Chinese People’s English Names – Is There a Method to the Madness?

Chinese People’s English Names – Is There a Method to the Madness?
Dec 02, 2015 By Bo Brennan , eChinacities.com

During my first year in China, I taught children at a training school, and occasionally those kids would come in with some fairly off-the-wall names. While it was novel at first, the thrill of having a student named Watermelon or Seven in your class would eventually subside, and you’d just pack away another “China story” to tell the folks back home. Then, one day, a father brought his son into the school for the first time, and as I talked with him, he casually mentioned his son’s newly acquired English name.

Student’s Father: Teacher Bo, my son’s name is Semen.

Me: Ah, you must mean Simon. It’s a common pronunciation problem, my friend. There is no possible way that you’ve just named your son Semen.

Teaching Assistant: No, no, Bo. He said Semen, not Simon.

Student’s Father: Yes, his name is Semen.

Me: Just curious, why would you name your son Semen?

Student’s Father: You know, like David Seaman, the English footballer who played in the Premier League in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Me: Ah! Well, now I feel like a jerk. Honest mistake. You still can’t call your kid Seaman or Semen though. Henceforth, your little one shall be named Simon. Let us put it into stone and rejoice and sing it from the mount.

Moral of the story—For little Simon, I have irrevocably altered the trajectory of his English-language life arc for the better. Alas, my good deed will probably go unnoticed, but I can go to my cold, unforgiving grave knowing that I prevented a little Chinese boy from being called Semen.

While this is an extreme example, it’s interesting to think about why Chinese have such a bountiful cornucopia of crazy English names. Although most of the time in the China expat blogosphere this topic descends into one big Crazy English Name Jamboree, I’ll try to dig a little bit deeper into the jumble of vowels and consonants to examine the underlying causes and potential implications of this phenomenon.

Hello! My Name Is sticker
Photo: nomadnesstv.com

Finding the perfect name

So, why do Chinese people pick an English name at all? From a brief, informal, not-at-all-scientific survey of my Chinese friends and colleagues, the consensus seems to be that everyone is aiming for a unique name. It’s a noble intention and many Chinese pull it off quite well. Names like Kylie or Hunter or Lena or Abbot aren’t exactly common names, but they’re also not ridiculous and don’t sound like someone simply threw a dart at their dictionary and picked whatever turned up.

What I noticed from my remarkably amateur surveying skills is that, for most Chinese people, they either get their name at a very young age—from either their parents or a good-natured English teacher—and don’t have much control over it anyway, or they try and pick a name later on in life because it will be useful in their work. The latter is usually where you’ll find the really outlandish names. They want to be unique, and in a nation of a billion something people, that’s an understandable, if not somewhat quixotic, goal. Really though, do you want everyone to remember you because your name is iPad?

好听 (It sounds good)

Proving that not everything is life needs a complicated answer, many of my Chinese friends told me that they picked their English names simply because they liked the sound of it.

Alternatively, several of them said that they had a particular affinity for a word in Chinese and decided to stick with the English translation, regardless of whether it can be used as a proper name or not. This is probably why you’ll occasionally run into Chinese girls with names like Pretty or Beautiful or meet Chinese guys named Hero or Huge Muscles.

Also, there are a surprising amount of names that translate fairly well between Chinese and English, to wit: Lily for 丽丽 (li li), Ally for 艾丽 (ai li), and David for 大为 (da wei). These are all perfectly reasonable and acceptable, and therefore fairly boring, so let’s move on.

A rose by any other name…

This is piggy-backing off of one of the ideas discussed in the book/blog/movie, Freakonomics. In their book, Steve Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner talk about the socioeconomic patterns of naming children, specifically whether having a typical sounding “black” name in the United States, like Roshanda or Shaniqua can hinder ones upward social mobility due to institutional prejudices. (Their conclusion was “no, but sort of”, by the way).

While this is certainly a loaded hypothesis, and is greatly influenced by racial discrimination quite specific to American history, the core idea itself—fancy name: “nominative determinism”—is worth mentioning in our wacky Chinese people’s English names thesis. That is to say, if your name is Peach Fuzz or something equally unique-but-ridiculous sounding, it must affect your career prospects, especially if you plan on working in a foreign company. In a business setting, any person, foreign or Chinese, who has a reasonable command of the English language, is just not going to take you very serious. It’s a thin line Chinese walk between trying to have a strong, unique English name and stumbling over into the absurd enough to hurt their employment options.

Then again, maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about. There is that singer in Hong Kong name Angelababy and she drowns in a sea of money every night, so maybe MoonKnight Chen might just be the next big thing.

Is this all even necessary?

With more and more foreigners working in China and many more learning to speak Chinese in order to play Chinese ball, are English names for Chinese people even going to be that necessary in the future? In a distance corner of modern China I hear some foreign dude saying “Chinese names are too hard to remember!” How about this? We just stop being jerks and remember their Chinese names. It’s, at most, four syllables!

