Western names in China

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The Name’s Du Xiao Hua, But Call Me Steve:

Given the nationalism I’ve witnessed in China, I was a bit surprised at how readily Chinese adopted Western names. (Even my Americanized parents were uncomfortable with the idea of me changing my name. They said I could do as I wished when I turned 18, though always in a tone that suggested such an unfilial act would cause them to die of disappointment.) But Duthie’s participants insisted that taking an English name isn’t kowtowing, nor is it simply utilitarian. Rather, it’s essential to being Chinese and achieving Chinese goals. Whereas in the past patriotism was expressed by self-sacrifice, it is now expressed through economic activity. So by working for, say, 3M, Chinese citizens are helping to build up China, and the English names they take on in the process are as patriotic as Cultural Revolution-era monikers like Ai Guo (Loves China) or Wei Dong (Mao’s Protector).

The author is a Chinese American. In Peter Turchin’s model borderlands tend to generate the level of social cohesion necessary for a dynamic civilization-state, while the “heartland” exhibits more anomie and decay. But another aspect of this is that Diasporas often exhibit some element of stasis; as if they enter into a cultural chrysalis. The Chinese case is particularly instructive, as due to the upheavals of Marxism, the Cultural Revolution, and now the unbridled capitalistic ethos, much of traditional China has gone by the wayside. Rather, archaic forms and rites are preserved in the Overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, in Taiwan or even in the United States. Chinese in China naturally have less of a need to assert their “authenticity,” so why not adopt what needs to be adopted?

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25 Comments

  1. Razib, any thoughts on the disparity between Chinese immigrants, with their strong propensity for adopting Western names, and Indians, who seem to be much more onomastically conservative?Nearly all of the Chinese students that I know personally go by Western names, while the great majority of the Indians that I have encountered retain “traditional” Indian naming patterns. For that matter, I have noticed a lot of hostility towards Bobby Jindall in the Indian-American community for his use of “Bobby.”

  2. 1) first names have religious valence for south asians, and south asians are very religious (at least compared to east asians). 
     
    2) south asian first names aren’t really that difficult compared to chinese ones. they are unfamiliar, e.g., amit, but it doesn’t take much to pronounce amit close enough to how it’s “supposed” to be pronounced.

  3. Chinese frequently have several names for different circumstances and contexts, rather like nicknames except that some of them are very formal and serious. (For example, national leaders are almost always referred to by an epithet, the way people speak of Lincoln as “The Emancipator” — to use the “real name” would be presumptuous). Likewise, family members and old friends will refer to someone (and address someone) by a nickname from that context.  
     
    In short, the “American name” is just another category of names a Chinese will have for different particular contexts. It’s a little like a businessman who advertises himself and even incorporates using a nickname rather than his formal name — “Call me ‘Tex’”.  
     
    An unrelated example is that many Scandinavian families changed surnames when they came to the US. Commoner families normally didn’t have surnames at all, so John Peterson’s son Peter would be Peter Johnson. Usually an immigrant would just fix his patronymic as a surname, which it wasn’t in Norway. But many Scandinavians would choose entirely different surnames for themselves — the aviator Charles Lindbergh’s grandfather was born a Mansson and changed when he came over. 
     
    My guess (but I never have seen a study) is that there’s a higher proportion of -son names among Americans than among European Scandinavians, because most immigrants came from commoner classes (poor peasants and landless laborers.)

  4. this is similar to what i experienced visiting shanghai. almost every young person i met gave me a western name. one of the ones that didn’t give a western name had a name a lot of US expats might remember: yao. 
     
    i remember discussing this specific issue w/ my 1.5 gen friend, and we both agreed it’s practicality wasn’t in dispute even though he spoke fluent shanghainese and i spoke a moderate amount of mandarin. we had trouble remembering the chinese names of even the few ppl that gave chinese names (except for yao). we ended up referring to them w/ westernized nicknames that resembled their chinese names or using mnemonic tricks when there wasn’t an easy nickname to give. 
     
    i don’t agree w/ the “should” part of brown’s statement, but it’d be wise for individuals to evaluate for themselves the cost/benefit of having a western name.

  5. One thing one might add to the analysis is the sex difference in name selection. I’ve noticed that while males tend to overwhelmingly take what they assume to be stereotypical names of successful English speakers (lots of ‘Michael’s, ‘David’s…–maybe Levitt’s work on names got to them; or is the causality reversed?), females tend to all have happened upon the same 19th century book of female names. I personally know an Elodie, an Adeline, a Beryl, and several other curiosities from days of yore. Of course, these don’t outnumber the virtually uncountable ‘Grace’s, but the choices are truly odd.

  6. female names in the USA tend to be more variable and ‘faddish.’

  7. “Grace” is such a lovely name: well done, China.

