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Friday, October 9, 2009

SWIs and Chinese Names

I hope y'all are considering contributing to the blog carnival going on at the group adoption blog Grown In My Heart this weekend. This month's topic is "Adoption and Names." Since I've already written about the Tongginator's Chinese name, I wanted to take some time to give y'all a little information about Chinese names in general.

I've gotten permission to post this information found on the Asia Lifebooks forum.

The Chinese sometimes have three or four names for a person throughout his or her life, including a "milk" or baby name. This "milk" name is given by the child's parents at birth and typically includes a "little" character such as Xiao Bao, "little treasure" ( 小宝 ), the diminutive character Ah such as Ah Lan, "orchid" ( 阿兰 ), or two characters that repeat, such as Ming Ming, "undoubtedly bright" ( 明明 ). The parents have one month to register the child with an official name, which is usually chosen with the help of the paternal grandparents. Parents and close family members may continue to use the "milk" or baby name as a nickname. For children within an SWI, typically the SWI Director gives the child the official name, but favorite caregivers or the foster family may give the child a "milk" name/ nickname.

Chinese names read opposite to ones in the United States. The first name read is actually the surname, or last name. China is the reverse of the western world, where there are thousands of last names and less of a selection for first names. In China, there are thousands of possible first names, but only several hundred "legitimate" last names. Within a Chinese family, children are given their father’s surname, even though adult women in China typically keep their family surname and do not take their husband's last name after marriage.

For surnames, many SWIs typically use a character associated with the specific SWI, town or county where the child resides. This character may actually be part of the town or county name, or it could relate to some familiar place or landmark in the vicinity of the SWI. Some SWIs use the last name of the current SWI Director. Sometimes the surname relates to a specific political or cultural event or happening. For SWI children born around or after 2005, the surname selected for the SWI is typically considered a legitimate last name within China. There are no guarantees for children born prior to this, as a significant number of the SWIs initially used characters not considered "real" last names by the Chinese. There are ten surnames which make up more than 40% of the Chinese populations; they include: Chen ( 陈 ), Huang ( 黄 ), Li ( 李 ), Liu ( 刘 ), Wang ( 王 ), Wu ( 吴 ), Yang ( 杨 ), Zhang ( 张 ), Zhao ( 赵 ) and Zhou ( 周 ).

The second character presented is referred to as the generational name. This middle character is typically shared among members of the same generation within a family. For example, siblings and first cousins will all have the same character within their names. This is why so many of our children from the same orphanage share identical first and middle characters, then have unique third characters that are all their own. For example, most of the children adopted from the Yifeng SWI in Jiangxi Province have the name Zhuang Lu ( 庄路 ) with a third character added, uniquely their own. The children from the Tonggu SWI in Jiangxi also share the same surname and generational characters, Tong Min ( 铜民 ), but each child possesses a third character all their own. SWIs will change the second, generational character every month ... or every season ... or every year ... or every "generation," such as every decade. Sometimes the change in generational names occurs not in reference to time, but instead after XX number of children have received that character as the generational name. It all depends upon the SWI Director's preferences and/or how many children live at the SWI. Larger SWIs typically change the generational name more often so as to avoid confusion.

In the western world, most people rarely hear, write or read their middle name. In China, separating the generational and third characters from one another would be to cut the "first name" in half. For example, it's similar to splitting the name Stephanie into "Steph" or "Anie." This is because, typically, the generational and third characters work together to create a beautiful meaning. Families spend much time searching for third characters which will create a positive combination and meaning when paired with the set generational character. Sometimes, the characters work together to provide an alternate meaning that isn't easily known when looking at a literal translation of the two characters together. In the SWI communities, there are often too many children for every child to receive the most auspicious name combination, as the generational name is set for a time period and sometimes the "ideal" third characters are cycled through rather quickly.

The third name listed is unique to the child and part of his or her "first name." There are hundreds, if not thousands, of characters considered "good" name characters. Girls' names typically relate to the following: beauty, elegance and grace, kindness, jewelry, flowers and plants, birds, cosmetics, positive virtues and gentleness. Boys' names in Chinese typically reference: power, fortitude, glory, ethics, loyalty, honoring one's ancestors, knowledge, luck or career aspirations.

This third character is the one typically used in the child's nickname, but not always. Most often the SWIs use nicknames based on repeat characters, such as Ming Ming, "undoubtedly bright" ( 明明 ). In Chinese, when two adjectives are repeated, the double-character term is generally used to emphasizes the description intended by the adjective. When the sun is hong: 红 (red), it's red, but when it's hong hong: 红红 (red red), it's very, very; or exceptionally; or obviously red. In usage, there are some other repeated character terms. For example, tian tian: 天天 (day day) means every day; and ren ren: 人人 (person person) means every person. Sometimes a doubled-up character adds an -ing to the end of a word, as with the character Tao, overflow ( 滔 ), where Tao Tao ( 滔滔 ) means overflowing, and as with the character Xuan, dazzle ( 炫 ), which becomes dazzling when doubled-up as Xuan Xuan ( 炫炫 ). These rules don't always apply, however, since sometimes a doubled-up character can have an entirely new meaning. The character for Yuan ( 渊 ) means abyss, but doubled-up as Yuan Yuan ( 渊渊 ), it means deep and still. Sometimes caregivers will give the child a nickname somewhat related or totally unrelated to the child's official name, so there are always exceptions.

