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Understanding the naming conventions of other cultures is important for an investigator or for anyone wishing to certainly and correctly identify people in our diverse country. The following column is an attempt to assist the reader in correctly applying the conventions of uniquely ethnic names so identification is possible. This article should not be interpreted as indicating any unusual prevalence of any specific ethnic group toward unlawful or immoral activities, since no such intention exists. In each issue of The John Cooke Fraud Report, we will explore the mysteries of the naming practices of different ethnic cultures.
The estimated population of the entire world is slightly over seven billion people. Of these, 1.3 billion are Chinese; in other words, slightly over one in five. Adding to the complexity is the fact that 85% of the Chinese population — well over one billion people — carry the same 100 last names. (The other 15% carry only about 3900 other names between them. (For the sake of comparison, consider that the current US population is just slightly over 315 million and it takes a thousand million to make a billion.) Imagine the confusion if 85% of our own population were named Smith, Johnson, Williams, etc., and then extend that confusion to cover first names like John, Robert, James, Michael, etc. The comparative reality is that 70,000 names are used for 90% of the US population. China has four times more people sharing a far smaller number of names. Locating a Chinese person by name alone can be daunting.
Chinese, in written form (no matter the dialect), is composed of a similarly limited number of characters. In all, only about 2000 subsets are used to determine a name, each having a very explicit meaning. It may be a physical concept (mountain, gold, tree, rain, sun) or it may be conceptual (good, wise, happiness, beauty, kind.)
Naming traditions mirror the unique cultural beliefs of the Chinese. Respect for ancestors (alive or not) is of the utmost importance; so a person’s name reflects the family name first and the given name second. In other words, under the Chinese system, the American name John Smith, would be Smith John. And while middle names are the norm in most other naming cultures, not so in China. People generally do not have middle names the likes of John William Smith, although they do often have three written characters.
The first character in the written name is the last name. It may be Sun, Wu, Zhang, Yang, Li or any other of the somewhat limited number of Chinese family names Most of these names come from those of the dynasties throughout China’s long history.
1. Three Sovereigns and the Five Emperors before 2070 BC
2. Xia Dynasty 2070–1600 BC
3. Shang Dynasty 1600–1046 BC
4. Western Zhou Dynasty 1046–771 BC
5. Eastern Zhou Dynasty 770–256 BC
6. Qin Dynasty 221–206 BC
8. Xin Dynasty 9–23
9. Eastern Han Dynasty 25–220
10. Three Kingdoms 220–265
11. Western Jin Dynasty 265–317
12. Eastern Jin Dynasty 317–420
13. Sui Dynasty 581–618
14. Tang Dynasty 618–907
15. Northern Song Dynasty 960–1127
16. Southern Song Dynasty 1127–1279
17. Liao Dynasty 916–1125
18. Jin Dynasty 1115–1234
19. Yuan Dynasty 1271–1368
20. Ming Dynasty 1368–1644
21. Qing Dynasty 1644–1911
The second character of the individual’s name represents the generation, and the last character is the given name. Here’s where it gets interesting … the determination of generation (and middle name) is per family lineage — not a numerical decade as might be assumed by a person not of Chinese heritage. Within the Chinese naming culture is a predetermination that the (for instance) 25th generation is assigned a certain name. This is referred to as the “Spreading Character” and that’s the reason that three sisters will have the same “middle” name — they are all of the identical generation. Generational names for males and females vary from one another within the same family.
One of those daunting aspects for an American investigator is the difficulty encountered via transliteration. Here’s an example:
“It was a dark and stormy night … a car driven by a Lee-something-something is at fault in a T-bone collision that allegedly injures a driver and his passenger in the not-at-fault vehicle. The Driver is Li-something-something and the passenger is Lei-somethingsomething. Depending on the middle “something,” there is a chance that all three are from the same family (as the common name Li can have alternative spellings when it is translated into an English spelling); they could be brothers or same generation cousins (if the middle something is the same), have an uncle-nephew or a father-son relationship if the generational name is one off, etc. In other words, knowing the naming rules assists in defining the possibility of relationship.
Wang is equivalent to the American name Smith in that it is the most common family name in all of China. Despite millions and millions of people carrying this first-character family name, a large number of those alive today will have identical second characters because they may be of identical generations — even though their actual lineage may not intersect for many hundreds of years. Each family tree (to coin an American word/concept) has a Naming Book, so every to-be-parent knows exactly what the first two characters of their child’s name will be. They need only to determine the third character.
While this may sound odd to an American, it provides an element of information to people with the same first (last) name who encounter one another. They know that they are of the same family, but they also know where each other is in that specific branch’s lineage/ancestry. It is thus not unusual for a 75-year-old to refer to a five-year-old as “grandfather.”
Any information is good information in a culture where just three names, Zhang, Li and Wang, represent the first character (family name) of a staggering 20 percent of 1.3 billion people who live in China and the many millions more who live in other areas of the world. (Not unsimilar to Nguyen being the family name to more than 50% of all Vietnamese, no matter where they live.)
Most Chinese family names include just one single character. Only a few have more than one. Chinese given names can have one or two characters; however two-character names are more common today and make up more than 80% of Chinese names. When writing a name, there is a variation between characters between regions of China. Perhaps the best comparative is to imagine the different accent between the English spoken by a New York cabbie and the English spoken by a Texas cowboy … and show that in character writing.
Throughout history Chinese women became part of their husband’s family but retained their original family names. The children carried the paternal name. The difficulties faced in implementing national computer identification systems have caused the Chinese government to reconsider those customs and now parents are allowed by law to give their child/children either the maternal, the paternal or a combination of both. Wives are now permitted to add their husband’s name to their own, similar to how American women hyphenate their last name and their husband’s last name, although thus far this has only become popular in Hong Kong among the upper class and older generations.
