“Hello, My Name is Have-No-Honor”

shame

Choosing a good Chinese name is a delicate matter and should be handled by the experts only, that is to say only well-educated native speakers. First, allow me to start with a cautionary tale: The story of how I ended up with the name “Have-No-Honor” in Chinese (or something that sounded exactly like that) and how I ran around Taiwan for 6 months introducing myself as a person “without a good reputation”.

I started learning Chinese at the age of 14 in my high school. The teacher asked us if we would like a Chinese name and I said I would like one with the character jade in it. He then gave me the name “míngyù” (明玉) and I was known as “brilliant jade” in Chinese class until my graduation four years later.

Off to college, and the more stuffy atmosphere of Mandarin classes at Georgetown University. The first day of class I was asked my last name in English, which is Meyer.  The teacher then chose the last name “méi” (梅), or Plum Blossom, and I was known as “Classmate  Mei” (梅同学) for the next four years in Chinese class. Then I was off to Taiwan after graduation. I thought, all I had to do was now put my first name with my last name and, voilá, I would have a full Chinese name.

Not so fast! The problem with just throwing together characters is that there are a lot of homophones in Mandarin and the chances of things going seriously wrong abound. In this case my placing of Méi Míngyù together created something that sounded exactly like “without a good reputation” (没名誉), not exactly the image I was trying to give off as a expat sorting her way through socializing in Mandarin.

Finally, one evening lying in my bunk in my dorm room, one of my 3 roommates approached me; she had prepared a little mini-speech in English (clear by the piece of paper she pulled out of her pocket and began to read from). “You name very shameful. It mean… have no honor!  You need new name. Your new name is “Méi Jiérú”, it much better.” And that’s how I got the name I have today, which I am told consistently is a good name. So, do you need a Chinese name and if so how do you get a good one?

You will need a Chinese name if you ever intend to write your name in characters. If you are learning only pinyin and not the writing system, you could get away with saying your name in English, particularly if it is a common one such as David or Nancy. The only problem is that if you really want to speak Chinese with your counterparts, saying your name in English will encourage the conversation to turn to speaking English. Also, if your name is not that common or you are speaking with someone who doesn’t know English, it will be hard for the listener to say or remember your name. It’s the same reason most Chinese expats in the U.S. take on an English name. So here are some tips on choosing a name:

•    If you have a common given name there is usually a set of characters typically associated with your name. You can look this up then have a native speaker help you choose a last name that is close to your surname, or one that goes well with those characters.
•    If you do not have a common name, you should choose a name with a meaning that you like. For example, a person I know with the name “Forever Beautiful” is not a name I would want, just too much pressure. Girls usually are given names that mean ”beautiful”, “white”, “pure”, “clean”, etc. and boys are more likely to be given names with characters such as “brave”, “intelligent”, and “strong”. But names run the full gamut and you can have a native speaker help you choose something meaningful and poetic to you. There are plenty of characters that form beautiful names such as “cloud”, “jasmine”, “poetry”, “dragon”, and many more.
•    ONLY have an educated native speaker help you choose a name. Someone serious about the assignment will not choose one on the spot, but will take some time and talk to other Chinese people to get their feedback. Likewise, before you take on your new name, ask a few native speakers what they think of the name chosen for you.
•    Learn what each character in your name is associated with, this is how you will be expected to tell people your name each and every time you meet someone new.  I, for example, have to say each time when asked which characters are in my name that they are “mei, as in plum blossom mei”, “jie as in clean jie” and “ru as in if ru”. People will often also imaginary write the characters on their own hand for the viewer to see which character they mean.
•    If you just want to play around with choosing a Chinese name, check out this site: http://www.mandarintools.com/chinesename.html – but remember to run the results by a native speaker before adopting the name.
•    Here is a list of English names transliterated into Chinese: http://chineseculture.about.com/library/name/blname.htm – these are not real Chinese names, but instead just the sound of your English name transliterated into Chinese. You know the guys who sit on the sidewalk and tell tourists they will write their English name in Chinese? That’s what they are doing. Just writing out characters to mimic the sound of your English name. So, here a name like “Barbara” becomes “Ba-ba-la”. A real Chinese name would only be one or two characters for the given name and only one for the surname.

Any good stories on how you got your name in Chinese?

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4 Responses

  1. Can you give me a Chinese name? Something like “ice head”? Or “pays too much for excursions?”

  2. Sure we could call you 王冰头

  3. oohhh.. Interesting!! My Chinese name is 笑臉 which means smiling face… It was I who gave that name to myself. I simply like how it sounds, before I realized there was phrase that sounds like that. Anyway, I somehow lived according to my name because I am known as a girl wearing a smiling face. 🙂

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