by Anne Teoh for The Saker Blog
Like many issues in life, my belief in the supremacy of name and identity undergo shifting reviews from time to time mainly as I, like many of you, are not in a no man’s land but we do get swayed by the strength or beauty of discourse from ongoing narratives; be they from hard or soft propaganda sources- if we knew. Once I disavowed all sense of name, self and identity, related to the superficial personal and racial stereotypes, opting for a deep breath of freedom from Dr. Spook’s psychological grip.
How sweet the intrinsic respect for all lives from Shakespeare’s Juliet –
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Yet, for those of us with the non-forgiving conscience of guilt if hurting others and meditating on growing our compassion for all living things, we will stay centered in our intellectual integrity in the realm of truth, beliefs and commitment: so we seek wisely and never cease exploring the wonderful spirit and possibilities in life. Some of us make connections with like-mindedness while many valorous news writers soldier for peace and justice, turning pens into swords to peel into layers for transparency and for true humanity.
In this spirit of forging awareness, I had emerged from a life redundant of name, destiny and plan to find myself confronting the quotidian hazards of retirement, the graces and ravaging results of ageing and the question of self-sufficiency. At this juncture, it’s time one asks, “What in my name has prepared me to face this self at this time?”
Indeed, names in the west are mainly personalized and we identify names with our familiarity of the personalities of the people we get to know over time. Some of us might believe certain people have unique characteristics related to their being born on the different days of the week e.g. Monday’s child is full of grace and so on, or we try to find astrological influences from the western or Chinese signs of the horoscope to match their character. The shortfall of dependence on astrological signs is that our personalities get cast in stone and any advice on planning is on a day to day, short term basis centered on the me-self.
On the other side of the globe, Chinese astrologists since ancient time, have worked out the influences of cosmological energies, including heaven, earth, the elements and people with their shamanistic psyche when performing the important ritual of naming a child. This tradition originated from an inherent belief that one’s name is tied up with one’s destiny. In this sense, Chinese names are closely connected to the continuous tradition of a culture connected to a collective consciousness of history, nature and the cosmos.
My interest in the significance of the Chinese naming of their children grew from the realization of the inherent potency in many Chinese names. In the 80s, a lively bunch of super bright Chinese government scholars doing their post PHD research in London had commented on how Chinese names register the history and politics of the era the children are born in. Their discussion about names encouraged me to further explore the tradition of naming in Chinese culture and its associated influences in many aspects of our lives and even the future.
Classical Chinese names that we know about from the notable dynasties are highly cultivated, poetic and quintessentially refined up to the time of the Qing Dynasty and before the invasions, civil war and revolution – taking a very few examples as found in Chang an – long, flourishing peace; Xinyi – joyous soul, Xinying – outstanding hero; the list is long and rich. Like Chang-an, Xian meaning western peace, is another ancient capital of China. From the word ‘an’ meaning peace named in two ancient capitals of China, one can deduce that peace is highly regarded by emperor, state and the wish of the people not to engage in wars. It’s a Tianxia; below as above.
Generally, a child’s name also indicates their gender: male names take on the yang or creative heaven in the form of the dragon, courage, integrity, strength and such statesman-like attributes whereas female names take on the essence and qualities of yielding earth, virtue, beauty and culture. Chinese families consult The Analects, family members, astrologists, diviners and geomancers for the names destined for their newborn since ancient times. This is tied up with the Chinese belief in the connection between man, the cosmology and earth; hence, one’s name can become one’s destiny; moreover, one’s destiny is not separated from the society and its environment. Traditionally, parents choose auspicious or beautiful names related to strength of character, moral uprightness, luck and fortune, refinement and aspiring qualities of learning, moral character or beauty so their children have the potential to manifest such qualities or power, ( as prevalent or absent at that time ) though many modern parents also adopt their favourite celebrity’s names especially names with repetitions such as Lang Lang or Yen Yen which are iconic and also signify affection. All in all, naming a child is a social activity.
