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Chinese Play a Global Name Game

Striving for something unique and meaningful, young people adopt such monikers as Vanilla, Thunder, Bryan and Scallion.

November 17, 2002|Ted Anthony | Associated Press Writer

BEIJING — First she tried "Linda" on for size, but gave it up because her boss also was named Linda. Then she turned to "Vivienne," for Julia Roberts' character in "Pretty Woman." Soon, though, various Vivians and Viviennes were crossing her path.

So when Wang Wei, a marketer in a Beijing hotel, chose her third English name, she wanted to make absolutely certain that it was unique. She found it while shopping in the frozen foods aisle of a supermarket and is still answering to it seven years later.

"In China," Vanilla Wang says today, "it really helps to have a name people remember."

China talks of opening to the world, of how the most populous nation is becoming international in epic ways. But it unfolds on smaller canvases too: Just look at the English names of the younger generation -- names they have chosen meticulously to present themselves to the world beyond China.

They find inspiration in foods (Scallion Liang, a student), in Italian soccer players (Baggio Hua, a mover), in names that evoke centuries past (Ignatius Ding, a government employee) and names that just plain sound cosmopolitan (Harlem Zhao, a waitress, and Echo Wang, an account executive).

It's globalization, on the most personal of levels.

"Foreigners, when they choose Chinese names, go by phonetics. But Chinese prefer something with meaning," said Wang Xuejun, author of the popular volume "Choose English Names."

"More Chinese are leaving China. More Chinese are coming into contact with foreigners in China," he said. "And English is the world's language. So a beautiful or unique English name gives you access to all the countries of the world."

It also gives young Chinese the opportunity to craft a logo of sorts, something that gives them personality in a sometimes impersonal society -- and that they can find by plundering fashionable Western popular culture.

And plunder they do.

There is Zhao Tianqi, an artist whose wood-block prints -- a cross between socialist realism and Andy Warhol -- were selling well to foreigners. She decided that she needed an appropriate moniker, so Colour Zhao, complete with British spelling, was born.

"Doesn't it fit just right?" she boasted.

There is Li Yang, who works for the government in the southern city of Zhuhai. "I was listening to Bryan Adams and 'Everything I Do....' So I thought, 'Why not Bryan?' " he recalled. "So it's Bryan with a 'Y.' "

There is Wang Lei, a 24-year-old video editor who translated his birth name and now roams Beijing as Thunder Wang.

And Cheng Ming, who works for the foreign affairs office in the port city of Xiamen, chose "Light" simply because it's a translation of "Ming." He uses both -- depending on the situation.

"On the mainland, it's like a different face. 'James' in the office is different than 'Chen Jun' at home. That English name may represent a side of them that eats at McDonald's and listens to George Michael and works with Westerners," said Steven Schwankert, an Internet analyst who focuses on China.

He once taught an English class that included Scallion Liang. "I said, 'Why would you name yourself after a green onion?' She said, 'I really wanted to name myself Scarlett, as in O'Hara, but I'm not glamorous enough to be a Scarlett. So instead I looked for a word that sounded like it.' "

Chinese place much greater stock in the meaning of names than most native English speakers. In China, many foreign words are assimilated into Chinese with great care. America is "meiguo," or "beautiful country"; Elvis is "maowang", or "King Cat."

So it goes with native Chinese-given names too. During the 1950s and 1960s, the nationalistic fervor whipped up by Mao Zedong produced children with given names like "Jianguo," "Jiefang" and "Aijun" -- "build the nation," "liberation" and "love the army."

In mainland China, the first syllable is the family name and the second two (or sometimes only one) are the given name, which is rarely used by itself (few would have dared address Chairman Mao as "Zedong").

Chinese have taken Western first names for generations, whether because of conversion to Christianity, colonization or emigration. Some who used English names have gone back to their birth names to reclaim a sense of Chineseness; the Harry Lee who attended Cambridge University, for instance, is better known today as Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's elder statesman.

In Hong Kong, a British colony for 150 years until 1997, English first names were understandably popular, and many chose theirs to evoke the United Kingdom -- producing sundry Desmond Leungs, Agatha Maks and Winnie Tses. But the latest generation on the mainland, courting internationalism, has been much more freewheeling.

"I just looked through the dictionary and there it was. I wanted something unique -- not an average name," says Aegean Zhang, who tends bar at Henry J. Bean's, an American-style restaurant in Beijing.

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