To some, like Shakespeare’s Juliet, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. To others, like Chihiro in the animated Hayao Miyazaki film “Spirited Away,” a name defines a person’s life. Most Chinese parents-to-be tend to side with the latter perspective — that names should be elegant, auspicious, and if possible, unique.
Police in southern China’s Guangdong province have offered their help to expectant parents hoping to give their children less common names. The provincial public security bureau launched a new public platform on social app WeChat on Tuesday, and among the services available is a name search function that allows you to check how many residents of the province have the same name.
Unlike many other cultures, most Chinese people do not customarily recycle names already used in their extended family. Yet finding a unique name among a population of over 1.3 billion people can be a difficult mission: In just 2014 alone, around 290,000 newborns — nearly the entire population of Iceland — were registered with the full name 张伟 (Zhang Wei), the most used name that year.
Popular names often mirror the values of the era in which they were chosen. These days, besides naming traditions that have been passed down through generations, younger parents look to diverse sources for inspiration, from ancient literature to popular culture.
Sixth Tone takes a look at the art and craft of Chinese names as they have evolved over the years.
1. Kinship and Lineage
In the Chinese agrarian tradition, a clan that shares a surname — passed down from father to child — also has preassigned names for each generation. A respected elder will write a verse with wishes for the clan’s future, and each new generation will use the next character of the phrase in their names. For example, those born to the Li family from the generation allotted the character zhi will be given names that include that character, such as Li Zhiqiang and Li Zhiming.
In some cases, the practice only applies to boys’ names; in other families, it is followed for all children. The custom enables family members to identify which generation they belong to — even when an uncle is younger than his nephew — but in modern times, the tradition has been broken in many families, with people coming to see such practices as outdated.
2. A Sign of the Times
Many Chinese given names commemorate historical events. Boys born shortly after the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949 were often named 建国 (Jianguo), which means the founding of a nation. During the Korean War, many boys were named 援朝 (Yuanchao), or “assisting North Korea.” Boys born on the country’s National Day on Oct. 1 are often called 国庆 (Guoqing), the Chinese name for the celebration.
One famous example is the lead singer of boy band TFBoys, 易烊千玺 (Yi Yangqianxi). Yi was born in the year 2000, and his given name — which has three characters, while most Chinese given names have one or two — contains the Chinese word for millennium.
3. Faith and Superstition
Some parents seek out fortunetellers to help name their children. Taoists believe that depending on when someone was born, their body might lack one of the five elements — metal, wood, water, fire, or earth — which can affect their health. A fortuneteller can advise parents how to select a name that corrects this deficiency, for example by using a character that incorporates one of the elements. Some will even offer counsel on how many strokes should be in each character of the child’s name.
4. Classic Literature & Contemporary Pop Culture
“If you have a baby boy, read ‘Chuci’ — if you have a baby girl, read ‘Shijing,’” is a common creed among younger generations, whose love for ancient literature is part of a wider resurgence of interest in Chinese antiquity. “Chuci” is an anthology of patriotic Chinese poetry from the Warring States period more than 2,200 years ago, celebrated as a source for grand, courageous boys’ names. “Shijing” is even older. The collection of Chinese poetry from the 11th to 7th centuries B.C. includes poems about love that many consider good sources of romantic, literary names for girls.
Some look for a muse in modern television shows. After time-travel drama “Scarlet Heart” became a hit in 2011, many named their daughters Ruoxi after the show’s heroine.
5. Gender Roles
Names reveal parents’ hopes for how their children will turn out — and many of these wishes are gender-specific. As well as drawing on war songs for boys and love poems for girls, many boys’ names use the character 松 (song) which means pine, a tree that symbolizes courage and perseverance, while girls’ names often include 凤 (feng) which means phoenix, symbolizing a queen. Families who hope to have sons sometimes name their daughters 招娣 (Zhaodi) which means “beckoning a younger brother.”
Yet while traditional values still affect name choices nowadays, gender binaries are beginning to blur. Instead of using characters that embody masculinity or femininity, some parents select unisex names like 晨熙 (Chenxi) which means “morning sun” to express their wish for a bright child. The two-child policy has also seen more children being given their mother’s surname.
6. Let the Computer Decide
Technology intervenes as well. Instead of scratching their heads for the perfect name, parents can also ask the internet. On some sites, users can input their surname, the expected date of delivery, and a few other requirements to get suggestions within minutes. There are also programs that claim to evaluate how a name will help a child in their future — a modern, algorithmic version of the Taoist fortuneteller.
Foreign culture also shapes Chinese trends, with some parents selecting girls’ names like 安琪 (Anqi), an approximation of “angel” in English.
But creativity has its limits: To get a national ID card, all citizens must register a name in Han Chinese characters, and those whose mother tongue is another language must have their names translated. In 2012, a student from central China’s Hunan province was forced to change her name because the police would not accept it. Her father, inspired by 阿Q (Ah Q), a character from modernist writer Lu Xun, had simply called her “A.”
Editor: Qian Jinghua.
(Header image: Wu Huiyuan and Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)