Chinese Corner

What’s in a name?3 min read

The case for and against weird names in China – Eveline Chao

Nominal Determinism is the notion that your name determines your destiny. The idea dates back to the times of ancient philosophy and adds a whiff of fatalism to, say, meeting a woodworker surnamed Carpenter, or reading about Amy Winehouse’s alcoholism. It also ties into debates in the US about whether African Americans should avoid giving their children names like Da’Quan or Shaneequa that are stereotyped as indicative of low socioeconomic status. Studies have found that teachers expect students with such names to do poorly in school, and that such treatment translates to precisely that outcome. People with stigmatized names also experience more hiring discrimination.  

In an ideal world, people should feel free to choose any name they like (except maybe those white parents in New Jersey who named their baby “Adolf Hitler”). But perhaps it’s a sense that names determine destiny that has compelled so many Asian immigrant parents in the U.S. to choose safe, “all-American” names for their kids, like Michael or Stephanie. (An Asian-American named Grace Lee even made a movie that touches on this phenomenon, called “The Grace Lee Project,” after noticing the prevalence of other Grace Lees out there.) Behind these names lies an instinct to help your kid assimilate quickly so they can succeed in American society.

People in China believe in the importance of an auspicious name. Parents sometimes consult fortune tellers before picking their child’s name, and it’s also common for Chinese to change their names, sometimes several times. People in their thirties and forties might feel dated by the uber-patriotic names that were popular when they were born, such as 爱国 àiguó (love country) or 建军 jiànjūn (build army). There are also names that have class connotations, such as 春花 chūnhuā (spring flower), which is beautiful but is considered a common peasant name. I also heard of a guy named 杨伟 Yáng Wěi, who changed his name because it unfortunately sounds like 阳痿 yángwěi, meaning “impotent.”

All of this makes it remarkable how often Chinese students learning English seem to choose quirky English names. Everyone who’s ever taught English in China can probably rattle off a dozen examples far more kooky than these, but my favorites include a tall, strapping man named Unicorn, a Starbucks employee called Wacky, a pizza delivery guy named Seven, and a Shakespeare fan named Shakesapple. Also: Panda, Square, Fox, Army, Highway, Basketball, Me, and … Massacre Japanese. To be fair, I should also note that plenty of foreigners choose unfortunate-sounding Chinese names too.

I love hearing about these names, and think it has something to do with the liberating feeling of being able to take on a new identity when learning a new language, throwing off any stifling ideas about destiny and fate. But then again, I can also see the point of English teacher friends who insist that their students choose “normal” names – after all, what kind of destiny can possibly await someone named Square? ∎

An earlier version of this post appeared in That’s Beijing and That’s Shanghai. Header: Baby Names Top 100 in England and Wales (Office for National Statistics on Flickr).