I have taught English to Chinese students. They tend to adopt what they call their “English name” as a means of facilitating communication with foreigners, who it is often (and rightly) felt might struggle with Chinese pronunciation. You should note that when the Chinese refer to their English name, they mean the name that they use when they are speaking English, not necessarily an English name - most do use names that are recognisable to English speakers, but names from other languages are also common, as are general words that you wouldn't normally recognise as personal names.
China has a population of over 1.3 billion, so as you can imagine, attitudes to this vary as much as attitudes to any other aspect of life. I used to know a woman called Yang Xiaoping, or Kathy Yang. We were on friendly terms, she worked in the hospitality trade and was used to dealing with global tourists, and she and I communicated on first name terms; I always called her Xiaoping because it was her personal preference, and she was quite impressed that I pronounced it correctly without help. I once asked her how she came to choose Kathy as her English name, and it turned out that her school teacher had assigned names to the entire class rather arbitrarily, and although she seemed not to be entirely happy with Kathy and could change it at will, she had stuck with it.
There are some fascinating stories about how Chinese people come by their English names. There was one student who wasn't with our school for long, and although I only taught her once, she made such a lasting impression on me with her story that the main character in my novella Social Murder is named after her. When I saw the name Merlin on my schedule that day, I naturally assumed it would be a man, though given that Chinese names tend not to be gender-specific that was, with hindsight, perhaps a rash assumption. She explained that she chose Merlin because it was close to her real name, Mei-Lin. I loved this curiously Chinese combination of acceptance, obedience and rebellion, it seemed that she had begrudgingly accepted the convention of choosing a western name to use when speaking English, but she was not about to stray far from her real Chinese identity!
There was another student that I taught a number of times who had done something similar, simply transliterating his Chinese name into an English form, but Wang Wan-Xi was somewhat less successful and should probably have been advised early on that if he ever set foot inside the UK, introducing himself as Wankey Wang would have caused him some social difficulty. Furthermore, the course I taught him was Business English, so he clearly expected to be communicating internationally.
Less common names are also popular with Chinese students. The seasonal names Summer and Autumn that we occasionally hear used by Women (particularly in the USA) are quite frequently used by the Chinese, and I also knew a man called Winter. The most outlandish example I remember was the guy who specifically wanted a name that nobody else had, and he wasn't wrong - to this day I have never encountered anyone else called Bicycle! I've also met women called Crayon (Chunyen) and Penguin (Peng-Peng), and a man called Mobile.
Generally, though, most do use common western names. Men have a strong tendency to choose traditionally-popular names like Chris, Daniel, David, Michael, Peter, et cetera; and relatively few stray from genuine names. Women are often more varied in their choices and can be put into several quite distinct groups:
- English names that are no longer so popular in the English speaking world, like Christine, Doris, Ivy, Joyce, Monica, Nancy, Veronica and Vivian. I often wonder to myself if these are imposed in childhood by older and out-of-touch teachers like my old friend Kathy, though this is a subjective thing based on the fact that the names seldom reflect the real character of the bearer.
- Names that are more common in non-English languages like, Anya, Freya, Mia, Mira, Nadia and Yolanda.
- The use of words, some of which which are occasionally used as names in the west and others which are never, such as Apple, Echo, Ice, Kiwi, Seven, Summer, Sunny - these are all genuinely names of people I've taught.
- Names which are similar to Asian names and/or words, like Eva, Fay, Lili, Lyn, Lucy, Sue, Suki and Sun.
The above lists are by no means exhaustive, but you get the picture if how varied the “English” names of Chinese people can be.
I have meandered from the point quite a bit, because I feel that to understand the English names of Chinese people, it is necessary to know a little of how and why they are given or chosen; but to return to the original question, when they adopt a western name, the Chinese are not westernising themselves. We sometimes have the habit of judging the Chinese as very traditional in their outlooks and attitudes, which might be due to the fact that the country as a whole makes a big effort to emphasise its traditional Chinese identity, but the Chinese people are far more modern than we give them credit for, and much more wise to the ways of the wider world than you might expect of a country whose access to the media is quite strictly controlled. The Chinese are immensely proud of their individual identities, and their family ties are very strong, so Mr. Wong will never call himself Mr. Smith just to fit in.
Basically, a Chinese person's English name is closely akin to the nicknames that many people use in groups of close friends, the only difference is that rather than being for strictly informal and social settings, Chinese “English” names are specifically for use in commuting with the wider, non-Chinese world.
I used to think it sad that the Chinese so readily adopt different names to speak English, similar oriental cultures like the Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese et cetera rarely do this except when actually living in another country, and more particularly if they were born or grew up in another country; but for the Chinese, adopting a different name is all part of learning English.
When you get to know Chinese people, however, you realise that there is little obligation and certainly no force involved in choosing to follow this convention, it is often a form of self-expression; a way to make one's own identity. The real names of most Chinese people, just like the names of anyone else, are chosen partially from the preferences of the parents and partially to ensure that the child is able to fit into the society in which he or she will grow up - relatively few in any part of the world go for the “rock-star” names of people whose circumstances see them grow up not having to worry too much about what others think.
Most Chinese people choose an English name that reflects how they want the world to see them, the Chinese are far from the timid, yielding Asians of popular western folklore, they are people with an immensely proud heritage which forms a huge part of their personal identities, but they are not restricted by their traditions - as a people, the Chinese are very confident about their place in the world.
Finally, I have grown quite fond of the idea of young students adopting a name that is easier for the foreign idiot teaching them to pronounce. When you consider how badly westerners often treat other cultures, there is a kind of poetic justice about it!