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Tibetan names change with the times
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20:09, April 17, 2008

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Like many Tibetans, 30-year-old Zhoigar has given her baby girl a name that means happiness and longevity.

But unlike the elder generation of Tibetan parents, Zhoigar has chosen Chinese characters that both reflect the sound of the Tibetan name and have real meanings in Mandarin, which in this case are equivalent to the concepts of kindness and beauty.

"My daughter's name is pronounced as Cedain De'gyi. I've chosen the Chinese characters Ci, for kindness, and Dan, which means peony," she said.

Tibetan journalist Lhagba Cering went even further, making his son's name meaningful in Tibetan, Mandarin and English. He used Soi'nam Nyi'an.

In Tibetan, Soi'nam means good luck, but Nyi'an, meaning 25, was rarely used in a name. "That's the date of his birth, as well as the number of the hospital ward," said the father.

The pronunciation of Nyi'an in Mandarin means "may you always be safe and sound," and when the name is shortened to Soi Nyi, it sounds a little like the English word "sunny."

"I hope he'll be a global citizen and his life is full of sunshine," Lhagba Cering said.

These modern names are a far cry from traditional Tibetan names that, usually bestowed by lamas, use common religious terms.

Names such as "Doje", meaning Buddha's warrior attendant, or Dainzin, meaning a master of Buddhism, are typical in Tibet, whose culture remains distinct and independent from elsewhere in China.

Parents who could not afford to pay for the lamas' suggestions often made do with a relatively short list of informal names.

Many children were named after their day of birth: Dawa for those born on Monday and Migmar for children born on Tuesday.

Others got such colorful monikers as Gyi'gyag (literally, excrement) or Paga (puppy). Their derogatory connotations were actually considered to be a blessing.

"These unattractive names were believed by many to protect the children from evil spirits," said Gaisang Yexe, a folk customs specialist with the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences. "Many children died in old Tibet as a result of poverty and inadequate medical facilities. But parents believed supernatural forces were to blame" and tried to compensate with such names.

Although many Tibetan parents still rely on lamas for an official name, most children get more pleasant, creative names.

Like parents elsewhere, Tibetans are also trying to find unique names so that the new generation won't share their dilemma, which was to be one of thousands of people sharing a common name -- the Tibetan equivalent of John Doe.

Benba Cering has that headache. "I was born on Saturday and was named after the day, Benba. Cering means longevity. There are innumerable Benba Cerings in Tibet, four in my primary school class alone." The four were coded as Benba Cering Numbers 1 through 4 and "as the youngest, I was number four."

An official with Tibet's regional education department said it, too, disliked having large numbers of identically named students. "Our biggest worry is that college matriculation certificates might be delivered to the wrong people."

In old Tibet, only aristocrats and Living Buddhas had surnames. They accounted for only about 5 percent of the population. The remaining 95 percent had no surnames.

Since serfdom was abolished in the 1950s, many Tibetans have changed their names to reflect their changing social status. Some proudly put in the name of their birth place as a surname, and urban fathers begin naming their offspring so as to show the link.

"The changes in Tibetan names reflect the progress of the society and the change of the times," said Gaisang Yexe, an expert on Tibetan folklore whose own name means "happiness" and "wisdom".


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