Posted in China

The Chinese “English Name” Culture

I’m sure everyone has heard any number of jokes about Chinese names, such as the Wong Fook Hing book store meme that went viral a few years back. But its not just Chinese names that we can have a giggle at, there is a whole culture in China surrounding giving yourself an English name – and many of these names sound just as funny and ridiculous to us native English speakers.

For example, if you’re ever in China be prepared to meet any number of respectable professional women who have, for want of a better expression, “stripper” names. I know an Art professor called Candy and a logistics professional called Unique. The guy who interviewed me for my first job in China is called Rock. I even met one guy called Giant Squid!

Believe me, it gets better!

Often Chinese people keep their own surname and only give themselves an English first name. The results can be, well, unintended. Some genuine cases of this strategy going slightly wrong include Annie Tang (anything), Harry Thai (hairy thigh), Barbie Kiu (Barbecue) and Never Wong.

So why does China have such a strange “English name” culture? Most people who laugh at Chinese names probably haven’t thought about this question. Those that have tend to give ridiculously over-simplistic answers. I’ve heard it said that Chinese people sometimes give themselves strange English names because they don’t understand our naming culture. This might be true to an extent, but a much more relevant answer is that these names sound ridiculous to us because we don’t understand the Chinese naming culture.

Chinese people, when giving themselves an English name, do not somehow magically extract themselves from their own culture and their own way of doing things. Besides, often the reason for giving themselves an English name can be because its considered fashionable, or because its easier for foreigners to pronounce. It is very rarely because they want to assimilate into the cultures of countries that are literally on the other side of the world from them – they are not trying to be like us. This last point is worth remembering.

So what is the Chinese naming culture? I’ve set out four points below that I hope explains it to an extent (although bear in mind that I’m a newcomer to China, I’m far from an expert on matters of Chinese culture so if I get something wrong here let me know and I’ll correct it).

The first thing to note is that a Chinese given name can also be any word or character. In China there isn’t a strong distinction between a regular word and a name. This is why Chinese people with English names such as Boat, Rock, and Genius have these names, they are very likely direct translations of the person’s Chinese name.

We should also remember that Chinese is a much more complex language than English, they have a whole other level of language rooted in their characters. These characters, while very intimidating to those of us who like letters and alphabets, are actually intricate and beautiful representations of words and meaning. There is actually even a level of Feng Shui in these characters called the Five Elements. It is important for these elements (fire, water, stone, metal, and wood) to be balanced. If someone has a lot of Fire in their Chinese name they might want some water in their English name – so they pick Ocean!

Another relevant point to consider is that in China you can have a variant of a name that quite literally no one else you know has. It has been estimated that there are about 46,000 Chinese characters. Basic literacy only requires you to know about 2000 of these characters, and the average educated person in China knows around 4000 to 5000. That leaves a lot of characters that range from rare to extremely rare. And as we noted above, there isn’t a big distinction between names and words in China, so it becomes very easy to have quite a unique name given the sheer volume of rare characters to compose a name from. This could be a very unique character with a meaning deeply rooted in your family’s values, or simply one chosen purely for its rarity. When these practices are used in the “English name” culture in China people will try to find a name that no one else has – sometimes even inventing a name! An example of this: I met a guy called Karx, who told me he made it up himself by combining “Karl” and “Marx” (well, that’s what he told me anyway!)

Finally, remember that Chinese people put a lot of emphasis on the meaning of a name. While English names have meanings (check a baby name book, for example), in our culture we don’t attach much importance to these names – we usually just give our kids names we like the sound of. In China, the meaning of the name is extremely important – to the extent that parents often give their children literal names like “Brave”, “Strong”, “Beauty” etc. When choosing an English name for themselves many Chinese follow this way of thinking.

So by all means have a giggle if you hear a funny name, some of them are genuinely funny to Westerners. But just remember, if you’re laughing at a Chinese person because of their English name and thinking “That stupid Chinese person doesn’t understand English names!” then there’s a very good chance that that Chinese person would be thinking to themselves “That stupid laowai doesn’t understand how to choose a name properly!”


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