Let’s just all make it more culturally acceptable that Chinese people have Chinese names, even when dealing with foreigners. “But, they already have English names,” you say, “Of course, I’m going to remember that one!” Fair enough, but there is no reason to expect the 55-year-old sales manager at an SOE to dreg up some English moniker he’s never used just so you can remember his name.

Closing thoughts

In case anyone out there is offended, this article is meant all in good fun. Wherever different languages and cultures intersect, there are bound to be some differences of opinions between sides on what names are considered “proper” or acceptable. And though I didn’t get a chance to mention it above, this “crazy names” phenomenon is by no means exclusive to Chinese choosing English names. I’ve known plenty of foreigners here that have chosen similarly outlandish Chinese names (I’m looking at you Mr Yi Ersan…). So no hard feelings, okay?

Now then, let the Crazy English Name Jamboree begin! I’ll start. Here’s a top five of my all time favorite unusual English names I’ve heard in China:

1) Semen (see above)
2) Bacon
3) Genius
4) Haze
5) Blues (“like the music”)

Warning:The use of any news and articles published on eChinacities.com without written permission from eChinacities.com constitutes copyright infringement, and legal action can be taken.

Keywords: Chinese people’s English names Chinese people choose English names

42 Comments

All comments are subject to moderation by eChinacities.com staff. Because we wish to encourage healthy and productive dialogue we ask that all comments remain polite, free of profanity or name calling, and relevant to the original post and subsequent discussion. Comments will not be deleted because of the viewpoints they express, only if the mode of expression itself is inappropriate.

1

Dreamauctioneer
comment|74845|1713661

My master gave me the name Adios Daisypusher, maybe because I like to wear flowers in my brain. People tent to call me Dios but I donnot like it as if in china you call pubic hair Dios...redding redding face

Dec 30, 2017 11:54 Report Abuse

2

Guest2605606
comment|67195|289511

My students - Train Happy Apple I have a few more funny names haha

Dec 05, 2015 16:45 Report Abuse

3

englishmike2
comment|67194|1580556

Well having been here some 5 years soon have heard and seen a bit, worked in Urumqi a while , 2 stick in my mind apart from the usual stuff, had a boy called crapper !! apparently due to an absent father who was a persistent gambler ( craps ) in Macao, although a necessary daily function not an ideal start in life, and a girl with long wavy hair who used to hide her eyes behind it so I could never see if she was paying attention called Boolocks.... made me cringe when I had to say its Boolocks ......poor kids

Dec 05, 2015 13:58 Report Abuse

4

icnif77
comment|67184|32863

All Chinese names have meaning, for difference of most English names don't mean anything else but 'name of the person'. That's why Chinese all pick regular English words as their English names. Wat abot dat? I met Ozz guy with name 'Benn'. He had to change his name, because of the meaning of his original name in Chinese. I tried to name Chinese with 'Big Ben' several times, but strangely none would go for the famous spot.... Mod: "word 'operation' at your edit message is misspelled! Your Englo word is 'opearation'...."

Dec 05, 2015 09:02 Report Abuse

5

sorrel
comment|67199|246226

Names do have meaning - there are whole websites devoted to them for parents (with slightly more imagination other than choosing a popular 'celeb' name) who want to choose a name for their baby. For example, the name 'Angus' means 'Exceptionally strong'. 'Alan' means handsome and so on. It is just that the origin of these names are not remembered on a daily basis, or are as 'in your face' as some Chinese names.

Dec 05, 2015 20:35 Report Abuse

6

icnif77
comment|67200|32863

English name Allan could mean 'space ship' in English, but most Chinese wouldn't understand that, and they would prefer to be named 'Space ship', because they can get 'reflection' in their native language, and they can't get anything from name Allan. On another example, they'd rather be named 'Exceptionally strong' than 'Angus', because there's no translation for Angus in Chinese. I'm just guessing. I don't speak Chinese, so I wrote 38 just out of my head. I don't see Chinese as strange, because they name themselves 'Bacon' and similar, as posters on this thread are implying. If I would have student with name Angus, I'd certainly suggest adding 'beef', and I would explain meaning of the name similar as Beijing duck. Smileys here! I generally explain funny English names to students, and suggest change. Many posters here should 'step into Chinese shoes' more often.

Dec 05, 2015 22:34 Report Abuse

7

machlec
comment|67177|43064

i met baby, black, temperament, auto, robot, onion, star, seven, eleven,

Dec 05, 2015 00:17 Report Abuse

8

Guest2503130
comment|67112|278125

I always love it when they're not happy with the name you gave them. Ok, fine, I've tried, ask someone else then...

