The Art and Privilege of Good Luck Names
How to Get a Good Chinese Name
Just about everyone in China recognizes “the second Cao Cao” (曹操). He’s a 41-year-old actor from Torrance, California, who specializes in playing the “white guy” in Chinese productions, and his English name is Jonathan Kos-Read. I met him at Costa Coffee, a Starbucks-esque café in Beijing’s Sanlitun neighborhood. He arrived with disheveled hair, his shirt half-unbuttoned and two SLR cameras slung around his neck — Kos-Read is also an amateur photographer. When I mentioned, at the end of the interview, that I was in China to improve my Chinese, he immediately said that I needed a Chinese boyfriend (I don’t — I’m married).
Kos-Read acquired the name 曹操 in 1995 as a senior at New York University in his first-year Chinese course. Mr. Hu, the instructor, didn’t assign Chinese names, as many university instructors do, possibly because most of the students were heritage speakers and already had Chinese names. Kos-Read wanted an “awesome” name. He decided on Fen Zi Shu Shi (分子术师), which translates roughly as “molecule wizard.” In the Chinese name, the family name appears first, and what follows is the given name.
Emily Liedel is a freelance writer and polyglot based in Portland, Oregon who writes about language learning and living abroad on her blog, The Babel Times (www.thebabeltimes.com). Emily holds master’s degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Sciences Po Paris Journalism School. In the spring of 2014, she was studying Mandarin in Bejing on a scholarship from the Confucius Institute.
Edited by Michael Erard | Copyedited by Shmuel Gerber | Factchecked by Brendan O'Kane
“When I told Mr. Hu, he said, ‘Hahaha, that sounds like a Japanese name.’ Which I didn’t get at the time, but Japanese names mostly have four characters,” Kos-Read says. “I kind of felt also that it was a dumb name.”
About a week later, Kos-Read started reading Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a historical novel written in the 14th century that is considered one of the classics of Chinese literature. One of the three main characters is 曹操, a ruthless general, famed writer, and skilled statesman from the Han dynasty in the second century. “I was fascinated by Cao Cao,” Kos-Read says. So he decided to adopt his name.
In Western culture, people commonly name children after historical or religious figures out of admiration or respect, but in China, there’s a strong taboo against naming children after anyone at all, whether family members or famous individuals. From a Chinese perspective, calling yourself 曹操 was as unusual as calling yourself “molecule wizard.”
When Kos-Read told Mr. Hu about his new name, Hu laughed. “He said, ‘You can’t be Cao Cao, there is only one Cao Cao,” Kos-Read remembers. “I was ready for his antipathy. I said, ‘You only have two choices. You can call me Cao Cao, or you can call me Mao Zedong.’ I did not want to be called Mao Zedong, but I knew that he wouldn’t; I gave him an even worse choice, so of course he didn’t choose Mao Zedong.”
Having won that battle, Kos-Read moved on to the next one: saying 曹操 correctly. At first, he pronounced both syllables in the fourth tone. In Mandarin, the fourth tone is short and descending in pitch; to English speakers, it sounds aggressive and macho, because a falling pitch is associated with commands or angry utterances (as in “stop that right now!”). Because the original 曹操 was strong and masculine, Kos-Read thought the name should be pronounced accordingly, as two syllables, both with fourth tones. He was wrong. “Some girl was like, ‘What?’ And I said, ‘Cao cao, you know, from the book,’” Kos-Read remembers. She corrected him. Cao, pronounced in the fourth tone, means “fuck.”
“I walked around for a month telling people my name was Fuck Fuck,” Kos-Read says.
Looking back, Kos-Read says that choosing 曹操 was the best decision he’s ever made. For one thing, it gave a boost to his television career. Early on, he was given the opportunity to host a new talk show but worried that he was disposable. Then he had an idea that would make him impossible to get rid of. As they were filming the end of the show, Kos-Read signed off with, “Next week, talk about Cao Cao, and Cao Cao will arrive.” He had turned the common expression “Shuo Cao Cao, Cao Cao Dao” (说曹操曹操到) into his tagline. It’s the rough equivalent of “speak of the devil” in English. The tagline stuck and became the show’s title. Kos-Read was now irreplaceable, and he quickly became known as China’s second 曹操.
