After I wrote about Chinese Characters (which is an interesting topic), let me talk about the name of people in China. Just as the last article, I “intentionally” over-simplify it since 1) how can it be possible to tell the “complete” story with such a short answer 2) why people need to understand that details when they are first exposed to such topics.
What’s in the Name?
I chatted with Chris the other day about giving naming to my son – it was not an easy task. I asked: Do you have explicit meaning in English names? I assume there is no for most names, and the choice is just about pronunciation and because people who are named with this name. (Is this true?)
The Chinese name is different. There are only limited number of Chinese characters (you cannot create a new one, and it is always impossible to create a “typo” on computer since you cannot create one characters on computer), and there are just a small subsets that are often used (within 2000). That means, every single character has explicit meanings. It is either some physical objects (like mountain, rain, cloud, tree, gold), or some concept like happiness, good, wisdom…
Finding out the name is like write a very poem. Everything express some meaning so you need express something with the two or three characters.
So, ask what the meaning of their name when you meet a person from China, and you will be surprised by how deep the meaning of the names are.
Unlike English names, people put family name in the first place, and the given name the second. It shows respect to the anscester.
There are not so many last names. The common saying is “100” last names in China, but actually, there is more than that. To recite all the 100 last names with the exact order is one of the must-do task for children in the past.
Common last names are:
Wang, Zhao, Zhang, Li, Yang, Sun, Zhou, Wu, Zheng…
The Middle Names
People in China actually don’t have middle names.
In tradition, all the names are three characters, with the first character as last name, and the rest two are the given name. However, in many families, the first character of the given name is a mark of the generation. (Let me name it as middle name, although people in China don’t call it so). Everyone in the same generation has exactly the same middle name.
For example, according to the Family History Booklet, my middle name should be Zhong 重. This has been determined hundreds of years ago already, so I know my son’s middle name, or my grandson, or his son, or grandson’s middle name.
The usage of this middle name is make sure when two person with the same last name meets, they can immediately tell what generation he is, and they know how they should address the other. It is not rare for a person of 70 to call a person of just 5 grandfather…
So, when the last name, and the middle name are determined, people typically only need to think of one name – the second character of the given name. The tradition is, you cannot use the same name as your ancestor, even names with similar pronunciation to show respect. There are thousands of characters, and there are only hundreds of pronunciation in China, so you can calculate how many characters with exactly the same pronunciation. So this further limit the options.
The Sense of Family History
When I read the history of my family, I realized I am the 20th generation of the family living in that small place. The first generation, according to the history, moved from Shanxi province to Henan Province in the year 1380. We know the name of this person, and how many children he has (and what is their names), and the all the way down to me – it is a very big family tree there. When I read about the person who record the relationship. They did the work in the 15th century, and once in the 18th century, and the latest work is in 1993. I was amazed by how long the history of my family is. I just discovered this when I am thinking about names for my son, who is the 21th generation of the family.
We finally turned out that we didn’t follow the naming standard recorded in the Booklet. However, I will tell Yifan what generation and what “middle name” he should have. In China, the recent two or three generations typically give up the old way of giving names, so people have two characters name or three, or even more. It is chaos. The long history of naming in China gradually got lost… It is a pity.