Notes on style for transliterating Chinese names in The Lancet

The following guidelines concern the pinyin transliteration of Mandarin Chinese (putonghua), Cantonese names have their own system.

These notes were originally written in 1999 as an internal document appended to the style book when I was an editor at The Lancet. I was tired that we were getting Chinese names wrong so often so took it upon myself to iron out some of the confusion among my fellow editors. My efforts didn't make a great deal of difference.

I generally recommend The Chicago Manual of Style as the best reference work for preparing and editing book and journal manuscripts for publication, it has a very good section on style for foreign names. My notes below were more an attempt to discuss the problem, than provide a cast-iron rule, which simply wasn't going to happen with a team of editors as set in their ways as those at The Lancet. (One of my fellow editors was quite convinced the change from Peking to Beijing represented the imposition of a regime, as in Burma to Myanmar, rather than an international convention to clear up the mess that the romanisation of Chinese had become.)

If it wasn't for the fact that Chinese authors have previously published under obsolete transliteration systems, my recommendation would be much more straightforward than these notes suggest: everything in pinyin.


Correct practice

Modern Chinese names are almost invariably (ah, the exceptions) formed from three Chinese characters. The surname (“honourable surname”) is a single character (Mao, Guo, Tu). In Chinese, this is pronounced monosyllabically (Guo is pronounced “Gwor”). Mr Mao, Chairman Mao, Miss Guo, Mr Tu.

Chinese personal names are formed from two characters (Zedong, Xulan, Xuantong). Correct Chinese style for names is to give the surname first. As in:

Mao Zedong
Ma Xueliang
Dai Qingxia
Ni Haishu
Qian Xuantong
Fu Xingqi
Dong Zuobin

When one realises the form of Chinese names, the surname becomes more apparent and easy to recognise, even if written the wrong way round, though the divide between the two characters of the personal name, as rendered in the international pinyin romanisation system, does require a little more familiarity with pinyin. Attached to these notes is a complete list of all pinyin monosyllables [not included here, but a complete list can be found on]. All Chinese names are formed from a combination of these sounds.


International pinyin

This is the transliteration system now followed by newspapers and books around the world. In a Portuguese or French newspaper Fu Xingqi is still written Fu Xingqi. Previously, each language had its own system of Chinese romanisation. In English it was called Wade-Giles romanisation. Fu Xingqi in Wade-Giles is Fu Hsing-ch'i. Here the two characters of the personal name take a hyphen between them, which has been dropped for pinyin. Mao Zedong is more familiar in Wade-Giles as Mao Tse-tung. Pinyin has a tremendous advantage over the previous systems, in that it remains the same for all alphabetic languages. Rather than the form changing for each individual language, the rules for pronouncing it change instead.


Problems and ambiguities

Chinese authors who have lived long in the west, particularly in America, began to get fed up with being indexed under their personal name and some gradually began to publish papers and books with their names the wrong way round, surname last, following western style. Unless one is familiar with the form of Chinese names, one will not know whether this has been done. I suggest that The Lancet adopt the correct Chinese style for names, and not worry whether this leads to incorrect indexing elsewhere. Style should not be based on catering for the ignorance of others, but should simply be correct. An obvious exception to the surname-first rule is a name such as Henry Wu or Barbara Liu.

Another problem is that westernised Chinese who publish in English may render their name in Wade-Giles. As Wade-Giles is virtually obsolete now, except amongst lovers of antiquarian books, their names should be in pinyin. This is particularly important as offprints of The Lancet are published in many different languages. It is rare now for the name of a Chinese author who publishes in English to be given in Wade-Giles, even if he has previously published with his name in this form. For those Chinese authors who insist that their name should be transliterated in Wade-Giles, a compromise would be to render their names in Wade-Giles with the pinyin equivalent in parentheses at first mention. If no preference is expressed, names given in Wade-Giles should be converted to pinyin. This should certainly be the case in news stories. Tables for making this conversion are included at the end of these notes [not included here]. Obviously references to previous works where the name has been published in Wade-Giles must be given in Wade-Giles.

A barbarous practice is the initialisation of Chinese names. There is no way to initialise a Chinese character, this is simply a western alphabetic practice. Would you ever say Z-D Mao instead of Mao Zedong? Who is X-P Deng? Very few would realise that this is Deng Xiaoping. A problem exists where westernised Chinese authors have become used to initials and do not give their full name. (We should never initialise a Chinese name that has been given in full just to fit “style”.) Note also that the hyphen between the initials is alien to pinyin. Nonetheless, if initials are to be used it is probably a good idea to use a hyphen. Though occasionally a contemporary Chinese person has only one character for a personal name, it is very rare – if only one initial appears in a reference, for instance, it should be suspected that someone has not realised Xingqi or Haishu is formed from two characters. To render Fu Xingqi as X Fu, and Ni Haishu as H Ni, would be adding insult to injury. Where the author has a western personal name, such as Henry Wu, H Wu is perfectly acceptable.

In an index or bibliography, the two usual styles are to give Chinese names either with a comma or without. Without is preferable, but at least a comma does make it clear what the surname is:

Mao, Zedong
Chen, Mengjia
Chen, Liyi, and Chen Zhenqun, eds, etc etc

Another style mixes the two forms in the same index/bibliography, using a comma to indicate that a Chinese author has published a work with the name the wrong way round, but omitting the comma when a work has been published in correct Chinese style:

Mao Zedong, The Little Red Book, …
Wei, Lixian, For God’s Sake Get My Name Right, …


Note on Cantonese names

Cantonese Chinese names have their own transliteration system. Cantonese is being phased out in China, but of course people will still continue to speak it. Author's preferences are here the best rule for the present time. In China 50 million people speak Cantonese (5% of the population), whereas 715 million people in China speak Putonghua, “common speech”, otherwise known as Mandarin (71.5%). Though the same Chinese characters are used for the written form of both “dialects”, the difference in the spoken sound is as vast as that between English and Dutch.