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It's All in the Name
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The name might be too long, for example, Ouyang Chenggong, who lives in southwest China's Chongqing Municipality, recently decided to change his son's name from Ouyang Zumin to Ouyang Chenggong Fenfatuqiang. But Mr. Ouyang was shocked when the local household registration bureau's computer system rejected the name: it was too long, www.chinanews.com.cn reported on August 5.

The father's own given name of "Chenggong" means "success". Dad wished to change his son's given name from "Zumin", which means "ancestors' people", to "Chenggong Fenfatuqiang", which signifies "going all out to achieve success". Because the computer couldn't cope with all the characters, the father had to give up.

A Chinese name is written with the surname first and the given name second. The given name usually may have one or two characters, perhaps expressing diverse sentiments. For example, Aihua can signify either "love China" or "love prosperity". Chinese names often describe desirable and noble future attributes that the parents hope to see displayed in their child's mature character.

Traditionally rural Chinese people often call a child with a nickname that sounds very unfavorable, even displeasing, to the ear but these names are thought to both protect their children and to help parents effectively rear them. This concept was extremely popular pre-1950, when China had not yet solved the problems of adequate food and clothing. For example, one of the most popular given names in the Chinese countryside before the 1950s was "Gousheng" – literally: "dishes even the dogs ignore". Certainly this is a name that holds little appeal but it is nonetheless still heard today, especially in rural areas.

Some Chinese names mark their eras by bearing great social and political significance. Thus, there was a time when the common given names as "Kangmei" – literally: "War to Resist US Aggression" and "Yuanchao" – literally: "Aid Korea" were popular in the early 1950s. "Yuejin" refers to the Great Leap Forward Movement (1958-1959). Three brothers in Beijing were named "Weiguo", "Weimin" and "Ligong", translated respectively as: "protect the country", "protect the people" and "win honor".

After 1978 China implemented the Reform and Open Door Policy, given names pleasing to the ear and reflecting human interest won greater favor. Some young couples born after the 1980s have given their newborns names with more individual characteristics. The martial arts novels of Jin Yong and the sentimental novels of Qiong Yao are now used by some couples in choosing names.

Other young couples have even opted for foreign names, such as "Linda", "Mary", "Mike" and "Henry" despite the fact that conservative Chinese still think these names do not conform to the nation's traditional mentality and culture.

The Marriage Law of China stipulates that a newborn can have the surname of either the father or the mother, but it does not specifically mention a combined surname. Du Ruofu, a researcher on Chinese surnames now retired from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said that combined surnames are becoming popular with young people.

Including the mother's surname also shows gender equality and it can vastly reduce name repetition, he stressed.

To avoid repetition, some couples give their newborns more than three given names as the aforementioned Mr. Ouyang tried to do. But household registration computers usually reject such tedious appellations.

Some Chinese people even relate names to feng shui, or geomancy. Thus, a name may augur a person's position, career or future life. Liu Yutong, a middle school girl, changed her name to Liu Fangjiao because she was told by a geomancer that "Yutong" (bright red universe) sounded too thrilling; it was an unlucky name for a girl. Her new name became "Fangjiao" (sweet-smelling mountain path) because it sounds more gentle and auspicious.

But many modern Chinese think it is ridiculous to relate names to feng shui. If one's life or future is decided by one's name, why then do people with the same name receive different fates?

Certainly Chinese names have many complex cultural components. For a Chinese, one's name may signal many hidden things: class, historical era and parental aspirations, to name a few.

(China.org.cn by Li Jingrong, August 8, 2007)

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