No one can say with certainty when human beings came to have names as a symbol and a convenient way of distinguishing one from the other. At the dawn of human civilisation, our ancestors must have lived in a nameless society. They probably learnt to recognise and identify each other by way of the sound of their voice, their looks and any peculiar external features. These images would be etched in their mind’s eye.
The institution of names gradually evolved when society became more developed and civilised. It was then necessary to devise a more practical and permanent method of identifying and differentiating one’s kith and kin and others. The general scholarly consensus is that personal names came into use at a very early period of human history. According to historians and anthropologists, all people of the world now have names, including the most primitive tribes, and that no contrary evidence has so far been found.
In the case of the Chinese, they are said to have had given names as well as surnames (family names) dating back to almost 5000 years. The use of hereditary surnames was at first the prerogative of the nobility, but from the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) onwards all Chinese, rich and poor, came to possess it.
By contrast, the use of surnames by most of the other countries is of later origin. In England, William the Conqueror is credited to have introduced it after 1066. Soon, surnames were adopted by aristocratic families and the land-owning upper classes. It was only from the 16th Century that most English people began to have surnames. This practice was spread to Scotland, Ireland and Wales during the 18th Century.
In ancient times, the Japanese also had no surnames, only personal names. However, after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the government promulgated a decree in 1875 making it compulsory for all Japanese to have a surname.
Like the Japanese, Turkey did not adopt a surname system until after it became a republic in 1923.
To the Chinese, people with the same surname are regarded as clansmen and descended from the common founding ancestor. The tie of kinship is a hallmark of Chinese social structure and binds its members wherever in the world they might be. They network with each other through regular global gatherings to renew ties and to promote matters of common interest. This is a good example of the Chinese concept of “guanxi”, which includes an element of the “old school tie” in Britain.
In old China, marriage between those within the clan was taboo, mainly due to the belief, not always genealogically correct, that they would be related by blood. The force of tradition is such that, even today, such a union is not common in the Chinese world and still frowned upon.
For a country with 1.3 billion people, China is estimated to have a relatively small pool of approximately 10,000 surnames, of which some 500 are said to be in common usage. In contrast, Japan with a far smaller population of about 130 million, has at least 100,000 surnames. According to a Chinese survey of 1980s, the most common surnames were , Li, Zhang, Wang, Liu and Chen. Together they constituted more than a third of the country’s population. The majority of Chinese surnames have one character, but those with double-character are not uncommon. More rare are those with three or even four characters.
While most cultures attach importance to the selection of personal names, the Chinese are among the most fastidious in making sure that the chosen names are right for their offsprings. They have, over the centuries, developed this into an art, with characteristics and flavours all its own.There is a time-honoured Chinese adage that says: “It is far better to have an ugly face than to be given a wrong name”. This is because the name confers a permanent identity and can either uplift or reduce one’s self-esteem. If it is aptly chosen, one would be immensely proud of it; conversely, if it is childish or crude, one will, perforce, have to bear it as a life-long liability or change it by legal means.
In old China, when a child was born, the head of family would usually consult an astrologer before naming it. If the latter advises that the child is lacking in any of the five elements of life (metal, wood, water, fire and earth), he would then suggest that the name should include the needed element so as to “overcome” such deficiency in order that the child would have a successful life. In my own case, as I was believed to be lacking in water element, my given name should make up this deficiency.
The children of some illiterate and poor families were not so well catered for by their parents. They would sometimes take the more down to earth approach of naming the boy child after the domestic animals, which were probably their most valuable earthly possessions, in the hope that he would grow up sturdily like them.
In antiquity, a high-born Chinese boy child would only be named three months after birth. In the meantime he would have a “milk name”, which would remain with him for life and be affectionately used by his family members. This would enable the patriarch to carefully observe his temperament so that he would be appropriately named.
Unlike Westerners, Chinese parents do not name their offsprings after saints or royal personages. Instead, they would favour names with profound meaning, are creative or poetical or those that reflect elements of nature.
What’s in a name? There is perhaps more to it with the Chinese than other cultures. By the given name, the Chinese parents hope that the recipient will live up to it and achieve great things or lead a virtuous life. With these aims in mind, popular names for boys often encompass hopes of glory to the family, bravery or heroism, patriotism, loyalty, filial piety, uprightness, wealth, happiness and others with auspicious meanings. Traditional names for girls would invariably embrace unique feminine qualities like virtues, gentleness, beauty, seasons, flowers and birds and those that mirror the more compassionate side of the female nature.
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, choices of names, for both sexes, have tended to be more influenced by socialist ideology or those that symbolise its developments or significant national or world events. Names that smack of feudalism or superstition, or are reflective of the decadent old value systems, have largely gone out of fashion. Under the Chinese law, a citizen has the ultimate option to choose which parent’s surname he or she would rather have. As in other countries, most would prefer the father’s surname in keeping with custom. However, unlike in the West, a Chinese woman retains her own surname upon marriage.