At a more phenomenal level, naming in China is a reflection of the changing cultural norms and the throes of history in the ancient and continuous Chinese civilization. As such, it mirrors the impact and force of the country’s social movements on its people and how they react to the momentum. A name can also signify a child’s social position in the rank and file of society and reflect on the history of that time. On the scale of things, one can expect names with Wei (suggesting greatness), Lung (dragon) to be elitist; Zhi, (knowledge) and Rui (intelligent) to be scholarly; Man (full) and Shou ( harvest) to be agricultural and so on, including endearing names given on a whim like Yen Yen (swallow swallow) after a parent’s favourite thespian. It follows that names given, up to the period of the ancien regime of the Qing Dynasty, would follow the traditional naming system described above.
But from 1911, after the Boxer Rebellion and the struggle to be free from imperialism and feudalism, names given would probably include words like unifying, pacifying and stabilizing as solutions to trouble shooting from rebellions, fighting, famine and chaos, and they would also probably include western ideals of ziyi meaning freedom and minzhu meaning democracy.
Names during the interim period reflect the unrest of the time and it’s well known that Sun Yat Sen, who is recognized as instrumental in the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty, used many different names in his life. In brief, from aged ten, he was known as Sun Wen meaning literary Sun (erudite); his baptismal name was Rixin meaning, daily renewal. He was known as Sun Zhong Shan meaning Central mountain during his stay in Japan and later in life, he chose a courtesy name Zaizhi based on the philosophical saying, ‘Literature as a vehicle to convey the Tao.” However, his surname Sun was derived from the name, Hui Sun, a high official of the state of Wei which was from the Zhou Dynasty (1122- 221 BC. ) and Sun Zi, the military strategist and writer of ‘The Art of War.’ SunYat Sen is recognised as the father of modern China by some but it was Mao Zedong, meaning brilliant east, who brought about the People’s Republic of China.
Most prominently, during the Maoist era, names bearing the elements red, East, valour, victory, patriotism, strength and unity were most popular, showing the support of the masses for a revolution to create a strong and modern China.
China Daily.com provides some empirical data in their article, “China’s History Spelt Out in Baby Names,’ which also includes statistics and new trends. It says that nearly a million or 24% of Chinese babies were named Jianguo (build the country) during the establishment of the People’s Republic between 1949-1959. During the Cultural Revolution, to show their loyalty, parents named their children Weihung – protect red, Weidong – protect Mao Zedong and Xuenong – learn from the peasants and of course, there were a great number of Hungs meaning red e.g. Hungshu – red book, Hungmeng – red dream, and Hung weiping – redguards during the Cultural Revolution.
Since 1978 and the opening up of China, names have become more varied and diverse. According to China Daily.com in 2008, 4783 babies were named Aoyun – Olympics.
Basically, Chinese beliefs in the connection between names and destiny involve taking the child’s horoscope and all other personal details related to the time, date, place, month and year of the particular baby. The geomancer consults the book of Fung Shui or the I Ching book of divination. The I Ching follows the cosmological system based on the Yin-Yang polarity together with the five elements – air, earth, water wood and metal and they all have broken lines ( yielding) or unbroken ( resisting) lines. The diviner will take stock of all the elements present at birth and he will attach the missing element, say, water, to the other half of the child’s given name, which might be as an example – chun, meaning spring. The diviner will add water if water is the missing element in his calculations, to make the name ‘Chun Shui’ or ‘Spring Water.’ The idea is always about complementing, fulfilling and completing but the subtler meaning of chun shui also nuances the essence of freshness or eternal youth. The force and potency in Chinese names lie in the nuances.
I can draw on some very pertinent examples of the potency of naming in Chinese culture. A Chinese teacher’s parents had her name given as, ‘Yuan Zhou,’ meaning, ‘Round Circle,’ by the Chinese diviner. When asked the reason for repeating the round with the circle, she said that her mother had had four female children but she was desperate to have a son. She consulted a diviner who looked into the Sheng Chen Ba Zi – the Eight Characters of Birth Time; and using his own shamanistic power of divination, by consulting the nature of her mother’s problem, he had the answer written on a yellow offering paper, the words “Yuan Zhou.” He explained that after having four girls continuously, the last one in line should be named round circle to complete the cycle of female births. True enough, after conceiving teacher Yuan Zhou, her mother had a baby boy.
