CULTURE Character conundrum


Character conundrum

By Wei Xi | Global Times

14:48, August 06, 2018

Frequency of foreigners with Chinese names grows, but not every moniker is created equal as some have strong unforeseen connotations


Having a standard Chinese name is becoming increasingly popular among non-native Chinese speakers. (Photos: VCG)

Giving oneself an English name has been in fashion among the Chinese for decades. However, as Chinese language and culture become more known among foreigners, the reverse - foreigners getting Chinese names - seems to be the increasing trend.

But just as Chinese youth may give themselves funny, awkward or sometimes embarrassing English names, non-native Chinese speakers are also very likely to fall into names traps when it comes selecting a Chinese name. 

What's in a name?

Chinese names have a family name, which comes first, and then a given name, which is usually a single character or two Chinese characters joined together. International politicians such as former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd whose Chinese name is Lu Kewen and current US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman (Hong Bopei), to celebrities like US literary translator Howard Goldblatt (Ge Haowen) and stars like Nigerian-born singer Uwechue Emmanuel (Hao Ge) and French-born hostess and actress Aventurina King (Jin Xiaoyu) all have Chinese names that follow this pattern. 

This more authentic structure is very different from the easier and more common way of creating a Chinese name based on the sound of the individual's real name. For example, former US president Barack Obama is simply written as Balake Aobama. The same goes for soccer star David Beckham as Dawei Beikehanmu and the Russian President Vladimir Putin whose Chinese name is Pujing in pinyin.

Like in the West, a person's surname often comes from their family. However, given names are usually created by parents and grandparents and carry meanings that the older generation wishes for the child's future. 

For a foreigner who wants to look for a Chinese name, it is usually easier to choose a surname since there is a book called Baijiaxing (a classic Chinese text composed of more than 500 surnames) where one can find the most commonly used surnames and pick anyone they like. However, because given names are a free combination of any one or two characters, it will be more problematic as the meaning is crucial. 

If one does not know Chinese culture and phrasing well, they are very likely to come up with improper combinations that can refer to an unsavory meaning. 

For example, on Chinese question-and-answer website, a Chinese language teacher shared an experience where a male student in her class named himself Li Caihua unaware that the word caihua is often used to refer rapists and not its literal meaning of "picking flowers." 

Another netizen posted that one of her foreign colleagues' name is Adam Power, which he translated into An Dengpao. Though the pronunciation and meaning of his Chinese and English names are similar, the Chinese characters imply that he is an electrician who installs lamp bulbs, which is almost certainly not what he was going for when he chose the name. 

There are also a few Chinese taboos that do not exist in Western culture. For example, in the English speaking world, giving a person a parent's or grandparent's name is often seen as something good and respectful, but in China, giving a person of the younger generation the same character used by someone of the older generation can be regarded as disrespectful. 

An example of this misstep was posted on Zhihu by a Chinese woman whose friend chose her father's name as his Chinese name because "he wished to have a daughter as smart as his friend." To locals, this may seem disrespectful to her and her family.

A name generator is the most convenient tool non-native Chinese speakers can use to create their Chinese names. But it too does not always work. 

A foreigner named Harry asked Chinese users on Reddit for feedback on his Chinese name Xiong Huarou.

"I'm clueless as to what makes a name a good name in Chinese apart from how I identify with the meanings," he explained.

The characters in his name, Xiong Huarou, mean bear, flower and tender respectively. 

"I am not sure if it works as a man's name, but a name generator came up with it, and I loved the meaning. I am about as soft and feminine as you can get. And the syllables sound somewhat like they are derived from my English name Harry." he said. 

Harry added that he chose the surname Xiong because his frame resembles "what the gay community may call a 'bear,'" and he thinks bears are extremely cute, and Xiong sounds more elegant than other names.

However, to a native Chinese, his name would be considered a weird name for a man because characters related to flowers are seen as women's names. The same goes for the character rou. 

What not many foreigners might know is that while the Chinese language, in general, does not distinguish between masculine and feminine, a few characters are often used in male and female names.

Is a Chinese name necessary?

There is an old saying that goes, "When in Rome, do as the Roman do." So, when foreigners live in China, do they need to have a Chinese name like the Chinese? 

Metropolitan interviewed a few expats and Chinese in Beijing, and their answers differ.

Sandra Eberling (pseudonym) is from the US and has lived in Beijing for two years, but still has "not been in any situation where [she] 100 percent needed to have a Chinese name."

Eberling has given herself the name Bingbing because she is addicted to ice, but when she tells her Chinese friends her name, they often ask whether she named herself after the Chinese actress Fan Bingbing.

"I guess it doesn't matter that much because I once met a Chinese guy named Melon because he said he loved watermelons. Guess we think alike when choosing our foreign names," she told Metropolitan. 

Chris from the UK has a similar opinion. He has lived in China for seven years and got a Chinese name but forgot it.

"I never used it because when you meet people and they ask what your name is, using a Chinese name feels a little bit pretentious," he said.

Kevin Richardson, who comes from South Africa, said though he doesn't think it's necessary to have a Chinese name, "If you plan on staying long enough, you will find a name or get a name eventually." 

By contrast, Fredrik Vold from Norway finds a Chinese name necessary if a foreigner plans to get a driver's license or buy a real estate with the name on the title of the house. 

Yang Ruoyu, a graduate student at Renmin University, said for her, it does not matter whether a foreigner has a Chinese name or not. She told Metropolitan that she has a foreign university professor who finds Chinese too difficult, so most of the time the students use their English names around him. 

However, for those who speak little English like 45-year-old Wang Zhi, if a foreigner wishes to be remembered by most Chinese, it is necessary to have a Chinese name. 

"Most Chinese do not speak English. I think that is why celebrities are more likely to have a Chinese name; they wish the Chinese to feel close to them," he said.

Cover image: Meaning is essential to a Chinese name, so it is easy to make a social blunder if one does not know the Chinese culture well. 

Related Stories

Terms of Service & Privacy Policy

We have updated our privacy policy to comply with the latest laws and regulations. The updated policy explains the mechanism of how we collect and treat your personal data. You can learn more about the rights you have by reading our terms of service. Please read them carefully. By clicking AGREE, you indicate that you have read and agreed to our privacy policies

Agree and continue