Foreigners living in a Chinese community, be it China, Taiwan or Hong Kong, often assume a Chinese name in order to facilitate communication and dealing with the local residents. Likewise, many Chinese living in Western countries find it more convenient to adopt a Western name as a sign of assimilation into their society. In Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and increasingly, also in China itself, it is seen as glamorous, especially among young people, to have a Christian name even though they are not Christians, in addition to their Chinese name.
Certain Chinese names are anathema and will be shunned and avoided at all cost due to historical reasons. Apparently no Chinese has been named Kui for the past 800 years, all because of the treachery of Qin Kui, the arch-villain of China. A Prime Minister during the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), he was responsible for the execution of the much venerated and patriotic general Yue Fei in 1142 on a trumped-up charge in order to strengthen his own power at Court.
Over the centuries, Qin’s name has lived in infamy, while that of Yue has come to epitomise valour and loyalty. The latter was deified by a posthumous royal decree, and his tomb in Hangzhou is a must-see tourist attraction.
Such was Qin’s notoriety that one of his kinsmen Qin Dashi, who was placed first at the Imperial Examination in 1752 and was appointed a high official during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), felt obliged to kneel before the general’s grave in order to atone for the dastardly act of his disgraced and hated kinsman.
One of life’s ironies was that, in Imperial China, one’s name could either bring about an unexpected good fortune or be the unwitting cause of one’s downfall. Under the Imperial Examination system, the Emperor was the final arbiter of the rankings of the top three candidates who were earmarked for top appointments. There were isolated instances where he did alter the examiners’ recommendations, sometimes for whimsical reasons.In one case, the top candidate was relegated to the second position because his name offended the susceptibilities of the Son of Heaven. By contrast, the name of the second-placed candidate was so pleasing that the Emperor felt justified to reverse the ranking in his favour.
One of the main causes contributing to the growth or decline of some Chinese surnames was the changes made to them for various reasons. For instance, following the collapse of the Taiping Rebellion in 1864, which almost overthrew the Qing regime, those connected with the movement had to flee their homes by changing their names in order to escape retributions.
In the West, one of the best known cases of name changes involved the British Royal Family. King George V changed his Germanic family name of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the English name of Windsor in order to pacify the British public due to the aftermath of World War I.
Traditionally, it was common for many Chinese to have an alias in addition to their own name. Furthermore, the educated people would also have a “scholar name” or “pen name” which would reflect their interest or ambition in life. For example, Lu Xun is the pen name of one of China’s best-known authors and whose real name is often forgotten.
This is not peculiar to China as some Western writers and show business personalities also use assumed names, for which they will be remembered by posterity.
A person’s name is one of his most precious possessions and should be jealously guarded against any possible infringement. Not infrequently, names of famous people are being made use of by unscrupulous people for their own ends without their knowledge. Less pernicious, but morally reprehensible nevertheless, is the common practice of “name dropping” in order to satisfy one’s ego or to improve one’s social standing. It transcends national boundaries and linguistic lines.
It is of vital importance that we should always address someone correctly as a common courtesy and mark of respect. Failure to do so can cause resentment or embarrassment to the aggrieved party. For example, the Malaysian Foreign Minister, Datuk Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, once chided the Malaysian Chinese media for having repeatedly mixed up his name with his father’s through ignorance of the Malay custom. The minister said he had to put this right before any confusion arose. He became his country’s prime minister later on.
As many countries have popular names and surnames that are shared by a large number of people, what steps did they take to minimise confusion and cases of mistaken identity that might arise in such a situation? In China, people were encouraged to avoid using over-burdened names and to resort to names less likely to be thought of by others. Another way was to increase the usage of double-character names in place of single-character ones.
This problem also plagued Sweden some years ago. As a high percentage of Swedes preferred surnames like Andersson, Johansson, Svensson and Karlsson, the Government had, perforce, to pass a law aimed at persuading those with common surnames to switch to the less used ones for reasons of good public administration. It even provided a long list of other alternative choices to help them make up their minds.
As names play such a vital role in our life, language experts and scholars have offered useful advice on how to get them right for your children, and to avoid the pitfalls which could be a life long regret for their bearers. Here are some of the tips:
- A name confers an indelible identity, and everyone needs one that will harmonise with the owner’s personality.
- You must be wary of names that already have inherent problems built into them.
- Adopting names of celebrities may not turn out to be a cause for celebration. It can often be a life long misery if one fails to live up to it or, worse still, might make one a butt of jokes especially if the namesake becomes notorious.
- You should refrain from sexually ambiguous names.
- Be aware of the practical problems of hard to pronounce or write names.
- Avoid choosing both the stale (overused) or those that will startle others.
- Do not opt for too trendy a name; it would become dated and sound ludicrous in time to come.
- It pays to aim for meaningful, creative or poetical names, less likely to be duplicated.
- Traditional Chinese names that sound childish, are related to domestic animals or one’s prominent physical feature are perfectly in order as family nicknames, but are no longer suitable as proper names.
Happy name hunting!
Lam Pin Foo