Have you ever mused over the possible deep meaning of the choice English names your students chose? Have you ever wondered why your Chinese name sounds really strange when translated into English? Well below is an introduction to some of the more interesting naming practices. 

  1. How many names?: Historically, socially enfranchised individuals could have different names at different stages of their life and stylized versions of them for different uses. Sun Yat-Sen, the founding father of the Chinese Republic, had eight, not including a large number of pseudonyms used while in hiding.
  2. 1, 2, or 3?: In traditional China there was a strong emphasis on having as many children as possible. This led to some pretty large numbers of children that could sometimes be hard to keep track of. Enter the numbers. Using a number after a name indicates the individual’s position in line; in the case of Su Forty-Three, a famous rebel in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) who seems to be pretty far down the list. A common usage today is referring to oneself relative to one’s brothers and sisters. The third child in a family would be called “old three.”
  3. You want me to be what?: In China, names express a parents desire for a child or describe characteristics the child may have. In rural settings, embarrassing physical features or associations are common. If a child doesn’t turn out just as the parents wanted, they may keep the name they planned on anyway. A tragic young male character in “The World” by director Jia Zhangke goes by the name “Maiden Number Two” because his parents had hoped that their second child would be a girl.