What's In A Name? How Chinese Choose Their Own English Names

on June 13 2013 3:50 PM
Hello My Name Is sticker
In China, many people are giving themselves English names that are quite nontraditional. Flickr/ Maybeemily

Does the name Chan Kong-Sang ring a bell? Perhaps you're more familiar with his "Western" name, Jackie Chan.

According to IMDb.com, the famed martial arts expert turned Hollywood actor got his English name from a construction worker in Australia named Jack, who served as his co-worker and mentor. Chan earned the nickname "Little Jack," which turned into Jackie, and that has stuck ever since.

With more and more Chinese joining the Western workforce, and with the help of globalization, many with traditionally Chinese names find themselves going through a process of adopting an English name that's easier to pronounce or relate to. A recent report by Quartz revived a piece originally printed in Beijing community magazine The Beijinger and written by Scott Kronick, a longtime resident of China and president of Ogilvy Public Relations North Asia offices.

In the piece, Kronick documents his fascination with the new aliases of his Chinese employees, many of whom went with less-than-traditional monikers when deciding their English names.

“I wondered why a colleague in our advertising office would call himself ‘Billboard’ Kwok. Or why my slightly heavyweight boss called himself ‘Beef’ Chen. Or why the advertising creative team donned such names as ‘Jesus’ Yeh and ‘Devil’ Zhou, and in case you had a question, you could ask for the Creative Director, ‘If’ Chen,” Kronick wrote.

Kronick also noted a seasonal trend among many Chinese women at his company, with all four seasons represented, as well as several months. “Quite literally, in my company we have or have had an ‘Autumn’ Guo, ‘Spring’ Cui, ‘Summer’ Sun, ‘Winter’ Xia, as well as a ‘February’ Lee, ‘March’ Chung, ‘April’ Fan, ‘May’ Liu, ‘June’ Dong, ‘July’ Guo, ‘September’ Li,” Kronick listed.

While some of the month-themed names -- like April, May and June -- aren't so unusual, many of the more offbeat seasonal names were chosen because of personal connections. Autumn told Kronick she chose her name because she was born in that season and because it is known as an auspiciously “fruitful and successful” time of the year, while Winter chose her name because it is the literal translation of her given name.

Kronick’s creative team at the advertising agency unsurprisingly had some of the more, well, creative names, including Chocolate, Popeye and Rocky.  

“If you have trouble counting, don’t worry, we have our folks 'Eleven' Li and 'Twelve' Tang to help you. Our fastest-growing business is run by 'Pope' Li, who has 'Morning' Cao, 'Chairs' Chen and even a 'Shakira' Huang working in his office.”

However, not all Chinese take as much poetic license when choosing their English names. International Business Times’ own Sophie Song picked her English name based on her favorite character from a Korean television drama. Before settling on the name Sophie, she went by Dahlia, because it was the first word her mom saw when she opened up the dictionary. Between Dahlia, a name she went by in high school, and Sophie, the name she has used since college, and Xiaoke, her birth name, there's a lot of confusion when her friends and family meet.

Sophie said she opted to find an English name because Xiaoke would be difficult for many to pronounce correctly. As for IBTimes senior economic reporter Moran Zhang, she was lucky that her Chinese name was easy to pronounce, and she figured it would be less confusing to not have multiple aliases, so she kept it. However, to this day, she is sometimes called ‘Serene,’ not because of her calm nature but because she was given the English nickname by her teacher for a brief time in Middle School. 

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