The Importance of Characters and Tones in Mandarin

I have been studying Chinese for quite some time now. I have the ability to ask for directions, order food, hit on girls, and have lengthy conversations with someone if they are truly willing to try and speak with me.

My Chinese is not perfect, but I must say I am very proud of it. That is because when I first arrived here, I thought my Chinese was alright. Looking back, I can’t believe that I had even thought it was anywhere close to alright. It was downright terrible.

In case you are unfamiliar with Mandarin Chinese, it has 4ish tones. Depending on the sound you make, combined with the tone, it creates meaning. When I first arrived, I didn’t believe in tones. No matter how many times I listened to people, it all sounded the same to me.

In English, tones are used to express emotion, so it was difficult to disassociate tones with emotion and associate them with meaning. Just because someone seems to be talking to you in an angry tone in Mandarin doesn’t necessarily mean they are angry. Its just the tones that are required for them to speak. Or they could be mad at you. They’re probably mad at you.

Choosing a Name

I will now tell you a story about the importance of tones. When I first moved out here, I thought my Chinese was alright (as stated previously). I came out here to become a powerful business man. I wanted to become rich and powerful beyond what I was back in the U.S.

In China (and much of Asia), there is great importance placed on the business card. The first thing I wanted to do was get a Chinese name so I could put it on my business card. Although I technically already had a name as my Chinese teacher in my Chinese class would call me 雅各布 (Yagebu) which was the phonetic version of Jacob, I wanted to get a real name. I wanted one that sounded not so foreign, so I enlisted the help of a friend.

We spent a solid few minutes trying to come up with a name, and we eventually settled on ZhuXiong, which was the name Powerful Bamboo. Now, Powerful Bamboo, thats a great business name, because all great business names also have to be great porn star names.

So I decided to embrace the name Powerful Bamboo. I typed ZhuXiong into my character generator, got the characters, gave them to my business card guy, and waited. My business card guy gave me a call. Here’s the rough transcript:

Him: “Hello.”

Me: “Hello.”

Him: “Are you sure you want ZhuXiong? It is kind of an odd name.”

Me: “Yes. I know that most Chinese names are three characters, but I want that name.”

Him: “Two characters is fine, but ZhuXiong is a bit weird for a name.”

Me: “I guess its not too traditional, but I think it suits me.”

Him: “Ok.”

And that was the whole conversation. I waited two days and a man delivered me my cards. They looked spectacular. I signed myself up for a few networking events, and decided it was time to spring into action. I will use my great new business cards to get myself a great new job.

Into the Wild

The first event I went to I was a bit nervous. I began to hand out my cards to people that worked at companies I was pretty interested in. They would take my card, read my Chinese name and laugh a little.

Them:  “Did you choose this name?”

Me: “Yes. I think it suits me.”

Them:  “Yes. ZhuXiong suits you.”

I did this at a bunch of networking events. Each time, the people would laugh a bit. I thought that the name Powerful Bamboo just had that affect on them. It must have been hilarious. Weeks went by, and no one would reply to my emails. I was pretty worried, but I would bump into some of the people at other events and they all knew me by my name, ZhuXiong.

Sudden Realization

Eventually, one of my Chinese friends found a stack of my cards sitting on my desk at my home. They picked one of them up and looked it over. Immediately, they began to laugh. Heres how that conversation played out.

Me: “You like my name? ZhuXiong.”

Friend: “Haha, I guess so. It is strange though.”

Me: “Everyone thinks so, but I think Powerful Bamboo is a great business name.”

Friend: “Powerful Bamboo? This is not the name for Powerful Bamboo.”

(my face has gone completely white)

Me: “What do you mean? This is the character zhu. It is for bamboo.“

Friend: ”No. This is not bamboo. Bamboo is zhu2,” she said as she wrote “竹” on a piece of paper, “This is zhu1. This zhu1 means pig.”

Me: “Oh… I see… well, Powerful Pig? That name is not too bad, I guess.”

Friend: “Yes, Powerful Pig is not too bad for name. But xiong2 is powerful. This is xiong1. Xiong1 is not ‘powerful.’ Xiong1 means breast.”

Me: “My business name is Pig Breast?”

Friend: “Yes. Very strange.”

Me: “Very strange.”

And that is when the flashbacks happened. Those business men weren’t agreeing with me that my name Strong Bamboo was suitable for me. They were agreeing that the name Pig Breast was suitable for me.

This was the moment I realized that tones meant something completely different than what I was accustomed to. Learn from my mistakes, and double check your work even if you’re overly confident.


I am a writer, editor, and average comedian based in Shanghai, China. In my past lives I have started a few failed companies, been homeless, and drank professionally.

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