The question of how a Westerner should translate his or her name into Chinese is as old as Western contact with China. Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary who arrived in Macau in 1582 and Guangdong in 1583 and eventually became an advisor to the Imperial Court, was known as Li Madou (利玛窦). Ricci was one of the first Europeans to learn to both speak and write Chinese, and he became well-respected in the Chinese court, but how he got his Chinese name isn’t clear. The first syllable of his surname might have been converted to “li,” which became the first character in his Chinese name, perhaps because it was the closest phonetic match in both Mandarin, the more prestigious language, and Cantonese, the language spoken in Macau, where Ricci landed first. There’s also no clear historical record of how exactly Ricci acquired “Madou,” although “Madou” continues to be the transliteration of “Matthew” preferred by Catholics in Chinese-language versions of the Bible.
For the next several centuries, foreign missionaries, diplomats, and mercenaries continued to use sinified names in China. But when the Communist Party took power in mainland China in 1949, things changed. “Mainland China doesn’t like this kind of name,” explained Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, referring to Westerners with Chinese-style names. “Originally, when foreigners went to mainland China, PRC, the mainland Chinese would not let them take a Chinese-style surname; they forced them to take names that sort of transcribed the sounds of their Western name.” Mair described a tug-of-war that started as increasing numbers of foreign students flocked to the mainland in the 1980s: The students would insist on using the Chinese name they had been given by their teachers, while mainland officials would insist that they use awkward transliterations of their Western names.
Mair and other Western sinologists don’t recall similar conflicts in Taiwan. According to Feng Wei, a literary translator in Beijing, this distinction between Taiwan and the mainland even extends into the world of books: In Taiwan-produced translations of foreign-language literature, characters generally get names that follow the patterns of Chinese names. Mainland translations of the same books have usually opted for straight transliteration of the characters’ original names, although Feng Wei says younger translators, himself included, in mainland China now often prefer to translate characters’ names in the Taiwanese style, which means giving them a Chinese-style name.
One American sinologist, who wished to remain anonymous, remembers that when he worked in Beijing in 1980, he had difficulty convincing his colleagues to use the Chinese name he had used since living in Taiwan in the 1960s. “I had printed up name cards, business cards with my English name and the three-syllable Chinese name that I habitually used. I took it there and I distributed it,” he said. Yet colleagues continually addressed him using a transliteration of his English name. Years later, in the late 1990s, the same scholar was participating in a ceremonial event with a university in Shanghai. When the university requested a copy of his CV, he translated it into Chinese himself, making sure to include his Chinese name at the top. When he arrived, he discovered that the host university had retyped his entire CV in order to make one small change: the name at the top. It was a transliteration again.
The sinologist says that, based on his experience and what he has heard from colleagues and students, these conflicts over his name illustrate a divide in how the mainland Chinese feel about foreigners’ names: While the laobaixing (老百姓, the “ordinary people”) like foreigners to have Chinese-sounding names, people who interact with foreigners in an official capacity are — or at least were — most comfortable with straight transliterated names. Cornelius Kubler, Stanfield Professor of Asian Studies at Williams College, agrees, saying that officials wanted individuals’ names to immediately identify them as foreigners.
Students in mainland China today aren’t likely to have to fight to use their Chinese-style names. Kubler says there was resistance to foreigners with Chinese-style names in mainland China from 1949 until around 2000; Mair says that mainland China started warming to the idea of Westerners with Chinese-sounding names in the 1990s. Nonetheless, these names still exist in a legal gray area. While documents such as visa applications and residence registrations for foreigners ask for a Chinese name, it is not considered “official” and doesn’t appear on the visa, but Chinese names can appear on residence permits next to non-Chinese names. When Kos-Read married in China 12 years ago, he could not sign his name as “Cao Cao.” The marriage office had a large book with all of the accepted transliterations of Western names, which was used to determine the ten-character name with which Kos-Read was expected to use to sign his marriage documents.
Like Kos-Read, I attempted several Chinese names. The first one came from an administrator of a summer university course in Beijing that I was taking with my sister in 2007. As we were registering the day before classes started, an administrator asked if I had a Chinese name. I didn’t. Without pausing, she wrote a couple of characters in the “name” field on my documents. Later, when I got my student card, I realized she had simply chosen Ai Mili (艾米丽), a simple transliteration of “Emily.” My sister, on the other hand, proudly wrote down her own Chinese name, Li Zhumei (李株梅), which her college Chinese professor had given her.
