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Chinese Names
– Big Deal and Big Headache

5 October 2006


In The Tanalect (论语), one of four principal Confucius classics, the master famously says, "What is imperative is to have appropriate names for things."


Because, according to Confucian, "If the name does not reflect the essence, then what is addressed will not be what is defined; if what is addressed is not what is defined, then what is said will not be what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what is doing will not be accomplished."

For over 2000 years, Chinese truly take this message to heart, particularly when personal names are concerned. "If your name does not reflect your true nature, then when you’re called you are not addressed accurately; if you are not addressed accurately, then your place in life will not be defined properly; if your place is not defined properly, then your aspiration will not be realised." They say, or at least the name-name masters would say.

But to have an ideal name is a tall order in today’s reality. With one in every five people on earth is Chinese, you’ll be lucky to come up with a name that is good enough to separate you from the rest your peers, let along to find one which is also well-defined and essence-reflective and aspiration inspiring.

Although Chinese boast to have 4,000 some surnames, the commonly used are less than one hundred, with the top 10 popular ones accounted for 40 per cent of all usages, such as Zhang (张), Wang (王), Li (李), Zhao (赵), Chen (陈), Yang (杨), Wu (吴), Liu (刘), Huang (黄), Zhou (周).

So the glorious task of distinguishing you from others squarely lands on the shoulder of your first name.

Considering 1.3 billion Chinese have already taken a first name, and 20 million new Chinese born each year also like to have a first name, how hard is the task? Very hard, you bet.

About a month ago a list of some most used full names was posted on the Internet, which include Liu Po (刘波), Li Strong (李刚), Li Ocean (李海), Zhang Brave (张勇), Wang Brave (王勇), Zhang Great (张伟), Liu Great (刘伟), Wang Great (王伟) and Li Great (李伟), each is said to be shared by millions.

What adds more pressure on the already strained situation is the everlasting love affairs that Chinese have with the Five Agents.

Traditionally, when came to name a baby, many Chinese would look at the four pillars consisted of eight characters, namely the heavenly stems and earthly branches of the birth year, month, day and time. From there on an expert would be able to determine the inherited composition of the Five Agents, and pick a character with a complimentary property to balance the birth chart. For instance if a baby’s birth chart is overwhelmingly dry, a character with a water radical may be chosen as his or part of his first name.

Sometimes the balance concern even goes beyond the scope of individual names and include the whole generation.

It is said that to ensure a constructive relationship between the predecessors and successors, the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty designed a sequence of radicals, each of which assigned to a generation. His sons had a wood radical in their first names, and accordingly his grandsons got a fire radical and his great-grand sons an earth radical. It follows the principle that the wood nurtures the fire and the fire nurtures the earth, and so on so forth.

The practice as such certainly has its merit, but it undoubtedly further narrows down the range of the Chinese characters that can be used as first names.

In reality, however, there was never a problem in identifying a historical figure. It is because in the past thousands years, Chinese adopted a multiple-name system, meaning apart from a first name (名), one would also have an academic name (字) and a title (号).

Tang poet Li Bai, for example, was surnamed Li (李). His first name is Bai (白 White), academic name is Taibai (太白 Pure White) and his title is Qinglian Juzhi (青莲居士 Blue Lily Cultivator).

The multi-name system has been, nevertheless, abolished along with most Chinese traditions when the Western custom gains more and more foothold in China. But the practice of using name to balance the Five Agents composition in birth chart remains. In fact, in recently decade, this exercise has become more popular than ever.

And the result of this is an increased problem of personal identification.

In order to counter the confusion, some Chinese goes extreme. A man in Beijing allegedly went to police and insisted to change his name to "@", saying it would make him stand out from the crowd. It certainly would, imagine someone is called "Zhang @", how can you not to take notice of him.

Most people, of course, do not go that far, and they go for dictionaries instead, searching for the characters seldom used in contemporary language.

When the new semester began in September this year and brand new students started their first day in school, local newspapers in Chengdu reported some bizarre scenes in classrooms: Some teachers needed encyclopedias to help the roll call – there was no way on earth they could know how to pronounce those strange images in some of their students' names.

According to the Chinese police, as many as 4,600 characters currently used in first names can not be found in computer database, which presents a real hazard when coming to issue an id card to as many as 40,000 strong name-challenging citizens.

As Chinese continuously make their name a big deal – rightly by all means – it will persistently cause big headache to themselves, to others, and to police, too.

Li Bai: Hi Moon, Have a drink with me! By the way, is moon your surname? You first name? Your academic name? Or your title?

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