Correct Spelling for

Chinese American Surnames

Here in America, the correct spelling for a family name is the way its owner spells it. According to Elsdon C. Smith, author of several books on American family names, the owner of a name is the best authority on “its shape and form.” (American Surnames. Philadelphia: Chilton, 1969. 39) The more common the American family name, the more different ways to spell it. For example, the common surname Johnson is also spelled Johnsen, Joneson, Jonson, Joynson, and Joinson.

From the point of view in the People’s Republic of China, the correct way to spell a Chinese family name is according to Pinyin, its official spelling system for Mandarin, the Chinese national language. For example, the family name 謝/is spelled Xie. When the Republic of China was in power during 1911­-1949, the correct spelling was Hsieh according to the widely used Wade-­Giles romanization system for Mandarin. College students coming to America from different parts of China for higher education during the mid­-1930s and 1940s often used this spelling system. Wade-­Giles, which is still used in Taiwan for name spelling, is called the traditional method to spelling Mandarin into English.

From the American point of view, all spelling variants for the family name 謝/, such as Dear, Der, Dere, Hsieh, Ja, Shieh, Tse, Xie, and Zia are correct spellings; each a surname in its own right.

In addition to recognizing correct spelling for family names of Chinese origin, it is of importance for owners to know the actual surname character for the family name. The surname character is an integral part of an American family name of Chinese origin, providing proof of its Chinese origin, that it originated somewhere in China.

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