What’s in a Chinese Name?

清玉

The above is my Chinese name. They were the first, and for a long time, the only, Chinese characters I knew how to write. The character on the left means ‘Pure’, while the one on the right means ‘Jade’. Together, they make Pure Jade, the meaning of my Chinese name.

Jade is a type of precious stone. I’m sure you’ve seen it on rings, or in Asia, carved into images of deities, dragons and other mythical creatures. I loved the idea of Pure Jade. When I was a child, the sight of pieces of emerald-coloured stone on fingers always evoked a special feeling in my heart.

Until last year, I thought jade only came in green. Then, when we were in Shanghai, we saw Pi Xiu, a mythical creature with the head of a dragon, the paws of a lion and an apparently voracious appetite for silver and gold.

Pi Xiu only eats treasure; he never releases any, since he lacks an anus (such a wonderful creation, so characteristically Chinese…). Our Pi Xiu is in solid jade, brown from head to his non-existent bottom, and extremely heavy. He gives new meaning to the word ‘lug’. Finally, I knew what it felt like to lift Pure Jade in my hands.

Now for the trickier bit: how to say Pure Jade in Chinese. How you say my name depends on whether you’re speaking Mandarin or one of the many Chinese dialects. The same written character can be said many different ways. Because my father is Cantonese, my name was officially transliterated using the Cantonese form. In Cantonese, Pure Jade is more or less said as ‘Chin Yoke’, which is how my name appears on my birth certificate. But because transliteration is only approximate, my name could also have been written ‘Ching Yoke’, ‘Cheng Yoke’, or even ‘Chin Yook’.

You can just imagine the fun our British rulers had with our names before Malaysia’s independence. Some people ended up with official names which were nothing like what they should have been. Fortunately, this didn’t happen to me, as I was born after independence and my Chinese name was properly spelt.

The point to note though is that there are two parts to my Chinese name. My name is Chin Yoke, not Chin on its own, or Yoke on its own. If you called me just Chin, it would be like having Yin without the Yang – one half would be missing. That is true for all traditional Chinese names. (Though there seems to be a recent fad among the mainland Chinese of giving their children just one name, so that their surnames have to be tagged on. For example, the tennis player Li Na. Li is her surname, Na is her name. But having just one ‘particle’ is bizarre for a Chinese name, which I assume is why she’s known as Li Na. Otherwise the yin-yang principle would break down).

The example of Li Na illustrates perfectly where our surnames should be placed: before our names. This may seem strange, but once I explain the principle, you’ll understand why we do it this way. As a rule, we Chinese try to ‘home’ in on details gradually, starting with the bigger picture. The result is a logic all of our own and which generally confounds everyone else.

Take for example, the writing of an address on an envelope. If you were to hand the envelope to a courier for delivery, the first thing the person would want to know is: to which country? Therefore in a Chinese address, the country is written first. After the country, the courier will ask about the province, then the town, followed by the street, and finally the house or building number and if relevant, the apartment number. (Actually, if you look at it this way, conventional Western practice appears quite odd.)

The same principle of ‘homing’ in applies also to our surnames and names: your surname is far more important – it identifies the clan to which you belong; therefore, your surname comes first. Your name only identifies you. Let’s face it, we’re not that significant in the large scheme of the world. This is why our names follow our surnames.

In my case, my surname is the character for ‘Stone’ (see below), pronounced ‘Sek’ in Cantonese and transliterated into English either as ‘Sek’ or ‘Siak’.

My surname happens to appear on my birth certificate as Siak, therefore my full Chinese name is Siak Chin Yoke.

I’ve never been called by my Chinese name, which is a pity, since I like the sound of Chin Yoke. The trouble with using it where I live in Europe is that people wouldn’t have a clue what to do if I told them my name was Siak Chin Yoke. The first question they’d ask is, er, which one is your surname? And then, they’d start calling me Chin.

It always makes me wonder whenever anyone does that. I know there are many Western names for which such abbreviation is possible, but shortening is by no means a universal rule. For example, if someone told you her name was Pauline – which has two syllables – you wouldn’t immediately ask whether you could call her Paul, would you? Why do it just because my name happens to sound Oriental?

The path of least resistance being easier, for the moment I stick to the Western name I was also given at birth, Selina, for daily use. Because it’s a Western name, it’s written in the order Westerners are used to, with the name before the surname. Therefore, if we combine my English and Chinese names together, you get the full name on my birth certificate – Selina Siak Chin Yoke.

This giving of English names to Chinese children is a relatively recent fashion. The characters in my Malayan novel – set between 1878 and 1941 – certainly wouldn’t have had English names. And I haven’t given them artificially simple names to make reading supposedly ‘easier’ for a Western audience. I think Chinese names are already straight-forward, since they tend to be short. Chin Yoke, for example. Hardly difficult, is it?

Where it gets trickier is that the Chinese liked being able to identify the generation to which a person belonged. Therefore in Chinese families, the children have names which may sound very similar, but aren’t. For example, if I had a sister, a possible name for her could have been Chin Fah. The first parts of our names would then be Chin, so that everyone would know we were related and of the same generation.

That’s all very well if there are just the two of you. But in the old days, people had large families. We’re talking ten or more children. That’s what we have in my novel. Which explains why, when my partner read the first draft, she wondered aloud whether I was deliberately trying to confuse my readers. “Why do you have names that all sound alike?” she asked. Then, in despair, she added, “Your names are so hard to remember!”

