Chinese names tend to consist of a surname that is one syllable long, followed by a given name of either one or two syllables. This means that converting a non-Chinese name by sound results in something which doesn’t look like a name to a Chinese. (For instance, the Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, is called 赫勒·托宁-施密特 Hèlēi Tuōníng-Shīmìtè in Chinese.)
Because of this, there is a tendency for foreigners to get Chinese names if they learn Chinese or similar. E.g., the famous computer scientist and inventor of TEX, Donald Knuth, is not called 唐纳德·克努斯 Tángnàdé [the usual transcription of ‘Donald’] Kènǔsī or similar, but 高德纳 Gāo Dénà, because he was given this name years ago by Frances Yao (I’m not entirely sure why he got it, but possibly for the purpose of translating his books into Chinese).
Because I’ve started learning Chinese, I believe it would make matters easier if I got a Chinese name. If I had been learning Chinese in a classroom situation with a native teacher, it would presumably have been relatively simple to ask them to give me a name. However, I don’t have access to a Chinese person who knows me well enough to pick a name, so I’ve had to take charge of the process myself.
Picking a surname is actually very easy. Chinese people use a very limited number of surnames, so the best solution is probably to pick a name from the top-100 list. Given that my real surname starts with a ‘W’, I guess it’s a reasonable idea to pick one starting with the same letter in pinyin, which limits my choices to 王 Wáng, 吴 Wú, 魏 Wèi, 汪 Wāng, 韦 Wéi, 万 Wàn and 武 Wǔ. From these, I eliminate 吴 Wú and 武 Wǔ because the vowel doesn’t match Widmann at all, 魏 Wèi and 万 Wàn because they don’t start with ‘W’ in Cantonese, and 王 Wáng and 汪 Wāng because they end in ‘-ng’, which isn’t really suitable, so I’m left with 韦 Wéi (Cantonese Wai4), which suits me fine. 我姓韦。
So far, so good. Unfortunately, there is no convenient list of Chinese given names, for the simple reason that Chinese people like to have unique names and they don’t tend to name their children after family members or famous people.
I was of course ultimately named after Thomas the Apostle (via Thomas Aquinas, I believe), but I reckon it wouldn’t be the Chinese way simply to give myself his Chinese name, 多马 Duōmǎ.
On the other hand, it’s probably not a good idea to pick two random characters with appropriate pronunciations and meanings – some characters are not considered desirable, and others are seen as feminine.
Another approach is to look at my name in Japanese. Although foreigners can just write their names in katakana, the native Japanese lecturer at Aarhus University back in 1990 gave a proper Japanese name, which of course could be pronounced in Chinese, too. Alas, I’ve forgotten what it was, although I do remember that it consisted on two kanjis, and I believe both had water as their radical, and the meaning had something to do with waves. After searching through some Japanese dictionaries, I’ve come to the conclusion that the first character must have been 濤 tou, which in simplified Chinese is 涛 tāo and means “great waves”.
I’m quite happy with this character, and I could of course stop here and just call myself 韦涛 Wéi Tāo.
On the other hand, I could add another character, either one pronounced ‘ma’ or ‘mai’ for ‘-mas’, or one pronounced ‘ma’, ‘min’, ‘meng’ or ‘ming’ for ‘Martin’ (my middle name). Some of the options I’ve been able to find are 孟 mèng ‘first’, 麦 mài ‘wheat’ and 明 míng ‘next, bright’. However, I’m not sure the former is used much as a given name (although it’s a common surname) and I don’t identify strongly with wheat. On the other hand, I quite like 明 míng, and 涛明 Tāomíng at a first glance looked like a reasonable name.
I got stuck here for a while – although I couldn’t find any flaws with 韦涛明 Wéi Tāomíng, I was a bit anxious that I could have overlooked something, so I was looking for reassurance from somebody with native or near-native Chinese.
Fortunately my old friend Uffe Bergeton Larsen (藍悟非 Lán Wùfēi), who was a linguistics fresher with me, is now a specialist in Chinese and has a Chinese wife, and he popped up on Facebook at just the right time.
Wufei at first couldn’t see any problems with being called 韦涛明 Wéi Tāomíng. However, he then asked his wife who thought that “det lyder som et kinesisk navn en ikke-kineser kunne finde på at kalde sig” (“it sounds like a Chinese name that a non-Chinese might decide to call themself”).
I therefore decided to swap the elements around (as if my name were Martin Thomas rather than Thomas Martin), and 明涛 Míngtāo is definitely a real name.