Five years later, I signed up for a class at my hometown’s Confucius Institute, a Chinese language and culture institute with branches in hundreds of cities around the world. The registration form asked for my Chinese name, which I hadn’t used since the Beijing summer course, and I was reminded of how much I had always disliked the name.
At the time, I was doing a weekly language exchange with a Chinese woman named Sandy. Naively, I had expected that she’d be able to come up with a new name for me in less than an hour. When I asked her for help, she looked horrified, explaining that finding a name was a complicated process that was best left to professionals.
I also asked my teacher at the Confucius Institute. Like Sandy, she was reluctant, insisting that Ai Mili was perfectly good. I tried to explain that I found the idea of being known exclusively by my first name infantilizing. I also wanted to share a Chinese surname with my sister, so really I was hunting for a given name. Eventually my teacher suggested a combination of qin (沁, “moist”), and xin (馨, “fragrant”), for a given name. This didn't work either — “fragrant” and “moist” sound more like positive attributes for baked goods than a personal name.
Luckily, Sandy agreed to help me find a name. At first I wanted a name that meant “polyglot,” since I speak several languages. Sandy did not approve — the translation of “polyglot” into Chinese is awkward. My second idea for a name was aspirational: after finishing grad school in France and moving back to my hometown in Oregon, I felt depressed and stuck, professionally. So I wanted a Chinese name that would represent the two things I thought were missing from my life: success and happiness.
A month later, Sandy gave me a list of several possible names. I chose the final name on her list, Xi (熙, “prosperous, brilliant”) and Le (乐, “happy”). I liked the meaning, but it sounded funny. The following week, I was flipping through the dictionary with Sandy, looking for a replacement, and Yi (怡, “happy, harmonious, pleased”) caught my attention. So I settled on the name Li Xiyi (李熙怡).
The first real test of this name was when I came to Beijing last winter to study Chinese for a semester. As with most classes, the first day was spent on introductions. After I introduced myself, the teacher stopped to make sure the class understood the meaning of Xiyi. Then she commented that it was a fabulous-sounding name. Several weeks later, I was chatting with a couple of women in a tea shop and mentioned that I might want help finding a Chinese name for my husband. One woman laughed; she said she wouldn’t be able to find a name that sounded as good as Xiyi.
Not that my name has been safe from criticism. One teacher insisted that xi is used in many Korean names, and several people have mentioned that 熙 is difficult to write because it has too many strokes.
It feels good to finally have a decent Chinese name, especially given that Western sinologists and Chinese intellectuals agree that a good Chinese name is essential for Westerners who are serious about their involvement with China. “The first thing that happened to us when we got to China was people said: Well, in order to have your street cred here, you really need two things. One is a mobile phone, and one is a Chinese name,” says Deborah Fallows, the author of Dreaming in Chinese, a memoir about her experience learning Mandarin while living on the mainland. “The second one proved to be much more difficult than just going out to buy a phone.”
For Fallows’s husband, Jim, the process went smoothly. A pilot who is “obsessed” with flying and also writes about airplanes and flying, his Chinese given name is Feijie (飞捷) . Fei (飞) means “fly” and jie (捷) means “nimble or quick.” The Chinese family name they share is Fang (方), which is a common surname that begins with the same sound as “Fallows.” But Deborah wasn’t so lucky. “There’s a very old, very elegant term for different gems and jewels, which I can’t even remember what it is now,” she says. Friends thought the term sounded like the first syllable of “Debbie.” Unfortunately, Fallows found the word hard to remember, and it was so archaic that it had little meaning to the average Chinese person. After Fallows ruled that option out, friends suggested jie (借), which means “to borrow or lend” and bi (笔), which means “pen, pencil, or writing brush,” but Fallows found that name hard to identify with. After several months, Fallows gave up and decided to use her English name in China. “Which never did work out too well,” she adds.
Not all Westerners are as involved in choosing their own Chinese name as I was. Chinese-language instructors often assign Chinese names at the beginning of first-year classes, and students who continue studying Chinese often use their college names for the rest of their lives. But Westerners like me and Deborah Fallows who become involved with China and Chinese after college need help with names — along with serious reflection about what qualities we want our names to project.
