Last week I heard something I couldn’t help but laugh at – an American guy told me of two teenage boys he’d taught in an English class at a Chinese school. The boys chose for themselves the names “Jack” and “Rose” because they love the movie Titanic.
I started writing a post about strange English names some Chinese people have (like Nemesis, Winxp, and Christmas Tree), but then I decided instead to explain the Chinese naming system – a big reason for the existance of these kind of amusing anecdotes.
In English, there are recognised names – words that have no meaning on their own, but are simply names. Like John, Mary, Andrew, Janet, Cody, Emily, Malcolm, Kylie… they are not words other than being names. We can often find a meaning, derived from an ancient use of the word, but they aren’t words we use for anything other than a name. While it’s become more common to make up unique names, or create alternative spellings for traditional names, that’s still not the norm – and they are usually still names only, not words.
Chinese does not have a set of names like this. There is a set inventory of Chinese surnames, but given names are chosen from existing words. Some English names are like this – words as well as names – such as Rose, Grace, or April. There are less male names like this, and they’re less common – Cliff, for example.
Most Chinese names are 2 or 3 characters long. The first character is the surname. There are only 4,000 ish different surnames in China, as opposed to over 6 million in the US. In fact, the Chinese phrase most commonly used to refer to the common people is 老百姓 (lao bai xing) or “100 surnames”. A few Chinese surnames are two characters long but these are very, very rare. Probably the most common of these (and the only one I’ve ever come across in everyday life) is Ouyang.
A child is generally given the father’s surname. Women in China do not change their surname when they marry. In one of the first conversations I had in China, a Chinese guy asked me (in English) if it’s true that women in the west take their husband’s surname when they marry. When I replied that some do, but not all, he was stunned. He seemed to think it a very primitive thing to do.
So, first comes the father’s surname. If the name is three characters long, the second will usually be a generational name – a name that is shared by all male/female children from that generation of the family (I believe this is common in Korea, as well). The final character is the child’s unique name. Where there is no generational name, the child may simply have a one character given name, or perhaps a two character given name consisting of two unique names. Sometimes the name will be a single character repeated, like a colleague of mine in Langfang – Li Jingjing (李晶晶 – jing meaning “crystal”).
A good example to explain this naming system comes from two ladies I worked with in Langfang – Ding Jiuhui and Ding Jiuxin. They are from the same family (on their fathers’ side) so they share the surname Ding. They are also from the same generation (they are cousins, although I’m not sure how closely related) and share the generational name Jiu. Each then has her own specific name, Hui and Xin.
Since there is no list of names to choose from, an “ordinary” character is chosen for a child’s given name, and much thought goes to picking an appropriate one. The meaning of the word is considered, and a unique name (one no one else will have) is often considered preferrable. Certain “themes” are obvious among certain generations – many people in their 40s have the character 红 hong (red) in their name, for example. It’s not uncommon for well educated families to choose characters that are quite obscure – used only in poetry rather than real life – and for less educated families to choose more practical names. I suspect that distinction will get less and less common as the country’s literacy rate increases. Grandparents are traditionally consulted when naming a child, and we are quickly passing the last generation of grandparents in which a large percentage missed out on education, and many were functionally illiterate.
This brings us full circle – to why there are so many “interesting” English names chosen by Chinese. The Chinese naming practice is to choose an interesting word, with an interesting meaning, something uncommon. When you apply this to choosing an English name, there are interesting results – like Ice, Smile, Superman, Apple, Pretty, and Satan. English names that have concrete meanings are very popular, so you meet a lot of girls named Sunny or Candy. Lily is especially popular because it sounds similar to the Chinese for “beautiful” (丽 li). Often, a Chinese kid may be given a nice, normal English name by a native-speaking English teacher, then give it up in exchange for something they consider more appropriate – something that sounds strange to most English speakers.