Sometimes it’s worth taking a step back from the way we do things, and taking a look at something different.
What appears to us as “just the way things are” can seem completely different went thrown into relief against other cultures.
So it is with Western naming conventions. And what better place to see how things can be done differently than the newly-crowned second largest economy in the world, and perhaps the major power with the greatest cultural distance from the West: China.
How do Chinese naming conventions differ from those in the West? Try these for size, and imagine how different it would be to live under these cultural circumstances.
1) Family Name Comes First
Most people know at least a few Chinese names off the top of their heads. Mao Zedong. Former leader Deng Xiaoping. Current President Hu Jintao, or his Premier Wen Jiaobao. Or perhaps just Jackie Chan (whose Chinese moniker is Cheng Long, which, like ‘Jackie’, is a fictional name).
What is not immediately clear is that these names are not the same way round as in the West. If you were to meet the old Chairman, shake his hand, and call him ‘Mr Zedong’, you’d look very silly indeed.
The Chinese put family names first. Mao is Mao’s surname; Zedong is his given name. Hu Jintao’s family name is Hu, and so on.
The equivalent would be to name the US President ‘Obama Barack’, or the actress ‘Paltrow Gwyneth’, or the Venetian explorer ‘Polo Marco’.
Some speculate that this ordering represents the traditional importance of the family in Chinese culture. Others think that it may be yet another linguistic accident with essentially no meaning whatsoever, which (like much of Chinese language) seems back-to-front to anyone from the West. Either way, it’s undeniably a very different way of doing things.
2) Surnames Aren’t So Different
You might have noticed this in the ethnically-Chinese people you know in the West. Quite a few seem to have the same surname. So many Zhangs, Chans, Wus, and Wangs.
This isn’t some mere migratory coincidence. It’s actually a reflection of how things are on the mainland. In contrast to Western countries, the variety of surnames in China is very, very low.
In fact the 100 most common names make up 85% of the population. Among those, the surname Li represents 7.9% of the country, while Wang and Zhang make up 7.4% and 7.1% respectively.
Together these three surnames are the most widespread in the world, making up over 300 million people – almost the entire population of the United States. And you thought your family tree was hard to manage…
3) But Given Names Are Very Different Indeed
While we might find it strange for so many Chinese to share the same surname, they find it equally odd for so many in the West to share the same forename.
Whereas most of us know a few Janes, Johns, Jameses, Saras, and Andrews, this repetition does not really happen in China. In fact the focus is on creating a unique name for your child, which won’t be shared with others or copied from elsewhere.
The names are also designed to mean something. It could be anything from Xiao-Long (小龍), meaning ‘little dragon’, to Li-Kong (立功), which means something close to ‘worthy of merit’.
The problem, of course, arises when Chinese people take this naming logic and apply it to Western culture. It’s not unusual for Western teachers in China to come across students with names like ‘Hot Sauce’, or ‘Big Great Guy’. The reverse is also true, however: when we select Chinese names because they ‘sound nice’, we can end up giving ourselves monikers with strange meanings which make no sense in the Middle Kingdom.
So next time you think it’s hard to select a name for a newborn, count yourself lucky: at least you have a finite pool to choose from. In China, you have to create a name from scratch which not only sounds pleasant but has all the most propitious meanings built into it.