A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Melimei

Míngzì (Names)


I have been teaching English in China for a year now, and during that time, I have come to see how names work differently in different cultures.

As it is generally accepted that foreign teachers are incapable of saying Chinese names, students have had to choose an English name for class. The vast and sometimes amusing array of names I have come across has peeked my curiosity as to how and why these names were adopted.

Here are some examples of my students' English names (aged 4-15 years old):
A lot of 'Zero's
A lot of double letters like: CiCi, JJ, BB, Kiki, Coco, Mimi etc
UFO (seriously)

The most common boys names are Bob, Jack, John, Bill, Ken, Tom and Jerry.
The most common girls names seem to be quite old fashioned, like something out of an Enid Blyton book: Wendy, Fanni, Maggie, Cindy, Betty, Doris and Mary. Or they are dangerously close to having connotations of stripper names: Candy, Cherry, Cookie, Red.


In one of my classes, the smallest boy (who is literally tiny) has 'Big' for his English name. Here's hoping, I suppose.

Some names seem to have been made up altogether, whereby they have to then tell the teacher how to pronounce this new-fangled word (defeating the purpose altogether):
Cherem, Bessi, Billow, Meek, Dietman, Luffy, Seveus, (all for boys), and
Yuvia, Jelisa, Hebe, Yetter, Risher, Hedy, Treix (girls).


It got me to wonder why we as Westerners find these names so bazaar, why we object to nouns or adjectives being used as names. Why should I find, "Good morning, Black" so weird to say when my own name, 'Melanie' apparently derives from the greek for 'black' (also in 'melanin', the pigment of our skin)?

Here are a few distinct differences in the use of names that I have noticed between the Chinese and Western cultures in general:

1. In the West, a baby is usually named after someone in the family - the name is a heritage of sorts, where parents honour a person by naming their baby after them. Chinese parents on the other hand never repeat a name in the family - each and every name is completely unique.

2. Western names have ancient and ambiguous meanings, and many people don't know the meaning of their name, as it is not apparently obvious or the meaning tends to vary between name books. It is not common to ask 'What does your name mean?' right after asking 'What's your name?'. In China, the name is all about the meaning, and parents usually name the child after birth. From my experience, Western parents usually have a name lined up while the baby is still in the womb.

3. Chinese names are made up of three parts: firstly the family name, and then the combination of the next two characters makes up the meaning of the given name. The surname is always written first. In the West, although there may be a middle name registered, people are not often addressed by both their first and middle names, and of course, the given name is written first. Quite significant when you think about where the respective cultures place value - on the community of family or on the individual.

4. Western names are not 'words' so to speak- not used in everyday language. That is how they are recognised as names. In Chinese, the individual characters of the name are normal words- it is the combination of the three that distinguishes it as a name.

Chinese names are so steeped in significance it is beautiful. Here are some of my friends' names:

杜小娟: Du (family name), Xiao (small/ little), Juan (beautiful and smart).
刘敏立: Liu (family name), Min (smart/ quick), Li (to stand up and be a man) with connotations of an old saying about honesty and credibility.
肖丽君: Xiao (family name), Li (beautiful), Jun (capable and independent).
刘彦希: Liu (family name), Yan (wisdom), Xi (hope).
吴时博: Wu (family name), Shi (time, eternity), Bo (rich, abundant).
马哓: Ma (family name- also horse), Xiao (brave, valiant).

So how do they go from these deeply meaningful names to such random English names?
What is it like to be able to choose your own name?

I have asked many of my students just this question, and it seems that many hear a name in a movie and adopt it as their own, or call themselves after celebrities: Jobs, Kobe and Jordan are frequent favourites. Some choose a name that starts with the same letter as their Chinese name or manage to match their English name to the meaning of their Chinese name. Others are just given names by their teacher. Bob1 and Bob2. Nice.

This means their adopted name has no concrete status and doesn't seem to have any claim on identity - which again baffles my Western mindsets.
Mary was not happy in a class about amusement parks because the other students would point at her whenever we said 'merry-go-round' and laugh, despite my best efforts to point out the difference. So it was "Teacher, I'm changing my name to Cindy". Then, when we moved to the next chapter: "No teacher, I'm not Cindy anymore, I'm Mary". "Ok Cindy... I mean Mary. Turn to page 15".


An outstanding student of mine - studying 2 years ahead of his age, speaking excellent English with a decidedly American accent (learnt on his own from watching movies) calls himself 'Einstein'. I asked this tiny 10-year-old: "Einstein, do you know what you want to be when you grow up?" and he comes back with a drawling: "Yeah, I wanna study physics at Harvard Uni and go on to be a scientist." Amazing.

A friend was telling me about Japanese surnames, how families had to choose a surname at will after the Meiji restoration in the 19th century. So many surnames are just features of rural landscape: whatever people saw around them or wherever they were at the time of the census: HONDA means "base of the fields", INOUE means "above the well", and FUJIMOTO means "the base of Mount Fuiji".

I also heard that in Mongolia, a child is given the father's first name as a surname. Therefore, if a John Smith (to use English names as we seem incapable of using anything else) has a son, and gives the son the name Mark, the son's full name, as it appears in passports and the like, is Mark John. And so on. So a person does not just introduce themselves with their name, but also their father. Cool huh? (I verified this with Wikipedia).

And so the saying goes:

What's in a name?

A lot more in some cultures than in others apparently.

Posted by Melimei 06:05 Archived in China Comments (0)

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