A good Chinese name should be easy for Chinese people to remember and to recognize as a name, which means it should look like a Chinese name: the family name, which comes first, is usually made up of one syllable, represented by one character, and is followed by a one- or two-character given name. For example, Mao Zedong’s (毛泽东) family name is Mao; his given name Zedong. Names that don’t fit the Chinese pattern are difficult to remember and, when written, require a dot between the first and the last name so that the Chinese reader will know when the first name ends and the last begins.
When Westerners select or are given a Chinese family name, they generally choose one that has the same initial sound as their English surname. My family name is Liedel, and when my sister took Chinese, she was assigned the family name Li (李). Family names vary little: The vast majority of Chinese people have one of the 100 most common family names, and the most popular, Wang (王), is shared by over 100 million people worldwide. It’s not uncommon for a classroom of 20 Chinese students to have four or five people with the same family name who aren’t actually related to each other. Two-character family names exist, but they’re rare, and three-character family names are non-existent, at least among Han Chinese.
On the other hand, options for given names are, at least theoretically, as numerous as characters in the dictionary. Some characters are especially common in names, such as Wei (伟), but any character or pair of characters could be used as a given name.
Feng Wei, the translator in Beijing, says that human beings as well as literary characters need names that people will not forget. “If you name yourself with a name that people don’t remember, it is a failure.” Feng, a friend of Jonathan Kos-Read, says that 曹操 is a great Chinese name for that very reason. It also feels familiar and friendly, since 曹操 is also a common nickname for little boys whose family names are Cao.
There are, however, some situations where a hard-to-remember, transliterated name might actually be the most appropriate name for a foreigner, Feng Wei says. Foreign names sound trustworthy to Chinese ears, so the head of a multinational bank who does business in China (but does not interact directly with ordinary Chinese people) might be best served by transliterating his name.
Most foreign politicians are known by transliterated names, with the dot separating first from last name. There are exceptions: Politicians who speak Chinese or who have lived in China often have more “authentic” Chinese names, such as former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, who is known in China as Lu Kewen (陆克文), and former US ambassador Jon Huntsman, known in China as Hong Bopei (洪博培).
Yet when people talk about getting an “authentic” name, they don’t mean you have to pass for a local — it’s unlikely that a blond-haired, blue-eyed Westerner would be mistaken for a local on the streets of Beijing anyway. However, on the telephone or on social-media platforms like Weibo, Westerners with authentic-sounding names can avoid being dismissed as outsiders.
It’s also important to consider how the whole name sounds. The large number of homophones in Mandarin increases the danger of choosing a name that has good characters but sounds like a vulgar or unlucky word (especially if you screw up the tones). The vast number of regional pronunciations further complicates the matter, because a Chinese name that sounds respectable in Mandarin might be awkward, laughable, or unlucky in Cantonese, Shanghainese, or another of the many varieties of Chinese.
Apart from linguistic considerations, there’s another realm of criteria for a good name: Chinese philosophy. The Chinese see names as a way to make up for a person’s deficiencies, which are reflected in the person’s zodiac signs. (I unknowingly used a similar approach in naming myself Li Xiyi, 李熙怡.) In this way of thinking, an appropriate, auspicious name can help a person find personal and professional success, while an inappropriate name holds its bearer back. For the adult Westerner, the advantage is that we know all too well what our deficiencies are.
The first step in finding an auspicious name is to find the person’s ba zi (八字), or eight characters. An individual’s eight characters are those that correspond with his or her date and time of birth and are drawn from the 10 characters that make up the Heavenly Stems and the 12 characters of the Earthly Branches (which also correlate with the Chinese zodiac). Every year, month, date, and time of day is designated by some combination of one character from the Heavenly Stems and another from the Earthly Branches. But the steps that follow are even more complex. Too complex for me to work out, I decided. Most average Chinese people don’t understand the process, either. As China has gotten wealthier, more adults are willing to pay an expert to name their children — or even to change their own names. When I went looking for such an expert, I got some unwelcome news about the Chinese name I’d settled on for myself.
