The ''zì'', sometimes called the ''biǎozì'' or 'courtesy name', is a name traditionally given to Chinese males at the age of 20, marking their coming of age. It was sometimes given to females upon marriage. As noted above, the practice is no longer common in modern Chinese society. According to the ''Book of Rites'' , after a man reaches adulthood, it is disrespectful for others of the same generation to address him by his given name, or ''míng''. Thus, the given name was reserved for oneself and one's elders, while the zì would be used by adults of the same generation to refer to one another on formal occasions or in writing; hence the term 'courtesy name'.
The ''zì'' is mostly disyllabic, i.e., comprises two , and is usually based on the meaning of the ''míng'' or . Yan Zhitui of the Northern Qi Dynasty believed that while the purpose of the ''míng'' was to distinguish one person from another, the ''zì'' should express the bearer's moral integrity.
The relation which often exists between a person's ''zì'' and his ''míng'' can be seen in the case of Mao Zedong , whose ''zì'' was Rùnzhī (. These two characters share the same - 氵, which signifies water. Both characters can mean 'to benefit' or 'to nourish'.
Another way to form a ''zì'' is to use the homophonic character ''zǐ'' - a respectful title for a male - as the first character of the disyllabic ''zì''. Thus, for example, Gongsun Qiao's ''zì'' was: Zǐchǎn (, and Du Fu's: Zǐméi .
It is also common to construct a ''zì'' by using as the first character one which expresses the bearer's birth order among male siblings in his family. Thus Confucius, whose actual name was Kǒng Qiū , was given the ''zì'' Zhòngní , where the first character ''zhòng'' indicates that he was the second son in his family. The characters commonly used are bó for the first, zhòng for the second, shū for the third, and jì typically for the youngest, if the family consists of more than three sons.
The use of ''zì'' began sometime during the Shang Dynasty and slowly developed into a system, which became most widespread during the succeeding Zhou Dynasty . During this period, women were also given ''zì''. The ''zì'' given to a woman was generally composed of a character indicating her birth order among females siblings and her surname. For example, Mèng Jiāng was the eldest daughter in the Jiāng family.
Prior to the 20th century, sinicized Koreans, Vietnamese, and Japanese were also referred to by their ''zì''.
The ''zì'' of some famous people:
''Hào'' is an alternative courtesy name, usually referred to as the ''pseudonym''. It was most commonly three or four characters long, and may have originally become popular due to people having the same ''zì''. A ''hào'' was usually self-selected and it was possible to have more than one. It had no connection with the bearer's ''míng'' or ''zì''; rather it was often a very personal, sometimes whimsical, choice perhaps embodying an allusion or containing a rare character, as might befit an educated literatus. Another possibility was to use the name of one's residence as one's ''hào''; thus Su Shi's ''hào'' Dongpo Jushi . An author's ''hào'' was also often used in the title of his collected works.