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Chinese Culture >> Chinese Society Traditions

What is in a Name in China

The more I learned in China about the significance of names and titles to Chinese people, the more fascinating it seemed, maybe because I think it implies something about the deep differences between our two cultures. In China, one first identifies oneself in relation to the larger group, then the smaller group, then within the family, and only after that, as an individual.

To illustrate this very clearly we only have to look at Chinese names and addresses. When you write someone's address in China you first write the country, then the province, then the city or locality, followed by the business unit or location of the home. Only after all this, at the bottom, will come the person's name. And in China, the family name - or surname - comes first; and at the very, very end is the individual's given name. Just the opposite of us. And confusion abounds when Eastern and Western names collide.

Chinese names are usually made up of two or three (on rare occasions four) Chinese characters. Each character is pronounced as a single syllable. Li Hai Bo would be addressed as Mr. Li, which is his family name; Hai Bo is his given name. To the bewilderment of Westerners, Chinese given names written in phonetic "pin yin" may appear as single words, or as two words, or sometimes hyphenated, that is, Li Haibo, or Li Hai Bo, or Li Hai-Bo. When Chinese move to Western countries they frequently find it's better to reverse their names, Western style, to avoid confusing the poor residents of their host country. Thus, Li Hai Bo might change his name to Hai Bo Li. Or possibly, in a hopeless effort to further clarify, Mr. Li might write his name: Li, Haibo. Since the family name is supposed to be first, you can also imagine the difficulty someone Chinese might have explaining in response to the common question, "Which is your last name?"

A given name in China always has a special meaning, usually bestowed by parents to symbolize their hopes for luck or the character of the child - as in the above case, Haibo means ocean wave. Some of my Chinese friends were deeply puzzled when I replied to their inquiries that, actually, I don't really know for sure what the heck my own name means.

Unlike here in America, we quickly found out in China that it's normally considered socially impolite to address an adult by his or her given name, that is unless you are a relative or a pretty good friend and you're sure you're around the same age or older. If you know the professional title of the person you're addressing, it's better to call him or her by that designation. If Mr. Li is the director of the English Department or a government body, he will normally be called Director Li. A university teacher will be called, "Teacher Chu" or "Professor Wang." A business person, "Manager Xu." When speaking about a casual acquaintance to someone else, you'd also normally refer to that person by his or her complete name (e.g. Wang Xiao Mei), and not by the given name alone. The generic title "tongzhi" or "comrade" started fading out around the early 90s right along with the slide from socialism to an open market economy, and then it later creeped right back into some fashionable use. Interestingly, I've heard recently that in some mod urban circles it might even now be used as a codeword to refer to a gay friend.

Since we left China, the terms Mr., Mrs., Miss and Ms. have become quite acceptable for general business and cordial conversations. If Li Haibo is a good friend who is younger than you, you could call him, "Xiao Li," which means "Little Li." If he's an older friend, you could call him "Lao Li," which means "Old Li." Both of these are polite terms of friendship or even endearment and may be used for either a man or a woman.

It's considered rude for children or youth to address adults by their names, especially by their given names. Commonly children will call most adults "Aunty" (Ayi) or "Uncle" (Shushu). If the adult is old enough, children may use the title "Grandmother" or "Grandfather," or even "Father's Elder Brother" or "Father's Elder Sister." It took a while for me to get used to children shouting to me as I passed, "Hello, Grandpa!" (Ye Ye hao!) Also, depending upon age differences, they may refer to other children or youth they meet by such titles as "Elder Brother" or "Younger Sister."

A foreigner's presence in China can cause some confusion, as people might be a little uncertain what the polite form of address should be. Usually Chinese understand that, to be friendly in normal conversation, many Westerners will call each other by their given names, and some of the younger, more modernized Chinese might feel comfortable doing so, too, now. But, in a brave attempt at compromise, a young person will be just as likely to call you "Aunty Ruth" or "Uncle Bob." Just as confused about what is proper, English students might refer to their foreign English teacher as "Teacher Williams" or "Mrs. Mary." Many simply feel too uncomfortable being asked to call someone by their given name alone, as is common for us to do in America. In the same way that many Chinese find it's easier to reverse their names when they move to the West, a lot of foreigners in China find it's just less confusing if they adopt a Chinese name and title.

It's also become trendy in urban areas for young Chinese to take on English names. Mr. Li Hai Bo may choose to be referred to as Tony Li. In this case, he'll probably be perfectly happy to be called simply "Tony" by everyone, Western style, as is the practice in Hong Kong and Taiwan, even though it might still feel pretty strange to him to be called "Hai Bo" by anyone but his friends and family.

Speaking of the importance of names, signing one's name has little legal significance in mainland China. Since ancient times, in official matters, special seals (or "chops"), rather than signatures, have been what's required on any official document. Chops are normally ivory, plastic or bone hand stamps with the name and/or logo of an individual, official body or business carved in one end. These are used to make a personal ink impression on documents. Individuals and companies usually have their own chops carved with their names in a unique style recognizable by them, and these chops are as closely guarded as cash. There are very strict legal consequences for counterfeiting or stealing chops, just as there would be for forging a signature in the West. And I've noticed that some Chinese friends visiting the U.S. have been reluctant to consider a legal document finalized by doing something as unsubstantial as simply writing your name.

About the Author:

Lisle Veach lived and worked in China for seven years as an English teacher and adviser. He and his wife now host a regular audio podcast program featuring interviews with other Westerners who live in China. The podcasts can be found at http//