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Coming up with your Chinese name

By Sam Kestenbaum | China Daily | Updated: 2013-01-04 13:05
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A girl reads a book on names and luck. Some people use the Chinese concept of the Five Elements in giving themselves a name. Ren Weihong / for China Daily

Choosing a new moniker gives you the chance to remake yourself, but there are pitfalls

When I first arrive in Beijing, I feel like I am drowning in the language. The written characters are utterly foreign to me and I strain my ear to distinguish between the spoken tones. My head spins. I can barely pronounce the name of the neighborhood where I live.

I make new Chinese friends, shake their hands and listen as they introduce themselves. I mouth out their names, trying to voice the foreign-sounding syllables. Their surname

(姓 xìng) comes first, and then their personal name (名字 míngzì) (the opposite from English), and I meet dozens of Wang (王 wáng), Li (李 lǐ)and Zhang (张 zhāng), the three most popular surnames in China. I am confused. So they smile and mercifully offer me their English names.

They are not surprised that my Chinese is terrible, or that I have trouble pronouncing their native names, so, like good hosts, they accommodate me. Since reform and opening up, more and more Chinese workers have been taking on English monikers, because their new, foreign, unilingual business partners could not remember their names.

But I do not want to be one of those privileged, loud Americans, who bark their way through all cultures other than their own. Instead of waiting for Chinese people's English name, I will offer them my Chinese name.

Two American friends of mine came to China to seek their fortunes. They recommended that I choose a good business name, and suggested the company Good Characters, Inc - self-professed masters in "the art and science of Chinese naming" (起名大师 qímǐng dàshī ). This company guarantees to make the naming process easy for me. Choosing my name, it seems, could be approached like a marketing campaign.

But I am interested in more than doing business in China; I also want to know about the culture, the history and the tradition. I want to find my new name, and I want there to be some magic involved. I go looking for a fortuneteller (算命的 suànmìng de).

The main strip outside the Lama temple, north of Beijing's city center, is packed with both foreign tourists and Chinese worshipers, the hutong neighborhoods surrounding the temple are eerily quiet. This is where I will find my fortuneteller.

Two Chinese friends, Echo Zhao and Ginger Huang, are with me as we explore the narrow alleys, looking for signs that will say "Choose names", or "qi ming (起名)".

The Chinese concept of the Five Elements (五行 wǔxíng) - wood, fire, earth, metal and water - have been a part of Chinese thought since ancient times, and are used in many fields: martial arts, feng shui, medicine, music and military planning to name a few. If properly studied, the five elements provide a structure, a metaphysical framework; following this guide can lead to a balanced life.

In the naming process, the characters that make up your hour, day, month and year of birth all represent different elements. If you have too much of the water element in your birth date, you should add a fire element to your name; if you have too many metal elements, you should add a character that represents a wood element.

The price for a new name can be expensive. Today we have been given prices that range from 100 yuan ($16; 12 euros) to 1,000 yuan. Different naming processes with more complex analyses, presumably resulting in a better name, cost more.

We meet a Taoist fortuneteller who sits behind a desk, a diagram of the "I Ching" on the wall behind him. He looks wise and old - a capable name-giver, I think. Taking a pen out from his desk, he asks my birth date. He nods and begins writing furiously. Pausing, he asks for my surname. "Kestenbaum," I say. This is a hard one to pronounce, even for Americans.

I repeat my name and he scratches his chin, bewildered. "Isn't there a shortened version?" Oftentimes, foreigners create Chinese homonyms of their English names. Andrew becomes Anzhu (安竹). Nick becomes Nike (尼克).

He writes 克 (kè, conquer), half of the first syllable of my name, "Ke", which means "conquering". Then for my first name, he writes 城堡 (chéngbǎo, castle), making my name something like "Conquering Castles". A very powerful name (名字很有气势 míngzì hěn yǒu qìshì). Ginger and Echo shake their heads. It is silly, they tell me, it sounds funny.

He comes up with two alternatives: "Conquering Horses", or "Running Horse". He scribbles a few more notes on a sheet of paper, but shakes his head.

We thank our fortuneteller. As we leave the shop, Echo and Ginger walk ahead of me, whispering to each other. "We can give you a better name," Echo says.

As much as I wanted my name to come from a wizened mystic, I also like the idea of a Chinese friend naming me, someone who has got to know me. Echo and Ginger may be better fit for the task.

Ginger suggests a variation on "Uncle Sam" - "Big Brother Sam" (山姆大哥, Shānmǔ dàgē). This could also be shortened to 山哥 (Shāngē). It is funny, I like it. It is a play on my status as a foreigner here, as an ambassador of sorts, a reluctant representative of my country.

Echo suggests I become Ke Haoquan (柯皓泉). Ke, for the first syllable of my surname, and Quan, "spring", because according to my horoscope, I could use some water element in my name. This is also good, because I do want to lead a balanced life. "That one sounds nice," she says. "But I am still thinking of new ones."

When Ginger, whose Chinese name is Huang Yuanjing, was a young girl, her parents called her Jingjing. Similarly, when Echo, or Zhao Lei, was young, she was called Leilei. This is often the case with Chinese kids. When they are born, they take their family surname, but use an affectionate, shortened name until later in their lives, when they take on an adult name.

Many Chinese people choose their English names themselves - picking any name they would like, and they do not have to be necessarily conventional. I have met people named Transformer, Juicy, Spirit, Sunny, Justice and Jade. Their names can be inspired by movies, TV shows, favorite authors or singers. Anything goes. It is their chance to remake themselves.

Though I set out to definitively remake myself, I realize I might not have to choose just one name. Like my Chinese friends, I can have a handful of names in a lifetime; it is a fluid process. I can be called one name by my friends, one by those I work with, and another by my parents or girlfriend. As I grow, I can choose new names for myself. And if I need to feel really courageous, I can go by Conquering Castle.

I can be light-hearted or mystic, my name can be serious or have humor. I could be Brother Sam, Running Horse or Tidal Wave. Each name is like a revision, an update, the latest version of who I am and who I am becoming.

Courtesy of The World of Chinese,

The World of Chinese

(China Daily 01/04/2013 page17)

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