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What's in a Chinese name? A lot, it turns out

China Daily | Updated: 2017-04-11 07:24

In a one-room shop tucked inside a Beijing alley, a bearded 74-year-old fortuneteller in a crimson tunic offers what Chinese parents have sought for centuries: an auspicious name for their newborn.

But business has been tough lately for Mao Shandong and others in his trade, as tech-savvy entrepreneurs have turned the ancient naming tradition into a lucrative online business.

"We can't make a living these days," Mao lamented.

Unlike in English, where one draws from a lexicon of Josephs and Richards, a Chinese name can be created from any combination of two or three characters. And for many Chinese parents, making the right choice has become imperative as they seek to help their children stand out in the world's most populous country.

"Parents care more and more about personal brand," said Zhang Ruxin, 37, the co-founder of Beijing-based naming service Qimingtong - which essentially means "Clear Naming".

"They realize that the name will follow their child for their entire life, be judged by their employers and have an impact on their values."

Qimingtong operates almost entirely online, with parents filling out web questionnaires and Zhang offering consultations through the popular messaging app WeChat.

A quick web search reveals more than 100 such businesses in China, each promising names that will pave the way for future success.

Baby branding

Zhang founded Qimingtong in late 2014 with her business partner, Chen Jun, after working for two decades as a newspaper reporter. The idea arose as she pursued her hobby: helping friends and colleagues name their children.

Zhang and her employees also help name dozens of newborns every day for walk-ins.

Rates range from 400 yuan ($58) to 10,000 yuan for a private consultation with Zhang.

Liu Qiang, a police officer in Henan province, and his wife wanted to use a modern naming method that still accounts for bazi - the traditional belief in a destiny determined by one's date of birth.

Bazi, or eight characters, refers to the eight digits denoting the year, month, day and hour of birth. It is believed to determine the natural elements present in one's life, such as metal, wood, water, fire and earth.

A name can compensate for the elements a child lacks.

Liu's son lacked a wood element, so Qimingtong named him "Bailin", combining the characters for cypress tree and a mythical, dragon-like creature from Chinese folklore to create a name his parents hope will help him forge a unique identity.

Chinese looking to move abroad or work for international companies may also seek help choosing an English name. At Lindsay Jernigan's first job in Shanghai, she worked alongside Apple, Yoyo and Eleven.

While her company was filled with "really smart, driven" professionals, Jernigan, a 27-year-old United States citizen, feared their names would hurt their prospects in English-speaking workplaces.

Two years ago she founded, which charges 248 yuan for a 30-minute consultation via WeChat.

Some clients request English names that still adhere to bazi, forcing Jernigan to get creative.

If someone wants a water element, she may suggest "Brook", "Morgan" (a water sprite in Welsh), or "Lindsay", which means "Linden trees by the water".

"Of course you can just get lists of names online, but we're the only ones who truly understand the Chinese mentality," Jernigan said. "Naming is a way of self-expression. The demand is definitely here."

Not everyone shares her optimism.

Mao said he is ready to abandon his fortunetelling business, even as he scorns his rivals in the naming industry.

"All those websites, they're the scams," he said. "They don't truly understand Chinese tradition."


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