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Home >> Life
UPDATED: 13:26, December 01, 2004
Scholar makes bid to revive traditional names
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It is common practice now for Chinese people to have just two names: their surname, or family name - xing - followed by their given name, their ming.

Until fairly recently, educated people tended to have one or two additional names. These were called zi, meaning "style," and at the age of 20 they were given a hao, or "alias," as a sign of maturity, reported China Daily on Wednesday.

"It is a great pity that this tradition was abolished as a stigma of feudal society during the turbulent 'cultural revolution (1966-76).' Now it is fading in modern society," said Wang Dayou, a scholar who has studied Chinese name culture for 30 years.

Wang said Chinese surnames were the name of the clan to which the person belonged. These names originated approximately 9,000 years ago, and evolved from the totems of tribes: often an animal, plant, or natural object.

The ancient Chinese began to use an additional name to follow their surname in the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC). The given name was usually chosen by the parents as a symbol of their blessings and hopes for the child.

The style and alias names were for self-encouragement and gave a further explanation of the given name's meaning. They were usually plucked from classical Chinese writing, Wang said.

China's late leader Mao Zedong is one example. "Mao" indicates the name of his clan and ancestry. His given name "Zedong," which was used on official or formal occasions, means "benefiting people in the east." Mao also called himself "Runzhi" in front of elders or among his peers, in which "Run" means "benefiting something."

Famous Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai (618-907) had the given name Bai, which means "white and clean." His "style name" is "Tai Bai," which refers to Venus, the planet in Chinese astronomy that gives off white light in the dark sky. This explains the meaning of his given name.

The great poet also chose "Qinglian Jushi," meaning "a hermit of lotus," as his alias. As of symbol of China's Taoism, lotus represents purity and dignity. Li Bai chose the name because he was a devoted follower of Taoism, a principal philosophy and religion in China.

"So, names are not simply a differentiating symbol, but a medium to pass on thousands of years-old traditional Chinese culture. Other people can see a person's beliefs and pursuits in his name," Wang said.

Wang also thinks using alternative names is a remedy to avoid the rising repetition of names in the world's most populous country. Chinese people with a popular surname, such as Li or Wang, sometimes have problems living among so many other Lis and Wangs.

Wang's proposal, however, is not popular with everyone.

Ma Guoqing, an anthropologist at Sun Yat-sen University in South China's Guangdong Province, said Chinese people, especially the younger generation, have accepted the modern way of naming.

"Giving alternative names is a very complicated system, which most people even barely know about, so it won't catch on easily, " said Ma.

Twenty-two-year-old college student Zhao Rui said: "It seems elegant and cultured to name in the traditional way, but it's too inconvenient and not suitable for modern people."

"I'm afraid my clients wouldn't be patient enough to listen to all my traditional names," Shen Yiyu, a marketing professional, said. "Even if they did, I don't think they would remember all of them."

Student Wang Chao, who has classes with two other Wangs, applauded Wang Dayou's suggestion of reviving alternative names.

"But If I had alternative names, where should I put them in my residence book? Would I need change my ID card?" he asked.

The names on Chinese identity cards have been sanctioned by the State Council and cannot be changed or deleted. Alternative names can be entered in the "previous name" item in their residence book, but they do not have legal validity, said a consulting clerk from the certificate administration of the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau.

"I know it is impossible for everyone to agree to my suggestion, but I think it is more important to have all the people realize we are losing a cultural heritage that was started by our ancestors. We should take measures to stop the situation from worsening," Wang said.

Source: China Daily


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