In The News

Thu 22 Jun 2017

Why is a Chinese Name Important?


International Business
animated people in line with one with question mark above head

Ethnic Chinese living in the United States, have been stereotyped into a group of quiet and deferential people who seldom speak out.  They are known to work hard in their studies, and just keep their heads down perhaps in fear of standing out in an ethnically diverse community.  A group of students from Columbia University wanted to change this impression.

For this post, I thought I’d take a break from my usual business topic, to talk about something cultural.  I was recently inspired by a story about a group of Chinese students, who had bonded together, to create a protest video, against a racially motivated prank at the Columbia University.  Upon coming back from a two week break for Chinese New Year, students with East Asian sounding names, discovered that the name tags outside their rooms were vandalised.

In response, a group led by a sociology and film student, Yan Huhe, produced a video entitled, “Say My Name.”  The original intent was to have it circulated among students and campus workers, to signify their displeasure, and to protest such acts of intimidation.  It surprised Yan and his group that their video became viral, with hundreds of thousands of views, and thousands more of shares.

Their video response showed how Chinese names can convey very important messages, and meanings both for their owners and their parents.  The Chinese don’t immediately christen their children with Western or English names, so the typical Chinese name is not Jacky or Bruce.  (I hope you’re not disappointed.)  There is an impression that Chinese living overseas willingly give up their names for Western ones when they move to another country.

This is not because of any shame or disdain for their real names, but is done for convenience and easier recall.  Moreover, it keeps their names from being “butchered,” when spoken incorrectly.  This is because Chinese words vary in meaning based on the tone that you use.

There are four tones in all.  Each word will mean differently depending on which tone is used.  For instance, the word for mother, can mean horse, if it is said with the incorrect tone.  Now imagine there are two other tones that can make a simple word like mother, take on another meaning.  So, you are not just trying to memorise Chinese names, but you also need to remember to use the correct tone.

Chinese names have three characters.  The first character represents their last names, and the last two, their first names.  Unlike English or Western names, the Chinese write their names in reverse, with the last name ahead of two characters that represent their first names.

Chinese last names represent lineage or clan.  It is in the first names that it gets creative and meaningful.  They usually represent the aspirations of parents for their children.  One of the students in the video disclosed that her name meant that her parents wanted her to be one who can break the glass ceiling for women.  Yan Huhe, the spearhead of the group, for his part said his name meant, to preach harmony, and it is also the first three characters of the city he comes from.

It is important that we learn something about a culture before we judge it.  These students conveyed the right and positive message, in response to a crude and tasteless act.  My hats off to them.


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