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Why Chinese speakers use Western names

Cherie Chan
January 8, 2016

Jet Li, or Li Lianjie? It's not uncommon for people from the Chinese-speaking world to have two different names - a Chinese and a Western one. While this serves a practical purpose, it also has social implications.

Indonesien 13th World Wushu Championships - Schauspieler Jet Li
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Berry

You might have heard of movie star Jackie Chan, but you sure do not know he is addressed as Cheng Long in Chinese. As for martial artist Bruce Lee, his Chinese name is Li Xiaolong. Western names are widely used by Chinese-speaking people, in addition to their Chinese names, even though they are not used for official identification.

These names might be chosen by either teachers or parents, and sometimes even by one's own self. One might think that this is just the same as how people pick their nicknames.

But there's a major difference. Western names of Chinese speakers are not only used between close acquaintances, but also professionally and in formal occasions. Although the practice can be observed more in the Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong, it is not uncommon in Mandarin-speaking mainland China and Taiwan.

HK - Colonial factor

"One consequence of British colonization in Hong Kong is the need for an English name for all kinds of education-and work-related purposes," linguistic professor David C.S. Li from the Hong Kong Institute of Education told DW.

"English teachers, including Cantonese-speaking English teachers, often feel inconvenient if they had to switch to Chinese for the students' names during English class. This is the reason why students are expected to either adopt or to accept an assigned English name," the professor said.

"Many would encounter an English teacher who could not pronounce a Chinese name, let alone remembering it," said Stephen Matthews, professor at the University of Hong Kong, School of Humanities. "Some saint's names which are rare elsewhere, such as Ignatius and Theophilus, were assigned at Catholic schools at that time."

Hongkong Skyline Finanzielles Zentrum
In Hong Kong, the British colonial past has led to the common pratice of using Western namesImage: A.Ogle/AFP/Getty Images

But this phenomenon was not only limited to language classes, as English was also used as the medium of instruction in most schools in Hong Kong during the colonial period.

Despite the government's efforts to encourage schools to switch to Cantonese - the mother-tongue of the majority of Hong Kong people - as the 1997 handover of the city back to China approached, many have still clung to English usage.

The colonial history plus the fact that the given Western names are often not registered in identity documents explain the unusual phenomenon of casually changing one's own names.

"As teenage students grow up, many would feel unhappy about the English names they adopted/ assigned to them earlier, so changing their English names over time is quite common, much like fashion," Li explained.

Other Chinese speakers

Eric Chu and James Soong, two of the three 2016 presidential candidates in Taiwan, are known for their Western names. Unlike Hong Kong, Taiwan does not have a British colonial history. "In Taiwan, I would say there is a history of cultural colonization by the US. Students there learn American English and those I have encountered generally adopt English names," Matthews said.

In mainland China, however, the use of Western names is less prevalent. "The absence of the British connection helps explain why their respective social context does not encourage the adoption of English names. One crucial consideration is the perceived threat to their respective Chinese identity," Li said.

But professor Li also noted that the phenomenon is becoming increasingly popular, especially among those who received education overseas. This is because many believe it would be easier for non-Chinese speakers to remember and pronounce Western names, rather than Chinese ones.

Nevertheless, the fact that these names are not only used for the convenience of non-Chinese speakers, but also among Chinese speakers themselves, might suggest that a Western name actually means a lot more.

'Borrowed identity'

By using Western names, Chinese speakers are actually borrowing the Western interpersonal communication system, which is different from the Chinese ones governed by Confucian paradigm, says Professor Li.

"The traditional Chinese rituals and rules of social interaction do not favor the use of our given names with non-acquaintances. Our Chinese given names tend to be used only with 'intimate others,'" the professor said.

In a research paper published back in 1997, Li also explained that addressing a person with his/her Chinese given name, apart from showing intimate relations, also often signifies a downward communication - an address used by teachers to students, parents to children, senior colleagues to junior colleagues.

The use of Western names thus serves as a buffer, to avoid being too formal and too intimate, and to avoid the embarrassing situation of addressing someone mistakenly as in downward communication.

Taiwan Präsidentschaftswahl Kandidat Eric Chu
Taiwanese presidential candidate Eric Chu is called Chu Li-luan in ChineseImage: picture-alliance/epa/R. B. Tongo

"This 'borrowed identity' turns out to be very useful when communicating with both new acquaintances and old acquaintances alike. It helps to speed up the process of getting acquainted - something that matters to a lot of people working in various professions, from business to public relations, from communications to international education. This is something that traditional Chinese practice does not encourage."

Choosing the names

As an old Chinese saying goes: "One does not fear if he/she has a bad fate; what one fears most is to have a bad name," Chinese speakers use different mechanisms in the process of choosing their Western names.

Some people choose Western names that resemble their original Chinese ones, either in terms of pronunciation or meaning. For example, if one's Chinese name has the syllable Kit, she might call herself Kitty. The same goes with Yan and Yandy, Wing and Winnie, Wai Man and Raymond, Chi and Gigi, Mak and Mark, Bo and Bobo etc.

It also happens that when there is special meaning in one's Chinese name, one would choose an English name with similar meaning. Examples include: Rainy, Sky, Money, Cloud, Ice and River.

Sometimes, in order to have unconventional names, Chinese speaking people get inspirations from famous brands. Professor Li has some experience, "I myself have come across many unconventional names among my students and colleagues, such as Lithium, Rolex and Volvo."

HKU professor Matthews also said, "A recent student was called Bvlgari, probably because she or her parents thought of the brand as a sign of taste and high class."

In an article published in 2012, Scott Kronick, president of Ogilvy Asia-Pacific Public Relations, wrote for the community blog the Beijinger about the Chinese names he encountered during the time he had lived in China. These names include: Billboard, Devil, Shooting, Psyche, Twelve, Chairs, Cookie, Mars, Pope and Pray.

Volvo Logo
Some Chinese people use unconventional names such as Volvo, which is also the name of a car manufacturerImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"In some cases, it seems parents knew a word but did not know how to spell it, such as Februar. They also generalize the practice of using names of months from the popular April May, June and July, to include less usual months such as December and January," Matthews said.

Though Chinese speakers can be very creative with Western names, the more common first names are still very popular, such as John, Jack, Tim, Jane, Mary and Christine. It should also be noted that not only names from the US and the UK, but other European names or even Japanese names are also not unusual among Chinese speakers.

As adopting Western names became trendier and more common, Chinese websites that specialize in naming have emerged to cope with the needs of Chinese speakers. These websites do not only list out names popular in Western countries, they also provide meaning, origins, the corresponding horoscopes of the names, and most important of all, they provide potential foreign names that match with specific Chinese names.

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