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
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,
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
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
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
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
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?
Humanity, One Family
Scholars Are Noble Cut