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01 July, 2007:
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What’s in a name?

A Standard Chinese Business Card (名片)

In Chinese, the answer to this question is more complicated than it was for Romeo and Juliet. In the West, a name is little more than a label picked from a stock of commonly recognized words. Daniel, John, Alex and Samuel are universally recognized as names, and they have no other inherent meaning. It could be that a name has a story behind it: for example, a name like Daniel may be chosen because of biblical significance. Even so, a name is just a name.

Surnames are a different story. Some, such as Smith and Cooper, refer to a profession. Other names come from places, and some come from personal characteristics of distant ancestors. In English, there are even many names that come from other languages—a concept entirely foreign to Chinese.

Chinese names are entirely different. There is a traditional saying in China, “不怕生错命, 就怕起错名 (bu4pa4sheng1cuo4ming4, jiu4pa4qi3cuo4ming2).” This Phrase means, “Don’t worry about being born with the wrong destiny, worry about being given the wrong name.” Fate and names are intertwined. Traditionally, a child’s paternal grandparents, 祖父和祖母 zu3fu4he2zu3mu3, are responsible for giving a name. This task is considered extremely important, and does not necessarily happen immediately after birth. It could be several months before a child is given his or her name. When a name is finally decided on, there is usually a festive celebration.

If the careful thought and time that go into naming a newborn child are not evidence enough of the importance of names in Chinese culture, any textbook on the subject will write it out in plain prose. In fact, such texts are likely to start out with exactly the same sentence: “In China, whenever people meet, the first thing they ask is ‘您贵姓? (nin2gui4xing4)’ ‘What is your honorable surname?’ and '你称什么名字? (ni3 cheng2 shen2me ming2zi4)’ ‘What given name do you go by?’” While Western names are little more than a convenient sign, Chinese names are imbued with a certain meaning that is traditionally important. A rose may be a rose by any other name, but according to Chinese tradition, Romeo’s fate would have been dramatically different were he not Romeo called.

Choose From the links below to learn more about names in China:

The Basics

Understand the basics of Chinese names: the fundamental building blocks and the structure that they fit in so that Chinese people know what to call each other.


Surnames

We've all heard jokes about people having "more Chins than a Chinese phone book." Click here to learn more about the ubiquitous Lis, Wangs and Zhangs throughout the world.


Given Names

Ever wonder why you have met girls named "Smile" and people who seem to use the same name twice? Curious about why your friends who are brothers have almost the same name? Look here to find the answers to these questions and more.


What People Call Each Other

So Chinese have these complicated names... What do people actually call each other? They couldn't possibly go around using full names all the time.