  8. I don’t believe you can talk about the lack of emphasis on traditional Chinese culture without talking about the Cultural Revolution and the Mao era generally. The violent Communist upheaval uprooted a great deal of traditional culture. That is the reason that the diaspora is so interested in preserving some traiditional elements even as they become more developed; they are preserving a way of life that thanks to government intervention no longer exists in mainland China.

  9. Thanks for the response, Razib. The conjunction of greater religiosity with (relatively) easier to pronounce names makes a lot of sense as an explanation for Indian onomastic conservatism. On the pronounciation front, some of my US born Indian friends have told me that their parents made a special effort to select names that Anglophones can easily pronounce (e.g., Priya, Devi, Recka, etc.). 
     
    In regards to the Chinese in the US, their tendency to select very “WAspy” names seems somewhat akin to the naming patterns found among Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants, who also heavily favored high class sounding Anglo names like Richard, Robert, etc. Of course, the Ashkenazi fondness for such names had the side-effect of making such uber-Waspy names as Irving, Sheldon, Sydney, etc. somewhat Jewish sounding to later generations.Perhaps Anglo names favored by the Chinese (I know 5 Chinese girls named Lucy) may become somewhat Sinified in the popular mind?

  10. i wrote: 
    But another aspect of this is that Diasporas often exhibit some element of stasis; as if they enter into a cultural chrysalis. The Chinese case is particularly instructive, as due to the upheavals of Marxism, the Cultural Revolution, and now the unbridled capitalistic ethos, much of traditional China has gone by the wayside.  
     
    1) do you have problems with reading comprehension? 
     
    2) or, if not, should i run my prose by you to make sure it passes up to your snuff in terms of what needs to be appropriately emphasized?

  11. “south asian first names aren’t really that difficult compared to chinese ones. they are unfamiliar, e.g., amit, but it doesn’t take much to pronounce amit close enough to how it’s “supposed” to be pronounced.” 
     
     
    But East Asian names usually monosyllabic and shorter than English names, and South Asian ones longer/more multisyllabic. 
     
    I mean I don’t know if for an English speaker Krishnamoorthy is easier to remember than Lee or Kim.  
     
    Do you mean that South Asian languages are more like English in terms of phonetics (the sounds of the language)?  
     
    I mean, considering many S.Asian languages are Indo-European, does that mean phonetics are similar? I mean it sounds weird about, despite the obvious divergence time, I’ve actually wondered if Indo-European speakers can pick up another one more easily (ie. A Bengali finding it easier to pick up English than an Arabic or Chinese speaker?).

  12. But East Asian names usually monosyllabic and shorter than English names, and South Asian ones longer/more multisyllabic. 
     
    i am referring to the problem of tones in many of the east asian languages. korean and japanese are not tonal from what i know, so that wouldn’t be as much of an issue. japanese first names for example aren’t that much of an issue for english speakers except that they *add* emphases which don’t exist. 
     
    Do you mean that South Asian languages are more like English in terms of phonetics (the sounds of the language)?  
     
    there are only a few sounds in bengali which don’t exist english. in fact, i can only think of one off the top of my head. so yes, i’m talking about the fact that there is an overlap in the syllabary. 
     
    does that mean phonetics are similar? I mean it sounds weird about, despite the obvious divergence time, I’ve actually wondered if Indo-European speakers can pick up another one more easily (ie. A Bengali finding it easier to pick up English than an Arabic or Chinese speaker?). 
     
    i think it may be so for an adult speaker, though more because of the range of sounds. in any case, when you have a non-indo-european outgroup the similarities are evident even to the untrained. when the ottoman ambassador first arrived in vienna in the 17th century he remarked that the locals spoke a ‘dialect of farsi.’ 
     
    p.s. in basic core vocab, like numbers, the similarities between indo-aryan languages and english are rather obvious, so there is a soft-landing at the beginning of the learning curve.

  13. In regards to ease of language learning, Nicholas Ostler’s Empires Of The Word has some good material on structural affinities as an aid in language acquisition. For example, he specifically cites the structural similarities between Continental Celtic and Latin as playing a key role in Latin’s victory over Celtic in Continental Europe. Conversly, Insular (British) Celtic was not quite as structurally similar and resisted being supplanted by Latin.Similarly, Arabic’s successful spread across the Middle East was mediated by the dominance of Aramaic, a closely allied tongue. 
     
    In terms of the Far East, he notes the relative failure of ESL training in Japan, citing the deep structural differences between the languages as a key factor.

  14. i need to read that book, it’s one of the hypotheses i’m really interested in. nevertheless, i’m skeptical that celtic’s similarity to latin (they’re sister clades in western indo-european groups) played that much of a role; after all non-indo-european southern spain was just as latinized as celtiberian northern spain (which i believe was a goedelic dialect). additionally, i do believe that it was easy to transition from aramaic to arabic, but coptic and the berber dialects are totally different (yes, part of the broader afro-asiatic group, but still that’s a big catchall).

  15.  
    In terms of the Far East, he notes the relative failure of ESL training in Japan, citing the deep structural differences between the languages as a key factor. 
     