Personally, I noticed often that girls with Pearl or Jade in their names have fresh and shiny complexions. A Chinese friend, given the name Liu Yuan meaning roaming far travelled to the far flung regions of the earth and eventually settled on the other side of the globe from China.
In this context of cultural understanding I discussed the significance attached to the name of China’s current president, Xi Jin Ping with a Chinese post-graduate. I interpret Jin Ping to mean ‘close to parity or peace’ (ping can also mean even, peace, equality and restoration to normality) but the student felt it means ‘close to Deng Xiao Ping’ as Xiao Ping carries the meaning little parity/peace so Jinping brings us closer to the heart-felt wish for equality and peace. Our two versions of translating Jin Ping might seem to have issued from just a matter of different choices but an understanding of Chinese and Chinese culture would signify that the Chinese student’s choice of interpretation reveals her preference to opt for the more practical, tangible and continuous, and primarily, for peace like the peace wished for in the ancient capitals of Chang-an and Xian.
Xi Jinping is not an emperor or a dictator; he was vetted and elected by the CCP (Chinese communist Party) governing body. XJP’s parents were revolutionaries, which imply that XJP grew up with revolutionary ideals set up since the time of Mao for a modern China that is socialist, strong and progressive. Today, it’s a fact that XJP has accomplished much, from the little things he had contributed to the rural community in Shaanxi to the bigger tasks he had taken on to crack down on corruption, continue building infrastructures internally and across the globe, inspire the Chinese dream and innovations, eradicate poverty and uplifting the poor. In short, he works to reinforce ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ and also to extend his economic vision to the world with the Silk Road revival, AIIB, and BRI to encourage co-operation in the world for a global “ community with a shared destiny.”
After XJP’S reelection as President of the CCP for the next five years, he spelt out his plan in several crystal clear stages, the gist of which is mainly to uplift and eradicate poverty by 2020, create a larger middle income population by 2030 and make China a strong and powerful country by 2050. My personal experience from what I had seen and been through in China for seven months from 2013 – 2014, confirmed my impression of a modern China that is intrinsically built on ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. XJP’s vision of a global economic expansion aimed at uplifting all below the poverty line, creating jobs and prosperity, co-operating in scientific/innovative research and development/maintenance of infrastructures. Like myself, many world leaders embrace XJP’s win win vision for all. What’s good for one’s good for all; otherwise, let’s negotiate and discuss. We are getting much closer to a balancing world that can give peace a chance.
In the light of Davos 2018 and the relentless commercial insistence of ‘opening up China,’ I’d like to make a wish that some Chinese state-owned enterprises such as the Transport system that keep HS train fares very low for its citizens should never be taken over and have its travel fares hiked by corporate companies. It would be a good idea if Chinese parents think about this and name their children Zhoutie – State trains. Who needs propaganda when baby names start leading the way? In view of the amazing advances in science and technology, another predictive trend for baby names will surely be– Jian hong – build (and) vast meaning in Chinese subtlety, developing a far reaching or thorough civilization; or even xiha meaning hip-hop and nuanced as a protest. But hey, for all entrepreneurs and artists in popular culture, there’s always room for negotiation and talk, using our brain and social skills rather than resorting to adrenalin, force and war.
Wu Chen: Young Chinese Look to Old Ways to Name their Children : 2009 09.29
Xin Jinping : Why I Propose the BRI 12 May 2007 Youtube
Live Youtube : Liu He explains China’s Economic Policy, WEF in Davos 2018
ChinaDaily.com : China’s History Spelt Out in Baby Names : CN Jan 29 2018
Belly Ballot : Chinese Names : History A-Z Meanings