Chinese names: Legacy and identity

By Li Feixian

Many Chinese names are derived from China’s heroes and legends. China has one of the oldest civilizations in the world and it has spawned generations of brilliant individuals from powerful emperors like Qin Shi Huang and Li Shi Min to outstanding scholars like Confucius and Lao Zi. The dazzling emblematic names of these heroes have survived many centuries and they stand as the paragon of valour, integrity and wisdom. For the Chinese, a person’s name is of vital importance and its choice is determining. A name speaks volumes. It brings fortune and luck to its bearer.

The Chinese name constitutes three characters. The first is his clan group (Li, Wang, Wu, Houng and so on), the second is his generational status and the third is his name. For the Chinese, once the name of a person is spelt out, it indicates from which clan and which generation you hail from. It becomes easy to retrace the person in the genealogical tree. In Ancient China members of clan associations are often identified by generation names. (Cousins share a common character in their names).They develop strong family kinship. The Chinese name is the embodiment of the person expressing his aspirations, convictions, skills and his personality. It links to one’s past (family background and history), one’s temperament, beliefs and talents and one’s future (aspirations, hopes and dreams).

The Chinese also believe that the name has an impact on our future life. An ill-fated name can lead to a catastrophic life. Names can have a positive influence on our life. They should be pleasant to the eyes and ears. It must be easy to remember them and they should not be too complex. People with names like Joy and Happy, according to a belief, lived longer than others. Likewise, the Chinese choose characters with specific qualities that they would like to own such as nian (life or longevity), fu (luck) and le (happiness). Many try to live up to the qualities depicted in their names.

There is a wide array of methods to devise names. We have names that express virtues. There are also names of places. Some like to call their offspring after their birthplace to express their attachment to these places. There are also names of flowers or rivers or seasons. Traditionally not many Chinese characters were used for female names. Today almost all the characters previously restricted to male names can be used for female names. A woman although married still retain her maiden name and is identified as such in society.

The beauty behind a Chinese name is immense. Only ignorant people will turn it into derision. We are proud of them. This is our cultural heritage. We may be baptized with Christian names but once inside our homes we assume our Chinese identity, our cultural names. Unfortunately, ignorance of putounhua (mandarin) has drifted many away from our deep cultural heritage.

In Mauritius and also in Reunion Island, the Chinese names have at source been turned topsy- turvy by the colonial powers. Let us take an example: the father is Lee Kuan Yew and the son is Lee Hsien Loong but it can never be Lee Hsien Loong Lee Kuan Yew. We have mixed up French and Chinese cultures together and the end-result is to turn it into a mess. When we travel especially in South East Asia then we realize the damage caused to our names when the immigration officer frowns smilingly at the lengthy Mauritian Chinese names.

One thing for sure: we still retain our Chinese roots. However far we have travelled in search of greener pastures, we have not forgotten our Chinese-ness in spite of aggressive proselytism. During the colonial days only Christian names could open the doors to social mobility through education, to the labour market and to trade and commerce. Laugh as some may, the Chinese in spite of Christian names will never lose their Chinese spirit. All across the Chinese diaspora, they have adapted to survive acculturation in the local context of assimilation and integration.

Li Feixian
(Philip Li Ching Hum)

* Published in print edition on 31 January 2013

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