Tag Archives: War & Peace

What’s in a Chinese Name?

清玉

The above is my Chinese name. They were the first, and for a long time, the only, Chinese characters I knew how to write. The character on the left means ‘Pure’, while the one on the right means ‘Jade’. Together, they make Pure Jade, the meaning of my Chinese name.

Jade is a type of precious stone. I’m sure you’ve seen it on rings, or in Asia, carved into images of deities, dragons and other mythical creatures. I loved the idea of Pure Jade. When I was a child, the sight of pieces of emerald-coloured stone on fingers always evoked a special feeling in my heart.

Until last year, I thought jade only came in green. Then, when we were in Shanghai, we saw Pi Xiu, a mythical creature with the head of a dragon, the paws of a lion and an apparently voracious appetite for silver and gold.

Pi Xiu only eats treasure; he never releases any, since he lacks an anus (such a wonderful creation, so characteristically Chinese…). Our Pi Xiu is in solid jade, brown from head to his non-existent bottom, and extremely heavy. He gives new meaning to the word ‘lug’. Finally, I knew what it felt like to lift Pure Jade in my hands.

Now for the trickier bit: how to say Pure Jade in Chinese. How you say my name depends on whether you’re speaking Mandarin or one of the many Chinese dialects. The same written character can be said many different ways. Because my father is Cantonese, my name was officially transliterated using the Cantonese form. In Cantonese, Pure Jade is more or less said as ‘Chin Yoke’, which is how my name appears on my birth certificate. But because transliteration is only approximate, my name could also have been written ‘Ching Yoke’, ‘Cheng Yoke’, or even ‘Chin Yook’.

You can just imagine the fun our British rulers had with our names before Malaysia’s independence. Some people ended up with official names which were nothing like what they should have been. Fortunately, this didn’t happen to me, as I was born after independence and my Chinese name was properly spelt.

The point to note though is that there are two parts to my Chinese name. My name is Chin Yoke, not Chin on its own, or Yoke on its own. If you called me just Chin, it would be like having Yin without the Yang – one half would be missing. That is true for all traditional Chinese names. (Though there seems to be a recent fad among the mainland Chinese of giving their children just one name, so that their surnames have to be tagged on. For example, the tennis player Li Na. Li is her surname, Na is her name. But having just one ‘particle’ is bizarre for a Chinese name, which I assume is why she’s known as Li Na. Otherwise the yin-yang principle would break down).

The example of Li Na illustrates perfectly where our surnames should be placed: before our names. This may seem strange, but once I explain the principle, you’ll understand why we do it this way. As a rule, we Chinese try to ‘home’ in on details gradually, starting with the bigger picture. The result is a logic all of our own and which generally confounds everyone else.

Take for example, the writing of an address on an envelope. If you were to hand the envelope to a courier for delivery, the first thing the person would want to know is: to which country? Therefore in a Chinese address, the country is written first. After the country, the courier will ask about the province, then the town, followed by the street, and finally the house or building number and if relevant, the apartment number. (Actually, if you look at it this way, conventional Western practice appears quite odd.)

The same principle of ‘homing’ in applies also to our surnames and names: your surname is far more important – it identifies the clan to which you belong; therefore, your surname comes first. Your name only identifies you. Let’s face it, we’re not that significant in the large scheme of the world. This is why our names follow our surnames.

In my case, my surname is the character for ‘Stone’ (see below), pronounced ‘Sek’ in Cantonese and transliterated into English either as ‘Sek’ or ‘Siak’.

My surname happens to appear on my birth certificate as Siak, therefore my full Chinese name is Siak Chin Yoke.

I’ve never been called by my Chinese name, which is a pity, since I like the sound of Chin Yoke. The trouble with using it where I live in Europe is that people wouldn’t have a clue what to do if I told them my name was Siak Chin Yoke. The first question they’d ask is, er, which one is your surname? And then, they’d start calling me Chin.

It always makes me wonder whenever anyone does that. I know there are many Western names for which such abbreviation is possible, but shortening is by no means a universal rule. For example, if someone told you her name was Pauline – which has two syllables – you wouldn’t immediately ask whether you could call her Paul, would you? Why do it just because my name happens to sound Oriental?

The path of least resistance being easier, for the moment I stick to the Western name I was also given at birth, Selina, for daily use. Because it’s a Western name, it’s written in the order Westerners are used to, with the name before the surname. Therefore, if we combine my English and Chinese names together, you get the full name on my birth certificate – Selina Siak Chin Yoke.

This giving of English names to Chinese children is a relatively recent fashion. The characters in my Malayan novel – set between 1878 and 1941 – certainly wouldn’t have had English names. And I haven’t given them artificially simple names to make reading supposedly ‘easier’ for a Western audience. I think Chinese names are already straight-forward, since they tend to be short. Chin Yoke, for example. Hardly difficult, is it?

Where it gets trickier is that the Chinese liked being able to identify the generation to which a person belonged. Therefore in Chinese families, the children have names which may sound very similar, but aren’t. For example, if I had a sister, a possible name for her could have been Chin Fah. The first parts of our names would then be Chin, so that everyone would know we were related and of the same generation.

That’s all very well if there are just the two of you. But in the old days, people had large families. We’re talking ten or more children. That’s what we have in my novel. Which explains why, when my partner read the first draft, she wondered aloud whether I was deliberately trying to confuse my readers. “Why do you have names that all sound alike?” she asked. Then, in despair, she added, “Your names are so hard to remember!”

I looked at her in astonishment. To put this in context, my partner is Russian. Let me repeat: she’s Russian. Question: have you ever tried to pronounce an entire Russian name from start to finish including the part in the middle they call the patronymic? And our names are hard to remember?? Please. I reminded her of what I’d had to do while ploughing through War & Peace, how I was forced to flip backwards constantly to see who was who. Even that didn’t always work, since Russians often use pet names. This means that a man can appear as Alexandr somewhere, mutate paragraphs later into Sacha and you’re supposed to know that it’s the same person. (No offence to the Russians and Russian speakers reading this blog. Except that you’re not allowed to complain about our names being hard to remember. At least ours are short and don’t mysteriously mutate.)

Back to my novel. I promise I’m not deliberately trying to confuse anyone. And I do try to help my readers to the extent possible. But there’s no avoiding Chinese and Malay names, and for this I make no apology.

The increasing attempts at ‘Westernising’ Chinese names has also had unintended consequences. When I was growing up, everyone used the traditional format for writing their names, placing surname first, and then their name. So we could tell at once what someone’s surname was. Now, many people of Chinese descent have adopted the Western convention when writing their Chinese names. This has sometimes been through necessity (as for Twitter handles) and sometimes through choice – to make it easier for everyone else. The trouble is that it makes it harder now, even for us Chinese, to tell which the surname is and which the name is. For instance, the name Lai Weng Yip could be parsed in one of two ways, with either Lai being the surname, or Yip being the surname. Which is it, my partner asks? I shrug. Could be either, I tell her, since Lai is a Chinese surname, as is Yip. Indeed, Weng Yip could be a name, and so could Lai Weng. With globalisation, it looks like we’ve all become confused. Aren’t Chinese names fun?

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