6 with the Pleco app, and I think I paid for the upgraded dictionary, about $75
- Manser, M. (1999). Concise English-Chinese / Chinese-English Dictionary
- Google Translate, on the Google Chrome browser v.84
- Magnifying glass
- A copy of the name in Chinese
- My journal for drawing out the characters
- A friend who is literate in Chinese
First, I wanted to know how it was done: how do you type Chinese on an English keyboard? Answer: you type out the word in pinyin and Microsoft Word will bring up the Chinese words that correspond. You then select the correct character. My thanks to YoYo Chinese for this video Learn How to Type Chinese Characters Using a Keyboard with Yoyo Chinese.
Great! I understand step 1. Now onto step 2: I need to enable the Chinese language characters on my computer. For that I thank Fluent in Mandarin for this video How to Type Chinese on a Mac. I followed all the instructions, spent some time entering simple words in pinyin (1, 2, 3: yi, er, san becomes 一, 二, 三), and then brought out a name I knew to test: 葉 Yè, 春 Chun, 田 Tian (Yip Sang).
The 3rd step was using Pleco to find the pinyin of the characters. Pleco uses the camera on a smartphone to see the character, then matches that character to a match in its database, gives definitions and pronounciations. Think of it as a handheld character recognizing dictionary. Pleco did a great job for most of them, but not every character was recognized, whether it was too obsure or the form was too old. If that happened, I drew the character in my journal and then looked it up in the dictionary. A good Chinese language dictionary is essential because it gives different forms of the words, because I otherwise have no way of knowing this (葉, Yip, or Green leaf) is the same as this (叶) (like a simple tree with one leaf on the left).
How to use Pleco on an iPhone to translate into pinyin and English
Step 4: write out all the names, then find their meanings in the dictionary. This is where it’s helpful to have a friend who speaks Chinese to help correct the translation work. At this point you can also use Google Translate.
I hope you found this helpful. Comments and corrections welcome and invited.
Aside from the links above, my first thanks go out to Elaine and Jason. To Elaine for having unending patience for listening and advising, and to Jason for his help in fixing my translations. In addition, thanks as ever to Kelly Summers for Chinese Ancestry: Research Methods and Sources, where I picked up the tech tips, and to Linda, Alice, and Melissa, for lending me their Pleco-enabled smartphones in class. (Google and Samsung win over iOS. Get with it, Apple!)
[11 Aug 2020] Huge thanks to Douglas for his thoughtful corrections to this post.
[14 Mar 2021] Chinese language helps for jiapu, Tony King, FamilySearch. This is a link to the page Chinese Research Helps. Scroll down to find Tony’s 20 page PDF.
I have no affiliations with any of the tools listed in this blog.
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7 thoughts on “Finding the Chinese names of my family: 葉”
Very cool! And so fascinating to learn the intricacies of both the Chinese characters and the naming protocols. And I thought Polish was complicated!!
It WAS cool. I felt I was pushing into a whole new layer of understanding with a) recognizing the characters, and then b) taking a stab at translating the names. What have you learned about Polish names?
My 3x Great Grandfather’s name was 葉春田 as well! I wonder if it is the same ancestor, he was from 福建省南安市金淘镇钱山村埔后乡. I recently just discovered my Chinese roots with MyChinaRoots service.
Hi Riko! That’s exciting for you. I’m so glad you were able to find your family. We could be related but the “three times” great grandfather part gives me pause. My “葉春田” is my great-grandfather, born 1845. You said your “葉春田” is your three times great-grandfather, which is another two generations further back. Logically, if our two 葉春田 were the same person, great-grandfather to me, and 3x great-grandfather to you, you would be two generations younger than me. Also, my 葉春田 is from Duhu County, Jiangmen, Guangdong Province. What do you think?
From what I understand, Han people in China normally don’t think of their surnames as meaningful: they are like phonetic loans. An example of a phonetic loan is 培根 péigēn: it does not mean ‘training-root’ or something like that, it means ‘bacon’. By the same token, Zédōng might mean ‘benefit the east’ (there are many other readings of zé, and in the Mao family poem it apparently means ‘kindness’), but Mao is never interpreted as ‘hair’.
John, you fascinate me. You clearly have a better grasp of Chinese than I do.
In my family, I saw both sides of this idea: my paternal side continually stressed the meaning of our name (Green Leaf), and I saw the evolution of my great grandfather’s name – 葉春田 – from its rural roots to become the familiar Yip Sang. On my maternal side, we paid absolutely no attention to the meaning, so perhaps my questions about its meaning were confusing? Much to ponder. Again thank you.