A Chinese person’s name is very important. It means something. My daughter’s Kung Fu master gave her a wonderful name. In ancient Chinese, it means "beautiful poem with a long history". My Chinese teacher’s name means something like "beautiful white snow in the forest". In my family, names mean something as well, but in a different way. I think — in my family at least — we listen to the sound of the name (notice that all my children’s names end with an "ah" sound), think about the history of a name (e.g. is it a Biblical name?), and who has the name been associated with (a president? a prophet? a favorite uncle?).
A Chinese person’s surname is listed first, and it’s proper to call someone by their surname. For instance, if I meet someone, they might say, "Wo qing Chen." This is pronounced in American English like: "Woe Ching Chun". This means, "My surname [qing] is Chen." If a person is introduced to me this way, then it is proper for me to call them "Mr. Chen." In Chinese, I do this by calling them "Chen Xiansheng," the word xiansheng meaning "Mister". If they are female, then I would call her "Chen Xiaojie," the word xiaojie meaning Miss. (A Chinese woman does not change her surname when she gets married, and the word doesn’t change according to marital status.)
On the other hand, I’ve found Chinese culture to be more informal than what the books say. When I meet someone casually, they almost always instruct me to call them by their given name rather than their surname. There is a different way to refer to this name. Whereas the word "Qing" means "My surname is x," the word "Jiao" (pronounced in American English like "jaow") means "I am called x". So a person might say, "Wo jiao Xiao Fang," which means "I go by Xiao Fang." A person may be even more specific than this, and say, "Wode mingze jiao Xiao Fang," which means, "My [given] name is called Xiao Fang." In this case, I know that the person’s family name Chen and that their given name is Xiao Fang. Thus, their full name is Chen Xiao Fang but if introduced in the more casual way I am allowed to call them just "Xiao Fang". But if ever in doubt, I would refer to them by their full name, Chen Xiao Fang. But suppose the person also tells me that she has chosen the name Sophie as her English name (i.e. Wode Yingwen mingze jiao Sophie). If I translate this into English, I would call her Sophie Chen. (In other words, she is Chen Xiao Feng, a/k/a Sophie Chen. )
As a foreigner, sometimes the particulars of a person’s name are difficult for me to catch. In earlier blog entries, for example, I’ve spoken of the difficulty I had learning even to hear the sounds in our driver’s name, Cai Yong Fu. If the tones, as well as the sound of each consonant and vowel, are not said correctly, the name is not pronounced correctly. Add to this that the name may be meaningless to me (perhaps since I don’t know that it means "beautiful poem with a long history"), and so it’s just a sound to be memorized. Such a name, with no cultural or meaning context associated with it, and with sounds I’m not used to, to boot, can feel difficult to hear, understand, and pronounce. As such, Chinese people often think that Chinese names are too complicated for the simple western mind.
I can relate. I remember how I felt when my band director could never remember that I didn’t go by Elizabeth (my first name), even after I had played in his orchestra for seven years. I also know how I feel when someone continues to call me "Jan" after having known me for two years or so. At some point it begins to feel awkward and hopeless to correct them. I don’t want people to feel this way when I say their names, and so I often opt for asking my Chinese friends to tell me their English names. It’s much easier for me to get a handle on, and remember, someone’s English name. For instance, yesterday a met a man whose English name is "Mouce," pronounced like "mouse". He explained to me that his friends began to call him mouse when he was in high school, because he played sports so well. He was smart, small and quick on the playing field, just like a mouse. Later, he changed the s to a c because he liked the spelling better. He thought it was more interesting. Well, this gave me a handle and I won’t forget his English name. His Chinese name, however, is a different story for me. I’ll have to study it in order to remember it.
Most Chinese people who deal with foreigners have studied English and have adopted an English name. Sometimes it’s a name that sounds a bit like their Chinese name (like my friend Xiao Fang who adopted Sophie as her American name), other times it’s a name that strikes their fancy (like my friend who adopted the name Dolphin because he liked dolphins). And sometimes it’s a name just for fun. Like my friend whose girlfriend in school gave her the name Yo Yo. (By the way, could you guess that in China a famous cellist is known as Ma Yo Yo and a famous director is known as Li Ang?) Most often, a teacher in school assigns them or lets the children choose from a list of western names. The list must be very short, because there are a lot of boys named "David" and girls named "Sophie"!
The other day, I met a woman who told me her Chinese name was "Doo Doo." She gave me her business card, and it was spelled "Dodo". I asked another Chinese friend yesterday, should I tell this woman that her name is not a good name? The Americans reading this will immediately understand why it’s not a good name. For others, I may need to explain: "doo doo" is a colloquial name for feces, and "Dodo" is a silly way to refer to a person who is stupid. So both the pronounced and written versions are bad. I mean, I wouldn’t give this name to my dog! My Chinese friend suggested not to tell the person. He said that Chinese don’t take their English names very seriously anyway. They have less hesitation about changing them, as well. When my friend Dolphin needed to take on a more serious, professional role, he changed his name to something a bit more serious.
This advice that Chinese don’t take their English names as English speakers take their own English names is in keeping with feedback I’ve gotten from another Chinese friend. Several months ago, I wrote on this blog about the American-produced Danwei internet TV series called "Sexy Beijing," and specifically about the broadcast "Lost in Translation," a humorous segment about English names adopted by Chinese people. (This is archived in the Entertainment category of my blog entries, but I will quote the relevant portions of the entry at the end of this blog entry, below.) I asked a Chinese friend to look at this segment and tell me if she thought it was insulting or not.
Her response was first, that the name "Sexy Beijing" was humorous in itself, because it’s an obvious, punned reference to the series "Sex in the City." Her response to the "Lost In Translation" segment specifically was that while Americans might think it strange that a Chinese man would choose a name like "Frog" for his English name, we English speakers need to understand that for the person choosing a name, it’s not such a serious thing. English names come and go and it’s acceptable to choose one that is intended lightly or humorously.
It plays both ways. I haven’t given serious, intense thought to my own Chinese name, either. I have not one, but two, Chinese names. That’s because one friend gave me a name, but I didn’t know how to write it. A second friend heard it, misconstrued it, and gave me a different name that’s pronounced the same way but written differently. Both names are good. But not phenomenal. I’m still in the market for a phenomenal Chinese name. And our surname, "Shi," is completely random. When our daughter’s kung fu master wrote her name in calligraphy for her, he assigned her that surname, and now we’re stuck with it (or my husband is, at least) because it would not be appropriate for him to have a different surname from his daughter! So, these things that have very great meaning for a person who resides within the culture, have less import for someone who is not so deeply embedded in the culture.
In the meantime, one of my Chinese friends asked me to help her find a truly excellent name for her son, whose Chinese given name is Zhi Ling. What a serious task! I ended up coming up with a list of about 20 names, with an explanation beside each name of its history and what it meant. I tried to find a name that captured some of the sounds of the name (particularly the Z sound), but of course the Z names in English are more unusual, so I also found some options from more traditional names that weren’t too common but not too unusual and had nice meanings. However, I think she ended up choosing one of the more common names. I don’t really know! I call her son Zhi Ling!
Here is the excerpt from the previous blog entry:
[I recommend ] http://www.danwei.tv/
But for starters, I recommend "Lost in Translation." If you like it, you can use the above link to find more videos.
Here are links to two web sites where this five minute video can be viewed:
For North American users and speakers of English, I recommend the You Tube site:
For Asian users and speakers of Chinese, I recommend the Toudou site: