“Oh, What’s in a Name?”

Apparently a lot, if you’re born in China. Since we’ve been here, we’ve learned that Chinese names are extremely individualized, with a lot of emphasis placed on meaning rather than sound. For example, in America, I might teach a class of twenty-five students, three of them named Brittany. And their parents probably named them not because of the Hebrew meaning of the name, or the Latin roots of the word, but simply because they enjoyed the sound of “Brittany.” In China, it would be rare to find multiple girls in the same classroom named Qian Qian (pronounced “chin-chin”), and Qian Qian will have been named not just for the sound (though I do think it is a cute-sounding name), but for the meaning behind the name: beautiful, lovely. Another striking difference with Chinese names is that Chinese people will always introduce themselves and refer to themselves by their surname first. It would be equivalent to me meeting someone for the first time and saying, “Hi, my name is DeAngelis Rachel.” When we first met our friend Zhang Qian Qian, we assumed that Zhang was her first name, and so we nicknamed her “Jenn” since the two words sound so similar. We eventually realized that her “given” name is Qian Qian, so we’ve been calling her by her last name like some horrible P.E. coach this entire time. She’s always been too polite to say anything; it was one of her friends who pointed this out to us for the first time a few weeks ago. Oh well…

The more I learn about Chinese names, the more I really start to like the concept of naming someone with a specific meaning, rather than just some random, cutesy moniker. Most people here will introduce themselves to us using an English name that they’ve given themselves, just to make the pronunciation easier for us. However, now that we’ve become so fascinated with the idea of these meaningful names, we’ll often ask, “What is your Chinese name?” and “What does that mean?” Their names always translate into a descriptive English word or phrase, almost reminiscent of a traditional Native American name like “Strong Tree” or “Beautiful Morning Sun.”  Our friend Catherine’s Chinese name is Wang Wan Ru which was her parents’ fervent hope for her life on the day of her birth; in English it means, “Everything Will Be Alright.” (We’ve yet to introduce her to the Bob Marley song.)

After hearing all of these beautiful Chinese names, I became a bit jealous that my name was just boring “Rachel” (no offense, Mom). Many Chinese people seem to like my name because they enjoy watching Chinese-dubbed episodes of the show Friends. Of course they like Justin’s name because it reminds them of Justin Bieber or Justin Timberlake. However, I still wanted to have a Chinese name, too. So during one of our Chinese lessons with Lisa one Thursday afternoon, we started in on the subject of names and finally made our request, “Will you name us?” She seemed very happy with the task, and immediately started asking questions and taking notes so that she could set out to name us properly in Chinese. It was obvious from the start that even naming fully grown American adults was a serious task –not something to be taken lightly. “Okay…name? Given name and surname?” she asked, pen poised in the air with all the seriousness of a physician examining a patient. I was sure she already knew our first and last names, but we humored her and gave them to her anyway, spelling them out so that she got everything just right. “Hmmm…” she murmured. “You are both named ‘DeAngelis?’ Is this a common surname in America?” We were both a bit confused by that, and Justin explained that we have the same last name because we’re married. “In China, doesn’t the wife change her family name to her husband’s name when she gets married?” I asked. Lisa informed us that it is customary in China for the wife to keep her own family name, and she seemed a bit surprised to learn about the American name-change custom. Apparently, once you have been named in Chinese, you always keep that name until the day that you die. We told Lisa that there are women in America who keep their family name, but our society still considers that as being a bit rebellious. She laughed at that, probably trying to picture her mother or grandmother being considered American rebels. “And the children?” I asked. “They take the father’s family name, of course,” she replied. That, I suppose, explains why people living in China are still very keen to have a boy in the family–to pass on the father’s name and keep the family line going. File that under another interesting cultural difference between America and China. We also gave her the meanings behind our names, mine being “like a lamb,” and Justin’s being, “righteous, fair, and just.” She wrote all of this down on her notepad and told us she would do some research and get back to us.

It wasn’t until two weeks later that we finally received our Chinese names. I was a little bit nervous to hear what mine would be, or see if I could even pronounce it. Lisa decided to give us a surname and a given name, just for fun. The full name that I have been given is:


Yáng Yī Yī

Yáng is a common surname in China, which is written differently but sounds identical to the word “lamb.” Yī Yī (pronounced “ee ee”) is a very feminine name for a woman who is kind a gentle. Lisa said it describes the kind of woman who might stay at home and be supportive of her husband rather than become an independent career woman. Yī Yī also sounds very similar to the sound the leaves make as a gentle breeze blows through the trees, so the Chinese believe the pronunciation of this name is pleasing to the ears. The name Justin has been given is:


Liú  Xī Zhèng

Liú is a common family name meaning “knowledge and justice.” Xī Zhèng (pronounced “she jun”) is a very masculine, powerful name for a man. Xī means “hope” and Zhèng means “justice.” Lisa blushed a little when she said she thought the name would suit him because it might remind people of a powerful Greek god from mythology. Justin seems very pleased with his impressive new title!

Justin and I had just as much fun receiving our new Chinese names as we did giving our students English names at the beginning of the semester. I wrote down a long list of every boy and girl name I could think of, most of them being names of family and friends, and passed it around so that students could pick a name and cross it off the list. Justin took more of a lottery-style approach, and wrote a bunch of girl and boy names on little pieces of paper and put them in cups. He walked around the room, having each student draw a piece of paper out of the appropriate gender cup. They were stuck with whatever name they drew for the rest of the semester, like it or not!

I had a few students in my classes who came up with their own English names that were not provided on the list, and they were pretty interesting. One boy in Foreign Tourism 1101 insists on being called “Banana.” When I tried explaining to him that “Banana” is not a conventional English name, he simply replied, “I think banana is very delicious. I want to be banana.” In my Thursday morning Foreign Tourism 1103 class, I have a boy who chose the name “Thunder.” When I asked him, “Do you know what ‘thunder’ means?” he replied with, “BOOOOMMM!” in his best impression of the sound of thunder. “Okay,” I said. “As long as you know what you’re getting yourself into…”

There are so many interesting and ironic names in my classes. I have the Harry Potter trio of girls named Luna, Lavender, and Lily. In one class I have Jack and Johnson sitting right next to each other. I also have one class where Lauren, Megan, and Casey (named after my cousins) sit next to each other, with Heidi (the name of my aunt) sitting just a few rows in front of them. I have the not-so-English sounding names of Tiko, Yuki, and Hua, and a whole slew of girls with really fun names like Olive, Echo, Yoyo, Coco, and Ice. I tried to give many of my girl students fun, modern names like Miley, Taylor, and Harley, but several of them insisted on keeping the old-fashioned names that they had already chosen for themselves, like Ethel and Rose. Last week, I had two new girl students show up to class, and since I had already done away with my long list of names, I decided to just name them on the spot. I named one girl Holly, because she was very pretty and I thought the name seemed to suit her. She asked me the same question that I hear from so many of my students each week, “What does this name mean?” I’ve gotten so exasperated with trying to explain to Chinese students that in English, names don’t mean anything, they are “just for fun.” They cannot fathom a world in which people go walking around on the streets with names that were chosen at random out of a baby book because they sounded nice–names that give no indication of character or personality. So I told her, “Your name is the name of a beautiful plant that blooms in winter.” She seemed happy with that, and decided to go home and look up “holly” on the internet to learn more. The other girl, unfortunately, had already chosen a name that she read one time in a novel: Katrina. She asked, “What does Katrina mean?” So I told her, “Katrina is the name of a devastating hurricane that destroyed the lives of many people living in New Orleans, Louisiana.” Just kidding. But the hurricane was honestly the only thing the name “Katrina” brought to mind, so I just settled for saying, “The name Katrina has no meaning. It is just for fun.” She seemed disappointed, but she was still really attached to the name, so she kept it anyway.

One of Justin’s favorite names was chosen by a boy who attends our English Corner on Wednesdays. He introduced himself as “The Prince of Tennis,” which is quite a mouthful, so we usually just call him “Prince.” He actually looks much more like an unshaven, scrawny boy who spends a lot of time sitting in dark rooms playing video games than any prince that I’ve ever seen. But we don’t mind calling him Prince; if that’s the name he wants, then that’s what we’ll call him. We played tennis with him a couple weeks ago (he actually wasn’t as skilled as I thought he would be), and several times we had to bite our tounges and stifle the lame jokes that we kept wanting to make about the whereabouts of the “King of Tennis,” or “The Tennis Player Formerly Known as Prince.”

We also recently made friends with a boy who introduced himself as William. He fancies himself a bit of a ladies man, and he said that he chose the name William because “it sounds like a gentleman’s name.” We made the mistake of showing him Facebook on our computer, and after several uncomfortable minutes of him salivating over pictures of our friends and family, he expressed his intention of making his own Facebook page so that he can find a foreign girlfriend. He was disappointed when we told him that Facebook is blocked in China. He will have to settle for hitting on Chinese girls instead.

The other night we were eating dinner outside of campus and a brave Chinese girl came up to us and started a conversation. She introduced herself as Cherry, and I didn’t even blink an eye when Justin replied, “And why did you choose the name Cherry?” “Because I like cherry–very sweet,” she answered. We are now set with two very easy (and interesting!) conversation starters: “What does your Chinese name mean?” and “Why did you choose your English name?” We’ll never have a dull conversation again!


3 thoughts on ““Oh, What’s in a Name?”

  1. I wish my Chinese name had a meaning… Or that I wish I knew what it was. My mom said that it was “just in the family.” My grandmother actually gave me that name. We were talking about it one day because I told her that I wanted my children to have Chinese middle names too… I guess she is going to be the one to name them 🙂

    Also, “Tammy” came from a soap opera name that was on tv while my mom was in labor.

    • It’s true that not all Chinese names have an elaborate meaning behind them…I have discovered that about some people after asking around. But I still think it’s special to be given a name that has been in the family before, and it’s neat to have the cute story about the soap opera actress, too! Much better than simply being named out of a baby book!

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