What you need to know
When English learners combine foreign language proficiency with traditional naming practices, the results can be unexpected.
One of the quirkier aspects of Chinese popular culture today is the practice of choosing Western names, usually those common to English-speaking nations. Indeed, readers may even have enjoyed a laugh at the expense of a Chinese friend with an unusual name, such as Seven, Strong, or Cupid.
An obvious interpretation of naming practices claims that having a Western name makes it easier for a Chinese person to navigate cross-cultural interactions. This would explain why more and more people have adopted an English name since the late 1970s, when China began its policies of reform and opening up. While this assertion is true in part, it fails to explain why other globalizing countries do not partake as widely in such a phenomenon. Why do, say, the Japanese or Koreans not take English names?
An alternative explanation views the enthusiasm for English names as a manifestation of a more general admiration for the West. In many developing countries, the West is often highly regarded for its level of modernization and political power. As Western culture permeates the developing world, people see changing their names as a way to emulate or share in this success.
However, in my opinion, what both of these interpretations ignore is China’s own rich naming tradition. After all, when Chinese people take English names, they do not give up their birth names; the new name becomes merely an additional moniker. In fact, the adoption of a series of names and nicknames is a long-held custom in the country.
Until the mid-1900s in China, a person would normally inherit their father’s xing, or surname, at birth. Later, at 100 days old, the baby would be given a ming, a personal name chosen by the parents. At the beginning of adulthood — usually age 20 for men and age 15 for women — the individual would be granted an alternative personal name, or a zi. In the Confucian society of ancient China, it was common courtesy to address people using their zi.
Apart from the three kinds of formal names, a self-chosen name known as a hao was also very popular. The zi of the famous Tang dynasty poet Li Bai was “Taibai,” but to this day many Chinese know him by two hao: “The Lay Buddhist of Qinglian” and “The Banished Immortal.” The latter came from a tenet of folk wisdom, which dictated that those who had misbehaved in heaven were frequently exiled to the human realm and became people of great talent.
From the first half of the 20th century onward, as China began to modernize, the practice of taking zi and hao began to die out. Today, most Chinese have only xing and ming. Against this backdrop, the current trend toward taking English names can be viewed as a form of cultural resurgence — a continuation of ancient tradition with a modern twist.
More accurately, English names today play the same role as hao did in traditional China. Both are self-chosen and aim to reveal an aspect of the individual’s personality. In imperial China, the literati would commonly hold several hao at the same time, each intended to shine a light on a different side of their characters or reflect a valuable experience from their lives.
In the same way that one’s hao was bound by certain social conventions, and English names are also subject to certain rules. In today’s China, English names may be commonly used among Chinese colleagues in the workplace but almost never in a familial context or among best friends. As a form of address, English names imply a certain amount of distance between speakers. In this way, these adopted monikers allow people to embody different social identities, in the same way that xing, ming and haodenoted social boundaries in former times.
The fact that certain English names sound off-key to native speakers can be explained by the interaction of local naming traditions with a foreign linguistic context. As Chinese names are composed of characters, and each character carries specific lexical connotations, the idea of a name being somehow “meaningful” is significant in Chinese culture. This stands in contrast to Western names, which often prioritize other characteristics such as phonetic and syllabic combinations.
Unsurprisingly, non-native English speakers typically become familiar with the language before understanding Western naming culture. Dictionaries are easier to get hold of than naming records. No wonder, then, that some Chinese consider it perfectly acceptable to call oneself “Beautiful” or “Almighty.”
In addition, most world religions canonize their saints, a practice that has led to the emergence of established names. However, in China, this phenomenon has not occurred to the same extent, and the process of naming one’s child is much more an exercise in creativity.
As a result, Chinese people are rarely enthused by the idea of sharing names with someone else. While Westerners may see it as a happy coincidence that a stranger at a bar has the same name as them, in China this is more likely to cause awkwardness. When the same principle is applied to finding a unique English name, it is no wonder that you get as many Cheeses as Charlies, or that your philosophy class might be filled with Paradoxes, Morals, and Virtues.
The irony is that proficient English speakers with a rich understanding of Western culture often choose the simplest, most common names. In doing so, they are usually demonstrating both sensitivity to a different set of cultural prompts and a desire to avoid the social awkwardness that arises from teaching non-Mandarin speakers how to pronounce their birth names. Chinese people who are able to assimilate into Western culture, therefore, deny themselves many aspects of their traditional naming culture as a courtesy to foreign acquaintances.
However, we must remain wary of judging English names as somehow inauthentic by virtue of being unusual. The prevalence of such names in China is tied up with the country’s recent history of globalization. While it is easy to assume that this process is somehow imposed on China by Western societies, it is essential to remember that a key stage of globalization is the way it is localized by native cultures. Viewed from this perspective, unusual English names serve to reinforce the richness and flexibility of modern Chinese society.
(The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.)
Editor: Olivia Yang