Traditionally, a child cannot use an ancestor’s name — or even a name with a similar pronunciation — as using the same name is disrespectful Because of sheer numbers, the rule of thumb is that you do not duplicate for at least three generations. While it’s fairly common in the US to have a John Smith, a John Smith, Jr. and a John Smith lll in three successive generations, in China this would be considered disrespectful.
Superstition plays a large part in Chinese naming choices and there has also been a recent trend in China to hire fortune tellers to change people’s names to new ones more in accordance with traditional Taoist and five element practices. In choosing a name, the Chinese may also look at how many strokes are in the character as they are superstitious in all ways numerical; a four-stroke name is not “lucky.” An eight-stroke name is lucky. To an American, a four-stroke name would be like giving a baby a name like “loser” … rather than an 8-stroker name like “winner.”
Along with this thread of superstition was a long-held belief that deliberately choosing an unpleasant given name would ward off evil spirits and bad omens. A seriously ill son might thus be renamed Ti Sai — the translation being “Pig Sh*t.” With such a name, why would an evil spirit want to claim such a child? It should be noted, that similar to other cultures around the world, recent generations of Chinese have many times departed from standard naming traditions. The past two (and perhaps three) generations may have chosen not to honor their ancestors by continuing with the same structure. In other words, there are no stringent rules that must be followed, but many of the old rules are still honored as a matter of respect.
That said … another custom is to find the newborn baby’s eight characters (in four pairs, indicating the year, month, day and hour of a person’s birth, each pair consisting of one heavenly stem and one earthly branch, formerly used in fortune-telling) and the element in the eight characters. The Chinese believe that world consists of five principal elements: metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. Since the name contains eight characters, two for each of the four elements, there is one element “left over.” If the missing element is water, his name will include a word like lake, tide, sea, river, stream, rain, or any word having to do with water. If he is missing metal, it would include a word like gold, silver, iron, or steel.
Names implying luck are very popular. The concept of good luck is very important in Chinese culture. Another naming tradition includes a repetitive duplication of a name. Since names are often wishes for the future of the child, parents might name the child “Ming” — which means bright — or even Ming Ming, which somewhat doubles the wish. Bright bright! Too, a name can be chosen that reflects what the parents see when they see their child. ShaoWen translates to “little” and “grace.” Names are also chosen by using a character from a noble or great person from past history — with the hope that the child thus inherits that person’s nobility and greatness. Given names often reflect qualities which are perceived to be either masculine or feminine. Males are linked with concepts reflecting strength and firmness; females with concepts reflecting beauty and flowers.
Chinese people, prior to 1949 when the Communist Party took power and forcefully imposed the one-child policy, formed large and strong family units and shared living space. Children follow the father’s name in most cases, although in somewhat more recent times the mother’s family name may alternatively be chosen. All members of a family share the same family name.
Similar to American culture, given names are used among family, friends and business associates, however the Chinese are often prone to including a title as a matter of respect. This title may identify gender, relationship, profession or position and is inserted directly after the family name. Examples of this would be “lao shr,” which means teacher, of “yi sheng,” connoting doctor. “Gong” is an engineer and Zong is an executive or general manager, Additionally, within families, siblings may attach a hierarchical connection in referring to or interacting with one another (big sister, second sister, second brother, etc.) Not unlike the US, it would be rare (and considered highly disrespectful) for a young person to call their grandmother Delores or Madeline in lieu of a grandmotherly title like Grandma, Nana, or Granny. Connectors are also used to define a relationship with other than siblings — birth or marriage from maternal or paternal side.).
In the case of a Chinese American, the most common approach is to take on an American name as a surname and use the Chinese name as a combined last name. Thus Zhang Wei might become John Zhang Wei.. Also somewhat common is to reverse the names from last/first to first/last — so Zhang Wei becomes Wei Zhang. While there may be a variety of reasons to adopt an Americanized name, one of those reasons is that foreigner’s (that’s us) have great difficulty with pronunciation of some of the Chinese language sounds and with the tones that are very much a part of speaking/understanding the language. A slight lilt of the voice is all it takes to ask someone how their horse is feeling … instead of how their mother is feeling. The sound is “ma” but the meaning varies depending upon how that single syllable is uttered. Ma? Ma! Mauhhh, Maaaaaaaa, etc. (Speaking of Ma, when used as a family name, it is most commonly by a Western Chinese family that follows Muslim beliefs. The Ma is a reference to Mohammad.)
Nicknames are somewhat common for children. As the Americans often add a “Y,” (Chris becomes Chrissy, Walter becomes Wally, etc.) the Chinese add an “A” before the last syllable of the given name, e.g., Mei becomes A-mei.
Attempting to pull records in China can be challenging, not only because of the sheer numbers sharing the same name, but because of the overall system. Because the lack of Chinese surnames leads to confusion in social environments, some Chinese parents have given unusual names to their children to promote individuality. Overall, about 106,000 characters are used in the People’s Republic of China, but only about 30 percent are recognized by the government computers. The PRC government has asked individuals with unusual names to change them so they can get new computer readable public identity cards, and the system prevented them from receiving new identity cards if they do not change their names. As of about ten years ago, the PRC government began the list of standardized characters to be used in naming. It’s been subjected to constant revisions; however, unless one changes a non-included name to one that is on the list, no identity card can or will be issued.
[color-box color=”gray”]There are 14 “It’s All in a Name” articles available in the johncooke.com website archives. Indian? Russian? Hispanic? They’re all there![/color-box]