Liu Ziming is a professional namer with an office in a modern apartment complex in a suburb to the south of Beijing. The bus ride from Beijing took me past gleaming skyscrapers that bookend plum orchards and run-down villages. To reach Liu’s building, I walked through a courtyard with an impeccable traditional Chinese garden, complete with water lilies and paths that zigzag over a series of ponds. I was visiting him to learn more about what it means to have a “lucky” name — and then to get one myself.
“A good name allows a person to be comfortable,” he explained over oolong tea, miming a person in a straightjacket to show what it is like to have a “bad” name. Liu first determines a client’s eight characters, then analyzes each character’s wu xing (五行), or five elements or phases. The five elements are wood, fire, earth, metal, and water; every Chinese character in the dictionary represents one of the five elements. Each element complements one other element and contradicts or negates another element. Fire, for example, produces earth but destroys metal. The key to a good name is to find which elements are most prevalent in the eight characters and to choose elements that are complementary to them, to each other, and to the person’s surname.
Complicated? That’s why the naming process with Liu takes two days and costs about US$100. When I met with Liu a second time, to analyze my own eight characters and get the names he had selected for me, it was at his friend’s art studio in Beijing. An in-progress ink painting hung on the wall as we huddled around the computer to look at the document he had prepared.
My ba zi were relatively balanced. I had three earth elements, two water elements, and one each of fire, metal, and wood. Liu suggested a name that would complement the earth elements, which meant a name with fire or earth characters.
That is lucky, because my Chinese surname, Li, is a fire character, even though it contains a tree radical and means “plum,” both of which had led me to assume it would be a wood character. (A radical is a basic visual component of a Chinese character; one way that characters are arranged in Chinese dictionaries is by radical.) When I asked, Liu wasn’t able to explain why it was a fire character, not a wood character. He could only say that’s what his teacher had taught him.
Liu suggested five given names, all with either two fire characters or one fire and one earth character. He also analyzed each name based on the stroke order of each character and the sum of the characters’ strokes together — each sum had a specific lucky or unlucky characteristic.
The bad news was that my current Chinese name is unlucky. Xi (熙) is a water character (even though it has a fire radical), which clashes with both fire (of my chosen surname, Li) and earth, because fire is extinguished by water, and water is muddied by earth. Fortunately, Yi (怡) is an earth character, so it was acceptable. But in three of the five stroke-number analyses, my current name came out as unlucky. One stroke-order analysis for my current name came out as “money under the house,” which I thought must be positive when I first read it. Not so. It actually indicates a predisposition for criminal activity.
To underscore how inappropriate my current name is, Liu reminded me that xiyi sounds like the Chinese word for “lizard,” as he pulled up on his computer a Baidu image search for lizards. He had mentioned this during my first visit, and I had looked up “lizard” in the dictionary as soon as I got home. Xiyi does mean “lizard,” but the tones in my name differ from “lizard.” With other tones, xiyi can also mean “Western medicine” or “to do laundry,” but I was unconcerned. I would simply have to make sure I pronounced it correctly.
I left feeling dejected, because I had hoped my current name would prove auspicious. Why have a name that means “successful” and “happy” if the name’s wu xing and numerology are going to keep me in a Feng Shui straightjacket? When I told her about it, a Chinese acquaintance laughed off my concerns. “If you like your name, you should keep your name,” she said. In the past it was important to have an auspicious name, she explained; in modern China, it doesn’t matter if your name is lucky or not.
And in any case, not everyone would agree that the names Liu chose are good. The second character in all of the names he selected had either 15 or 16 strokes, and many Chinese people have commented that a good name shouldn’t have too many strokes — that makes it difficult to write. One of the characters Liu chose was tong (侗), which means “ignorant or rude,” and some have obscure meanings, like yue (玥), “a pearl used for sacrifice.” On the other hand, rare characters are currently fashionable for children’s names in China even though they fail the memorability test.
Because foreigners are often named as adults, we have some power over our own names. Selecting a Chinese name can be an opportunity to express values, interests, or aspirations. “Most Chinese people don’t have the privilege to name themselves,” Feng Wei, the translator, pointed out. I like my name, Li Xiyi (李熙怡), but I still think about changing it, although I probably won’t choose any of the names Liu selected. I think my name is good, but I’m not sure if it is awesome. And in a culture where a name has the power to change the trajectory of a person’s life, the privilege of choosing your own name should not be taken lightly.
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