Chinese names : legacy and identity

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Many Chinese names are derived from China’s heroes and legends. China has one of the oldest civilizations in the world and it has spawned generations of brilliant individuals from powerful emperors like Qin Shi Huang and Li Shi Min to outstanding scholars like Confucius and Lao Zi.

The emblematic names of these heroes have survived many centuries and they stand as the paragon of valour, integrity and wisdom. For the Chinese a person’s name is of vital importance. A name speaks volumes. It brings fortune and luck to its bearer.

The Chinese name constitutes three characters. The first is his clan group ( Li, Wang, Wu, Houng and so on ) the second is his generational status and the third is his name. For the Chinese once the name of a person is spelt out it heralds from which clan and which generation he hails from . It becomes easy to retrace him in the genealogical tree. In Ancient China members of clan associations are often identified by generation names.

( cousins share a common character in their names). They develop strong family kinship. The Chinese name is the embodiment of the person expressing his aspirations, convictions, skills and his personality. It links to one’s past ( family background and history), one’s temperament, beliefs and talents and one’s future ( aspirations, hopes and dreams) The Chinese also believe that a name has an impact on our future life.. Names can have a positive influence on our life. They should be pleasant to the eyes and ears. It must be easy to remember and not too complex.

People with names like Joy and Happy according to a belief lived longer than others. Likewise the Chinese choose characters with specific qualities that they would like to own such as nian ( life or longevity), fu ( luck) and le ( happiness).
We have names that express virtues. There are also names of places.

Some like to call their offsprings after their birthplace to express their attachment to these places. There are also names of flowers or rivers or seasons. Many Chinese characters are infused with positive qualities like courage, beauty, wisdom and respect among others. A woman although married still retains her maiden name and is identified as such in society.

The beauty behind a Chinese name is immense but only ignorant ones can turn it into derision . Chinese are proud of them. This is our cultural heritage. We may be baptized with Christian names but once inside our homes, inside our cocoons we assume our Chinese identity, our cultural names but unfortunately ignorance of putounhua ( mandarin) has drifted many of the younger generation away from our cultural heritage.

In Mauritius and also in Reunion island, the Chinese names are at source turned topsy- turvy by colonial powers. Let us take an example: the father is Lee Kuan Yew and the son is Lee Hsien Loong but it can never be Lee Hsien Loong Lee Kuan Yew. We have mixed up French and Chinese cultures together as to turn it into a mess. When we travel especially in South East Asia then we realize the damage caused to our names when the immigration officer frowns smilingly at the lengthy Mauritian Chinese names. One thing for sure we still retain our Chinese roots. This is the essence of life. However far we may have travelled in search of greenner pasture we have not forgotten our Chineseness in spite of aggressive proselytism. During colonial days only Christian names could open the doors to social mobility through education, labour market and trade and commerce. Laugh as some may, the Chinese in spite of Christian names will never lose their Chinese spirit. Across the Chinese diaspora they have adapted to survive through acculturation in response to its local context in the process of assimilation and integration.

Li Feixian ( Philip Li Ching Hum)

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