     
    But English is fairly popular in South Asia, and Spanish in Latin America. The indigenous languages are quite different.

  16. My cousin’s wife is a Chinese-Indonesian from Indonesia, and her given/birth first name is “Moureen” – a slight misspelling of the Irish name, Maureen. 
     
    Trajan23, 
    When my son was born recently, I wanted to call him after some of his Irish and British ancestors, I had chosen “Alan” (from the Alano-Sarmatians), and “Neil” (an Anglicized version of Niall of the Nine Hostages), but not knowing this history, my American wife said, “Why would you only choose Jewish names for our son?”… and so it goes

  17. Hsieh, what do you mean by “South Asia?” Are you including the Indic cultural zone under that rubric? If so, Razib’s comments regarding certain common I-E elements should demonstrate that it is probably somewhat easier for an Indian to learn English (as an adult) than it is for a Japanese. 
     
    In terms of the spread of Spanish in the New World, Ostler has some fascinating data on the relatively slow growth of Spanish among the Amerindian populations. For that matter, Ostler never says that structural similarities are definitive, only that they help.

  18. Hsieh, what do you mean by “South Asia?” Are you including the Indic cultural zone under that rubric? If so, Razib’s comments regarding certain common I-E elements should demonstrate that it is probably somewhat easier for an Indian to learn English (as an adult) than it is for a Japanese. 
     
    do note that i believe penetration of english is more advanced in the dravidian south than the indo-aryan north (where hindi serves as a lingua franca).

  19. Nationalism without xenophobia is Chinese character of patriotism

  20. Razib, I apologize for citing you in my response. You are, of course, correct in noting that English penetration is somewhat more extensive in the Dravidian South of India than in the North.For that matter, I do not wish to imply that Ostler is a sterotypical man with a hammer, seeing structural similarities as the determining factor in language spread.In the case of English penetration in India as compared to Japan, numerous historically contingent factors have played a role (English colonial domination of India, the multiplicity of languages within India, Japan’s linguistic homogeneity, etc.).  
     
    Pconroy, I had no idea that Alan and Neil are now perceived as sterotypically Jewish to the degree that, say, Irving is.

  21. Amy Chua (in World on Fire) highlights the importance of ethnic Chinese adopting local-sounding names (not just Western-sounding names) when they go to countries other than the United States. She implies that Indonesian billionaire Sudano Salim’s name change (from Liem Sioe Liong) helped him to earn General Suharto’s favor when he was just starting out in business. (The other ethnic Chinese billionaire she mentions who was involved with Suharto is Bob Hasan.) 
     
    There’s a more complicated story in Thailand – Chua says ethnic Chinese in Thailand tended to maintain Chinese culture, and Chinese names, until the government enacted policies to basically destroy Chinese culture in Thailand (shutting down Chinese newspapers, prohibiting Chinese social organizations, enacting regulations requiring “Thai dress and deportment,” discriminating against Chinese in taxes, and nationalizing Chinese industries). After this, Chinese people pretty much had to adopt Thai names. But when they did, they went all-out. She quotes her student: “You can tell who the Chinese are because they’re the ones with the longest last names. That’s because they felt they had to ‘out-Thai’ the Thai and because the Chinese weren’t allowed to take on Thai surnames that already existed.”

  22. sister y, 
     
    indonesia & thailand are also differentiated because 
     
    1) the % of chinese has always been higher in thailand than indonesia (bangkok was basically a chinese city demographically) 
     
    2) the cultural distance between the thai and chinese is way lower. i think this is pretty obviously a function of religion; the chinese have buddhism as part of their portfolio, even if it is of a different variant. but the lack of food taboos (pork) presumably functions as a way in which social relations are more fluid than when chinese settle among muslims. the thai royal family has part chinese ancestry. 
     
    also, i know that suharto’s regime engaged in a lot of kultkampf against the chinese. e.g., closing down chinese language publications or schools, encouraging them to change names, etc. this was somewhat relaxed after suharto fell, as evidenced by the recognition confucianism now receives as an official religion.

  23. I’ve known a few Chinese or other Asian women who’ve married American men without changing their Asian first names. You’ll end up seeing something like Guo-Yung Johnson :)

  24. this link has some interesting discussion on how Chinese people choose their western name in the “Western Name Acquisition” section. Some Chinese students here (UK) seem to pick slightly odd ones such as “Horace”… 
     
    PS) pconroy: How does naming your son after the Alans reflect his British or Irish ancestry?

  25. Trajan23, 
    When my wife made the comment on Neil and Alan being Jewish names, I said of course they’re not, but then realized that the only people I knew with these names in the US, were in fact Jewish. Of course in New York, the name Alan is usually written Allen. 
     
    KarinJ, 
    Not to go too far OT, but my Anglo ancestry is exactly from the area of Lancashire that was heavily settled by 5,500 Alano-Sarmatians horsemen – who were placed there by the Romans.

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