When using Western names, nicknames are usually created for the sake of convenience—to make names shorter and easier to say. Samantha, for example, can be shortened to Sam. Someone named Benedict can be called Ben.
But in the case of the Chinese, whose given names are often just composed of one to two syllables, what is there to really shorten? How are Chinese nicknames derived?
There are two kinds of “nicknames” that the Chinese may have: the 小名 (xiǎomíng) and the 绰号 (chuòhào). A xiaoming, otherwise known as the milk name, is given to a child after birth. Since tradition dictates that parents may wait up to 100 days to provide their child with a name, the milk name is used as a temporary placeholder until an official name is provided. Often enough, the milk name would persist as a familial nickname as the child grows older.
The chuohao would be what is conventionally considered a nickname in English. Not all children receive one, and not all are related to the children’s actual names. Most are born out of an expression of affection and endearment and are shared between friends and family.
So how does one create a Chinese nickname?
1. Creating variations of one’s name
A Chinese name generally comprises two to three characters, the first being the surname and the latter one or two being the given name. Not unlike English, the most common way to create a Chinese “nickname” would be to use a part of the given name.
One easy way to create a xiaoming or a chuohao would be to use repeated characters. For the chuohao, the last character of a given name is usually the one to be repeated. In the case of the name 王美丽, transliterated as Wang Meili, the resulting nickname would be Lili.
Another method of constructing a chuohao would be to add the prefixes 阿 (ā) or 小 (xiǎo) before the first character (the surname) or the last character of one’s name. Alternatively, one may also add the suffix 儿 (er/r) to the last character of a name.
The popular use of such prefixes and suffixes may depend on where one lives. In China, 阿 (ā) is more frequently used in the southern regions while 儿 (er/r) is more commonly spoken in northern regions, particularly in Beijing. 小 (xiǎo) is considered to be a more universal diminutive and is widely used throughout the entire country.
Using another name like 王战 or Wang Zhan, the resulting nicknames may be the following:
- 战战 or Zhanzhan
- 小王 or Xiao Wang; 小战 or Xiao Zhan
- 阿王 or A-Wang; 阿战 or A-Zhan
- 战儿 or Zhan’r
2. Character traits
Both a xiaoming or a chuohao may also be derived from certain characteristics, whether they be those that belong to the child, those that parents wish for the child to embody, or those inspired by nature. In ancient China, where infant mortality rates were high, parents also often provided their children with names stemming from undesirable traits to drive evil spirits away. Other characteristics that may seem somewhat insulting may also be used as endearments.
Examples of common nicknames are 小虎 (xiǎo hǔ, lit. little tiger), 小胖 (xiǎo pàng, lit. little fatty), and 千金 (qiān jīn, lit. a thousand gold), among many others. Like the variations made with one’s given name, the diminutives 阿 (ā), 小 (xiǎo), and 儿 (er/r) may also be added according to preference.
Characters that represent certain characteristics may also be repeated to make a good xiaoming or chuohao, as seen in the case of the name 乐乐 or Lele, which means “happy.”
There are several ways to make cute and endearing Chinese nicknames. However, they should not be used casually by those unfamiliar with the one being addressed, especially to those who belong to an older generation, since that would be disrespectful. In the end, nicknames, whether Chinese or not, are universal markers of familiarity and affection. Have fun, but be mindful of your relationship with others and how they would want to be perceived.
When choosing nicknames for family, friends, or for oneself, choose well—like most nicknames, this may be what a person is called for the rest of their life!
Norman, Teresa (2003). A World of Baby Names.
Wang, Jinna. “How 小名 (Nicknames) Work in Chinese.” Yoyo Chinese.