Monday, April 21, 2008

Why All Those Chinese Toms, Dicks and Harrys, and Other Thoughts about Names and Identity

I wrote the following off the top of my head, with no fact-checking. If you have any information or views regarding the matter, you are even more welcome than usual (if such a thing is possible) to share them here.

RD writes that the Chinese in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore routinely take on Western first names, and some mainland Chinese do it as well, while Koreans rarely do that. And it is also true that members of the Chinese diaspora have taken on local names in many places in Southeast Asia (Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia come to mind; Malaysia, less so, unless they convert to Islam) while usually maintaining their Chinese names as well, even after multiple generations. Do the Chinese blend in better than the Koreans?

However, the perceived difference between the Chinese and Koreans may only be a historical accident. The majority of pre-WW II Koreans who were compelled, politically or socially, to take on Japanese names after the occupation and annexation but stayed on (or in some cases moved into) Japan after WW II retained their Japanese names (though in custom only: I’m sure the Korean authorities would not issue passports under Japanese-sounding names) did not revert to their real names until many, many years after the war. In fact, a large number continue to use their Japanese names. We all do what we need to do in order to blend in, though the Chinese appear to do a good job of maintaining their Chinese identity*.

(sidebar: In contrast, I think that we Japanese tend to melt into the scenery after the first generation. It’s probably relevant here that Japanese surnames not of samurai origin are heavily geographical and/or topographical. Also informative, a Philippine diplomat once noted that Philippine and Japanese ex-pats and immigrants, unlike most other immigrant groups, do not form enduring clusters.)

Whence the Chinese custom of adopting English first names? I have no way of proving it, but I suspect that the Hong Kong people (Hong Kongians? Kongese? Kongites?) and Singaporeans began doing it under British rule, and it spread to the Taiwanese when they moved closer to the U.S. during the Cold War*.

I think that there's also a generational factor mixed in somewhere, probably in the first decade or so after WW II, when anti-Asian racism was still overtly present in Western society. You'll probably find that fewer Japanese businessmen adopt those Anglo nicknames (Tad, Bud, but never Miguel, never Juan) these days. So the generational factor may be a major reason that the custom is far less prevalent among the late-emerging mainland Chinese. (Chip-on-the-shoulder nationalism could be another, but I don’t think it is a major factor.)

* For what it’s worth, I’ve been told by NW, a young Taiwanese who studied in the US, that the Taiwanese usually choose their English names when they file for a passport though some do get them earlier.

…okay, back to work…


Graham said...

I think it's worth pointing out that North American and European foreigners are more likely to take on Chinese names when in China than they are to take Japanese names in Japan. I don't know about South Korea.

I've discussed this with friends and part of the issue seems to be mutual difficulty in pronunciation. To call me Graham is much harder than making it Guangming. Likewise most people outside of China aren't expert in romanized Chinese pronunciation.

Then again, people with Chinese names are used to hearing their characters pronounced differently in different dialects. Why not extend that tolerance to terrible mispronunciations abroad?

Jun Okumura said...

I didn’t know that, Graham. That’s interesting. In Japan, even Japanophile Westerners usually go no further than to put Chinese-character renditions of their names on their business cards and home address plates. The names can sound pretty different in Japanese too, and I’m sure that it’s the same in Vietnamese. Maybe Japan, with its mixed, two-alphabet (kata-kana and hira-kana: used both mutually exclusively and mixed) and Chinese - mostly; a few are Japanese inventions - characters, is somewhere between the alphabet-only Vietnam and the logograms-only China.

Incidentally, and I may have written about this before, in the national media, Chinese names are read according to the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters, while Korean names are kept as close as possible to the original hangul. The kana rendition of the names follows suit. My understanding is that this follows the diplomatic custom, based on reciprocity, in each case. To the best of my knowledge, only Asahi (it would be Asahi, wouldn’t it?) has broken ranks and treats Chinese names the same way it treats Korean names.

Off topic: That was okay, Celtics, but you can do even better.

MTC said...

Okumura-san -

Once a Chinese name is rendered into Roman letters, noone can be absolutely certain which of the two or three names listed is the surname. Often one cannot even guess the gender of the individual in question. If you get a letter in English from "Hu Li," to whom do you address your response to: Mr. Hu, Ms. Hu, Mr. Li or Ms. Li?

Taking on a Western name spares a correspondent considerable embarrassment. It is damn clear, for example, that a letter from a Winston Tang can be responded to with a confident "Dear Mr. Tang,"

There are other, more fun reasons, I am sure. I have been told that Taiwanese of marriageable age use Western names amongst themselves to keep their parents guessing as to who their sweethearts are.

Graham said...


It's certainly true that you lose a lot of information when going into romanization, but that's somewhat true in Japanese as well. I get regular e-mails from friends in the U.S. who ask whether Okada Daisuke or whatever is a boy or a girl, and which is the family name. Luckily it's increasingly common in China to have two-character given names, and two-character family names are quite rare. Perhaps the most vexing thing from my perspective is when several transliterations coexist for the same last name, even if all are Mandarin-speakers, and some refer to multiple names depending usually on when and to where the individual's family first became transliterated. Many people we know as Woo have the same family name as the president, Hu Jintao, and there are couple more ways people spell that.

Anyway I usually address things in your example as "Dear Li Hu." On this principle, though, I've arranged to meet people by e-mail and been surprised to find someone whose gender didn't match my guess.


I think you did mention that about Asahi, either in print or in person. For the record, pretty much all Chinese sources I've seen just use the characters for Japanese (and usually Korean) names. The result is someone named Nakamura coming out oddly as Zhongcun, Kobayashi as Xiaolin...

Jun Okumura said...

… Hu’s first? No, Li’s first. Li who? Hu. Who?…


Did I tell you guys about the high school kendo champion who got an AFS scholarship to spend a year at an American, all-dormitory, co-ed high school? (A good plot device for an American Pie sequel BTW.) A swarthy, beefy guy built like a lucha libre wrestler (though he claims that he was slimmer then), he reported to the school, then showed up at his place of stay, where he found out that he had been assigned to a girls’ dorm. It turned out that the entire school had been waiting for the Danica Patrick of Japanese swordfighting named Naomi M. I wish I could tell you that the authorities never found out. (There must be hundreds of comedies that use this plot device.) Alas, he got it straightened out that very day.

Naomi, like many three-syllable Japanese first names ending with the syllable “mi”, is gender-free.

Your sincerely,
Ao-cun Zhun