About Chinese Names

With respect to any language, whether it be English or Putonghua, the goal of this blog is simple and direct: to speak and write it well.

Chinglish, as many well know, is a horrible bastardization of both languages. For cross-cultural learners, Chinglish is an unfortunate necessity in the beginning to middle stages of development. Entire web sites have been erected at pointing out the horribles gaffes, and despite being a one-line joke, it can devolve into a one-line joke several hundred web pages long.

We should all strive to speak and write well, no matter which language we are speaking. However, in regards to this blog there will be definitely one area of Chinglish that will persist: that of names.

Names are hard to translate. What looks to be an ungodly mess of a Chinese name in English is only mirrored by the same effect when an English name is transliterated into Chinese. Sure, it looks pretty enough to tattoo on yourself but just as Chinese names changed into English are, English names changed into Chinese make no sense, or worse, have terrible meanings.

For example, James Cameron made some bad 3D movie about an internet sexual fetish and called it “Avatar”. This movie was released in China as well, and it is known by the name “阿凡达”. “阿凡达” is most definitely a Chinese word, but it also most definitely does not make a lick of sense. Like many other English names changed into Chinese, the individual Chinese characters are not used for their meaning but just for their sound quality so that they mimick the English name as close as possible. In this case, Avatar becomes “阿”(a1) “凡”(fan2) “达”(da2), where “a1fan2da2” is the closest approximation of Chinese characters to the English word “Avatar”. Other examples of this English to Chinese transliteration include “麦当劳“ (McDonalds) and “可口可乐“ (Coca Cola).

As mentioned, this name usually makes no sense. In the case of Avatar or “阿凡达”, the best it can mean it “Achieving Ordinary”; in the case of McDonalds, it means more or less “Wheat Acting as Toil”. The usual line of thinking is that names aren’t supposed to make sense, and Chinese usually gloss over this fact.

That makes it all the more strange when English transliterated names in fact do have meaning in Chinese; “可口可乐“ means “Very Mouth Very Happy” in Chinese. However, it becomes all the more convoluted when the original name means something in English, like Avatar, but when changed into Chinese means nothing at all.

Chinese names translated into English suffer through the same indignities of having been mangled, but for different reasons. While English names often don’t have any present and direct meaning without having to consult a book that refers to previous generations, Chinese names almost without exception all have meaning.

Chinese names are regarded as very important and their meaning as significant. While the parents of a newborn may take an afternoon mulling it over before deciding to name their new son “Max”, Chinese parents will ask their parents who will consult other elders and books before coming up with a fortuitous name.

This significance of meaning and importance is lost when a Chinese name is changed into English. The common technique is to take the pinyin putonghua of the name, strip it of its tone value, and then reprint it without any concern to its actually meaning.

For example, Tiananmen Square is a famous place (some would say INFAMOUS) in Beijing, China. Tiananmen Square written in Chinese is 天安门广场, and most definitely has meaning in Chinese. Tiananmen Square is known in Chinese “the public square of The Gates of Heavenly Peace”. I’m sure whoever came up with that name took a long time in figuring it out, and as such the meaning of the name most definitely has significance.

As such, English speakers often have no idea of the meaning of the Chinese names they are speaking even though they are clear and present to Chinese speakers. Beijing is “北京”, “Northern Capital”. Shanghai is “上海”, “On the Ocean”. Hong Kong is “香港”, “Fragrant Harbor”. This meaning is lost to English speakers.

Yong4 pin1yin1 ba3 han4yu3 bian4cheng2 ying1yu3 zhen1 mei2you3 yi1si.
Just because Chinese is written in pinyin doesn’t mean anything.

As such, to try to preserve this meaning as much as possible as well as to demonstrate my ability to understand this meaning in this blog I will always attempt to fully translate names from Chinese to English. Doing so will cause some cross-cultural tension. It may sound strange to English speakers that Chinese have names with meaning not unlike native Americans with their “Dances with Wolves” and “She Who Shakes Her Fist”. However, it is true.

I can understand how some people may see this as a slight and be tempted to call it a racist act. However, I see peace and harmony achievable only through understanding and acceptance; as such, I will continue to translate names as honestly and truthfully as I can.

Yes, unfortunately it’s Chinglish. It will be laughable. But as a student of putonghua I need to know what Chinese names mean. I think everybody should know. In the end, I will take it as a compliment if the English names I come up with are easily translatable back to Chinese.


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