Dec 03, 2015 15:17 Report Abuse

9

Guest2597482
comment|67077|288609

I have known a Lucifer, Jesus, Devil as well as the special boy called iPhone. And a teenage boy called Kate

Dec 02, 2015 18:43 Report Abuse

10

Guest2597482
comment|67076|288609

I have known a Lucifer, Jesus, Devil as well as the special boy called iPhone. And a teenage boy called Kate

Dec 02, 2015 18:43 Report Abuse

11

klubijar
comment|67061|1593307

My students have English names to complete their immersion when they're studying English, for the same reason I've got a rather silly Chinese name. But I've had some awesome names: 1:Dreamtime Skybroker 2:Chickabitty 3:Britdam (After Britney spears and Adam Lambert) 4:Darth Vader (9 year old girl and self named) 5: Obama, Putin, Churchill and Hitler (four boys who sat together. And, yes, Hitler did understand the controversy of his name, and regrettably was comfortable with it.

Dec 02, 2015 12:18 Report Abuse

12

GR3NDAL
comment|67060|264864

Currently I have such gems as Brain (and his friend Brain Two), X-Jian, Leader, Coffee, Holiday, Echo, Rainy, Windy and Lemon.

Dec 02, 2015 12:10 Report Abuse

13

SenseiSteve
comment|73253|305724

Maybe windy is a very flatulent person

Oct 20, 2016 12:45 Report Abuse

14

laowaipengyou
comment|67051|1602607

i met a knife,stupid,summer,vagina

Dec 02, 2015 06:48 Report Abuse

15

dkappy
comment|67050|285121

Chinese names aren't very creative, everyone is a Xiao DanDan or some other ridiculous little "cute" name- at least their English names are hysterical. I've had some named Kaka, BabysBreath, Stone, Love, Night Blindness J, Vampire, and gun. These were university students..

Dec 02, 2015 06:34 Report Abuse

16

Guest388182
comment|67043|43131

Swallow

Dec 02, 2015 05:18 Report Abuse

17

dom87
comment|67073|102513

Yo, I met that girl too. Actually she was working in a Shanghai Hotel near Nanjing Lu. Was it her? lol Swallow Wang. Almost fell of my feet when I read it

Dec 02, 2015 16:11 Report Abuse

18

Guest388182
comment|67097|43131

Actually the one I met was Swallow Gu; she had a cousin called Jazz Mai Tung

Dec 03, 2015 06:18 Report Abuse

19

MrTibbles
comment|39403|56786

If you are introduced to someone, surname Li (pinyin: Lì) without getting to see the character in their name, is it 郦, 酈, 栗, 厉, 厲, 莉, or 利? These are all pronounced exactly the same, with the same tone. I am not an inexperienced westerner, I'm stating a very valid point. You can, and I have, meet different people with different characters, PRONOUNCED EXACTLY THE SAME. It's like meeting Stacy, Staci, and Stacie. "Go talk to Stacy" "Which Stacy?" Stacy with the Y, I, or IE?" "Um, big Stacy" "Oh, you mean the fat one?" "No, the older one" "I can't tell which one is older." "Just call out big Stacy" Seriously, noone else has had an experience like this?

Aug 05, 2013 18:27 Report Abuse

20

ewi
comment|37984|9454

name for human represent the person and from the name can know the culture background. if not i dont think its a nice name. people need to maintained they own culture if they dont want to lose it in the future(our responsible). im not hoping some day all my country name in chinese or in english or any others. i think they need to hold on they own culture name. if somebody cant accept your name, its not your name fault. its their fault.if they cant accept your name how they can know you more better and accept you? that my opini, no hurt feeling!!!

Jun 06, 2013 19:19 Report Abuse

21

TeacherSteve
comment|38261|82462

Oh yeh, I had one named Human, too.

Jun 16, 2013 05:44 Report Abuse

22

hollywang
comment|37951|254778

Atom, Rabbit, Apple, Pete(fart in Chinese),dolphin. Hummel was my husband's English name before he came to America, it was the name of the general from "The Rock". He had is name changed by an American guy he knew to Bob because his Chinese name started with a "B" because people could say his name right and then settled on Robert because he didn't like Bob.

Jun 06, 2013 08:03 Report Abuse

23

syoung108
comment|37941|34639

Simba, Win-Win, Deer, Fleason, Package, Kings, and a thousand Angels and Candy's.

Jun 05, 2013 23:51 Report Abuse

24

bernhardtra
comment|37813|50847

I am pretty much under the belief that they can chose whatever name they want and I really don't care about how much anyone teases them later. I knew this one girl named Spooky, it was given to her by her English teacher. I must say she was!

Jun 02, 2013 10:35 Report Abuse

25

RachelDiD
comment|37794|252220

I just can't get over all the sweet, shy, wholesome girls who have inadvertently gotten stripper English names. Candy, most notably.

Jun 01, 2013 13:44 Report Abuse