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    Call Me Angelababy, Maybe

    Ban on foreign names in Chinese-language press reveals fear of cultural fragility.

    The name might seem more absurd than contentious. But Chinese media commentators are in a spin over how to refer to the actor who calls herself “Angelababy” — not because the 27-year-old’s moniker is faintly comical, but because the issue has reignited an ongoing debate about Western influence in China.

    The Shanghai-born celebrity, who has Chinese and German ancestry, has been known as Angelababy since she adopted the name when she began modeling as a teenager in Hong Kong. Now some people are saying that press in China should use her Chinese name Yang Ying in Chinese characters out of respect for readers who don’t understand English.

    Earlier this week, a reader of Zhejiang’s City Express wrote into the newspaper about their coverage of the actor’s latest film, “Independence Day: Resurgence,” asking: “Since we are Chinese people, and you’re a Chinese newspaper, why don’t you include her Chinese name after her English name?”


    The debate stretches back years. Foreign names, from Obama to Tchaikovsky, are usually transliterated into characters in Chinese-language publications, and state authorities issued guidelines in 2010 saying that foreign words, abbreviations, and letters should be kept to a minimum. Where foreign words are necessary, an annotation in Chinese should also be included.

    It’s important that the press makes its coverage intelligible to a diverse audience by explaining abbreviations like the NBA — the basketball association — with Chinese-language notes. While the lives of young, wealthy, and urban Chinese are increasingly cosmopolitan, there are still plenty of people who would find foreign words intimidating, opaque, and forgettable.

    Ensuring that the Chinese language keeps up with the times instead of relying on imported words might also help to make new technology and the many professions that rely on it available to more people, considering that a large percentage of the population doesn’t have a strong command of English.

    But trying to fortify linguistic boundaries in a globalizing world might be a losing battle. Societies are constantly changing and languages need to naturally evolve with them. Style guides do best when they reflect the dynamism of popular usage rather than prescribing rules that try to preserve a myth of linguistic purity.

    The furor over what Chinese press should call Angelababy touches on broader issues of national identity and resentment about Western influence. The reader who sparked renewed debate on the issue predicted this dynamic, cautioning: “I don’t think she’s pandering to Western influence by using an English name, just that it would be appropriate for Chinese media to note her Chinese name when reporting.”

    The denial is itself indicative of how often an undercurrent of defensiveness pervades public discourse in China — a fear of foreign influence eroding native culture. The specter of European colonialism in China still haunts the conversation.

    But ironically, focusing the debate on foreign influences actually serves to obscurethe ethnic and linguistic diversity within China. Angelababy’s so-called “Chinese name” is pronounced “Yang Ying” in Mandarin and “Yeung Wing” in Cantonese, just two of the many mutually unintelligible languages in a country whose official script uses Chinese hanzicharacters, while regional groups use alphabets ranging from Arabic to Mongolian.

    In some ways, the Chinese national language doesn’t play well with others. Non-Han Chinese names have to be altered to fit Mandarin phonic patterns and then transliterated into characters. “Obama” —Aobama — works well; “Clinton” and “Trump,” with their consonant clusters and terminal consonants that don’t exist in Mandarin, have to be rendered into names pronounced “Kelindun” and “Telangpu.”

    It’s not just famous foreigners being renamed, either — over 100 million Chinese citizens who are members of non-Han ethnic minorities must have their native-language names translated for official ID cards.

    Of course, Chinese who migrate overseas also experience social and economic pressures to change their names into English. As a 7-year-old primary school student in Australia, sick of kids laughing at my name or pronouncing it a little too much like “qingwa” — Mandarin for “frog” — I chose an English name about as girlish as Angelababy.

    It took me 20 years, some wincing hindsight, and a slew of discarded interim nicknames before I reverted to my Chinese name. Ironically, now it seems everyone my age in Shanghai has an English name except me. Some of my friends’ chosen names, like “Steak” and “Encore,” seem uniquely and charmingly Chinese.

    Regardless of what a few panicked nationalists might think, the world is becoming increasingly, inevitably, irreversibly interconnected. The most zealous efforts of anti-migrant campaigners can’t turn back the cultural flows that define life in most of the world’s biggest cities. Access to international mobility remains uneven, and cultural influence is sometimes one-sided. But media in China and elsewhere need to make more space for linguistic and cultural diversity, while also keeping in mind accessibility for the broadest possible audience.

    (Header image: Angelababy attends the ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ premiere at the 67th Annual Cannes Film Festival, France, May 16, 2014. Dave J Hogan/Getty Images/VCG)