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It's all in the name
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"My name is Jail", a Peking Uni student replied when I asked for her name. I looked at her face blankly, hoping for a “gotcha” or “just kidding”. What I got instead was, "How about yours?" I run into these kinds of people all the time, these mavericks of the English lexicon. The other day I found "Money"; at a local restaurant, I met a "Flag". One language specialist remarked, "Chinese don’t necessarily understand the cultural connotations of their English name or the meaning". As many others, Jail chose her name because it sounds good. It is often a challenge for foreigners to pronounce Chinese names correctly. One slip of the tone and you might be insulting someone. As a result, many Chinese, when their name is mispronounced, simply say, "Just use my English name".   

Of course, English names in China are a recent phenomenon. Naming has always been an integral part of Chinese culture as a child's name could determine that person's luck or fortunes in his or her future education, career, and even marriage. Unlike English names, each Chinese name is individually created, unlike the millions of generic Johns, Jennifers, and Michaels out there. The beginning of a bright future starts out with the correct name. Chinese tradition, among other things, calls for the correct number of strokes. The five elements (wood, earth, water, fire, and stone) are also taken into consideration for names as the correct balance of elements is needed to ensure the right name. Furthermore, a child's horoscope would be consulted, tracking the day, month, and year that the child is born.

The names of children also involved the warding off of evil spirits. In Chinese tradition, children were not given names during the first month because it was feared that demons would take their spirits away. Demons were feared to cause illness and premature death so many precautions were taken to ensure a child's safety. In some cases, infants were given derogatory names like "Pig Manure" or "Dog" so that the demons would be less inclined to harm the child.

Traditional Chinese culture favored and still favors boys over girls. Having a boy was a cause for celebration, one in which the entire family would celebrate. A girl's birth would cause little fanfare if not downright disappointment. While the naming of boys would be an intricate and solemn affair, girls would be given little attention in this respect. It would not be uncommon to find a girl named "Little Mistake" or "Wishing for a Brother".

While men had the opportunity to distinguish themselves by their names, women were not invited to participate in the wit and joking of names that men did. In fact, according to research done by anthropologists, many women in traditional villages did not have a given name by the time they were considered seniors. Instead of addressing these women by their given names, family members and friends would address them by "grandmother" or "aunty". These women would still be tied to their family name, but any title that would assume any sort of individuality apart from their family would be nonexistent.

In the past, given names were exclusively reserved for use by family members. Calling someone by their ming, or given name, would be considered an insult or a rebuke just as, in the West, calling someone by their full name is usually used when a mother is correcting her son. Instead, Chinese men would develop many nicknames, known as zi in Chinese. When meeting a stranger, a Chinese man would rather give their nickname than their real name. The identity of a person is convoluted and mysterious, opposite of the West where one first knows of a person's name before one knows that person. Many of China's great historical figures had nicknames. Mao Zedong's nickname was Runzhi, which means "benefiting something". A man's name and title was equal to his place in society. Accomplished men provided their own hao, a self-chosen nickname around the age of twenty. A commoner could create their own hao, but it would rarely be used, if at all. The alias was an indication of what the person would like to achieve or become. Li Bai, the greatest Chinese poet, chose the nickname Tai Bai, which refers to Venus, signifying a white light in the dark sky.

Today, things have changed. Men no longer have four or five names as they used to and women are no longer nameless. For the most part, people's names consist of their surname, xing, and their given name, ming. The change of China's names represents fundamental shifts in culture that China has gone through within the last century. As community lines have become blurred in the face of modernization, Chinese no longer hide their identities, and their names. Women have a greater place in the workplace, in politics, and in society. The great shift towards gender equality has brought about a change in mindsets towards female names. A woman is no longer necessarily defined by her male counterparts, her husband, her father, but is an individual in her own right.

After years of reform and modernization, Chinese society, culture, and names have undergone rampant change. As China is now a vibrant and thriving nation, many of its traditions have declined. Naming a child does not necessarily carry the same significance it did a century ago. However, many of these traditions are returning as Chinese are looking back to the past to make sense of the bewildering effects of China’s growth. However much modern society emphasizes the place of the individual, in order to be recognized, one must still make a name for oneself.

(China.org.cn by Jonathan Hwang April 11, 2008)

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