I looked at her in astonishment. To put this in context, my partner is Russian. Let me repeat: she’s Russian. Question: have you ever tried to pronounce an entire Russian name from start to finish including the part in the middle they call the patronymic? And our names are hard to remember?? Please. I reminded her of what I’d had to do while ploughing through War & Peace, how I was forced to flip backwards constantly to see who was who. Even that didn’t always work, since Russians often use pet names. This means that a man can appear as Alexandr somewhere, mutate paragraphs later into Sacha and you’re supposed to know that it’s the same person. (No offence to the Russians and Russian speakers reading this blog. Except that you’re not allowed to complain about our names being hard to remember. At least ours are short and don’t mysteriously mutate.)

Back to my novel. I promise I’m not deliberately trying to confuse anyone. And I do try to help my readers to the extent possible. But there’s no avoiding Chinese and Malay names, and for this I make no apology.

The increasing attempts at ‘Westernising’ Chinese names has also had unintended consequences. When I was growing up, everyone used the traditional format for writing their names, placing surname first, and then their name. So we could tell at once what someone’s surname was. Now, many people of Chinese descent have adopted the Western convention when writing their Chinese names. This has sometimes been through necessity (as for Twitter handles) and sometimes through choice – to make it easier for everyone else. The trouble is that it makes it harder now, even for us Chinese, to tell which the surname is and which the name is. For instance, the name Lai Weng Yip could be parsed in one of two ways, with either Lai being the surname, or Yip being the surname. Which is it, my partner asks? I shrug. Could be either, I tell her, since Lai is a Chinese surname, as is Yip. Indeed, Weng Yip could be a name, and so could Lai Weng. With globalisation, it looks like we’ve all become confused. Aren’t Chinese names fun?

9 Comments

Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Malaysia, Novel

9 responses to “What’s in a Chinese Name?

  1. I still hold that Chinese names may be confusing when you have 10 Wen Something in one family :0) But I understand the reasons for having similar names. And I do pity any non-Russian who reads War and Peace – to remember who is who and following so many versions of the same name..

    • Just as well my story will be told in three separate novels! So there will be limited intersection of the different generations, each with its own set of names. Seriously though, I will try to help readers wherever possible.

  2. Olga

    I absolutely loved the explanation of the name order and the analogy to the way you write addresses. Believe it or not, we used to say our surname first, and only recently moved to the Western approach.
    As for the addresses, I grew up writing the address starting with the country. But, as often happens, but the state ruling we were supposed to switch to the Western way of writing the address — ten years later, and we are still struggling.
    I guess it is very important for us to state where we belong first and only then to reveal details.

    • Hi Olga,
      Thank you for your comments and for the fascinating information. There I was thinking we were the only ones who wrote surnames first! Obviously, we’re also not the only people who’ve become confused by our own names 🙂

  3. Chuck Arnold

    In your item about the author TAN Twan Eng, please add to it his name in Chinese Characters (as you did here on your own personal descrption).

    Thanks.

    • Dear Chuck,

      I would love to but cannot. Transliteration is an approximate art, and it would be risky to write someone else’s name unless you’re sure which characters are intended. In any case, my Mandarin is too poor for that.

  4. Y

    My sister and I are the only ones in my family who are in America that are answer to our Chinese names. It seems like a burden sometimes when I was younger as I went to a small school where you basically saw the same names shared everywhere. It was basically their favorite way to pick on me and it seems that my ears just don’t pick up if someone pronounces my name wrong anymore. I’m super happy that my mom kept my Chinese name as my first name, it’s a part of me and if my unofficial English name was to become my actual name, well I don’t think I would be the same person.

    • Dear Y,

      Thanks for sharing your experience, sorry you had a tough time. I rarely use my Chinese name and am always amazed when a Westerner can pronounce it properly. Non English speakers seem to do much better!

  5. Selena Chin Yoke Siak or in the East Asian Region Ms.Siak Chin Yoke, the Guangdong Cantonese everywhere say your Chinese Caligraphics as Sek Ching Yoke ” Bright Jade Stone ” aka Gem-Stone. You are auspiciously lucky your parents gave you such a precious one from de cradle,unlike some poor relatives of mine who named thir ones .” Ah Kow (dog) ” Ah Ngau ( cow or bullock) or Kai Chye – little chick , or Chu Chai – your Little Pig ! Then one great ancestor called his Son ” Tien Soong ” – A gift from the gods or heaven or Loi Fook- come the fortune! So the Chinese Peasants o the East Asian Diaspora werecracticl people see how many farm animals are added to the Family with new births !

    Thank God I have a Tri-lingual Education I name our Grand-Daughter born Novemmber 18 2012 in Washington DC USA as Ella Shui-Tsing Robins
    Her Tsing is the Mandarin pronouncing your Bright – Ching Or Chin ! Her name in full means Auspiciously Good Omen at the birth Good News ! Ella is a name aide memoirs to an Afro -Anglo American Soprano Opera Songstar Ella Fitzgerald ! We are practical in this day and age of globalization where universal professional and personal achievements aren’t limited by race,economic class, gender, age, cultural ,national origin or indeed the place of one’s birth !

    God Save The Queen from all the Queen’s Chinese everywhere & Daulat Tuanku to where East Asians also found themselves stranded or otherwise there by choice !

    Gerald Heng-Tuah Sr.
    Metrowest Boston,MA. USA.

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