I hope this helps y'all a bit with understanding more about your child's Chinese name.


OziMum said...

I did know some of the things in your post. I was quite surprised when we saw our daughters name as she only has 2 names. A surname (her county) and Mei. And that was it!!! She's the only one, I've ever heard of, only have 2 names!!! Got any ideas, why?!! And when our Guide asked the name, what they call her, apparently they used her full name, all time?! (surname and first name) - I'm guessing she didn't really understand the question? Tari didn't respond to any of the variations of her (Chinese) name, so after 3 days, we just started calling her Tari!!!

Dawn said...

I think it's really neat that so much effort if put into naming Chinese children. Much better than our western way of doing it - you know, flipping through a book 'til the "cute one" is found. We tried to put a lot of effort into naming our two children (not adopted) and tried to base it on the meaning of the name mostly, with some thought of family connection and then the "flow" with our last name. Because we put so much effort into it, it was a good thing our son was not a girl as we never did come up with a girl's name during that pregnancy. We'd still be calling him "baby girl." Ha!

Buckeroomama said...

Interesting, TM --thanks for sharing. I didn't even know some of the info here and I'm Chinese!

It is not always the case, though, where the second character is the generational name. While this was true for my dad and his siblings, our generation (me and my cousins) share the same third character, but have unique second characters. :)

The Gang's Momma said...

Great stuff. Our guide had explained some of this to us in the days following Li'l Empress's adoption day. It was interesting to her that we went through a similar journey for naming our older bio kids.

It seemed as if she had the impression that most Americans chose names more frivolously and little or no nod to generational heritage or legacy. She kept commenting that our parents must feel honored by our choices.

This conversation reminds me of a teaching I heard many years ago about the ancient Hebrew process of choosing names. Something to the effect that parents chose names that their sons could "grow into" in character and BECOME what was spoken over them. Again, very intentional.

That teaching and my parents upbringing that taught us to know who we were and to whom we belonged (on Earth and in the spiritual) are the two things that led the Boss and I to choose ALL of our kids' names, including Li'l Empress!

Thanks for this lesson - it's a great breakdown :)

Aunt LoLo said...

Hmm...WOW. I think you just blew my mind. Too early for all that INFO! LOL

However, it was really good! BBJ (Ming Wai) and Siu Jeun (umm...Siu Jeun) don't share any characters besides our "sing", or last name. Her dadd and aunt both have a "Wai" in the middle of their names so (whether Lo Gung knew it or not) that's why I gravitated towards Ming Wai when his Dad gave us a list of Chinese names to choose from.

We had an extra...step in choosing names, though. We had to run all the names past all the grandparents, and make sure everyone could say them properly. ;-) BBJ was going to be "Aubrey". Umm...my MIL said it as "Arby"...so it was a no go. We went through several names for Siu Jeun before we found one my parents could both say happily.

Oh, and their nicknames...we're still working on those. BBJ generally goes by BBJ, honestly, and Siu Jeun is "Miu Jeun"...just because when he was itty bitty Miu Miu was more fun to say than Siu Siu. (Miu doesn't actually mean anything. ;-))

And the "A-x" was very interesting to learn about! When I was a missionary, we weren't supposed to go by our first names, anywhere. I was officially "Sister Ngaan" (well, it was my English name if we used English, but you get the idea.) The native missionaries missed the familiarity that would come with the "A-x" practice, so we ended up with a few missionaries called "A-Chan", "A-Wong" and others. LOL

Aunt LoLo said...

@OziMum - Your daughter having only two names could very well be just a local custom. As I understand it, having only two names (Chan Yi) USED to be the norm. However, as the population grew, the government requested (??) that babies be given THREE names (Chan Yi Nei) because there were too many babies ending up with identical names!

However, in parts of China, the custom might not have caught on. I'd guess that your daughter was from a small town. :-)

Aus said...

Nice work! We acutally 'learned' all that over time - but - I've never seen it put so simply or clearly - can't wait to send it to my MIL - it will help her understand why 'what you are saying' is important!

hugs - aus and co.

bbmomof2boys said...

Ok, that sure was a lot of info to process. I've read it a few times now and think I get the gist of it. I know that Little T's sir name is in reference to her province. I'm going to check out the carnival - interested to see other peoples thoughts on Names of their kids.



ps - how ya feeling?

Cheri said...

My daughter is fe=rom a smaller town and the children there only have two names. Funny thing is we are in the process of adopting a 7 yr old from Chongqing and he also only has two names. Most people I tell ask what his third name is.

My daughters name is beautiful but I need more clarification on my sons.

Cindy said...

I amnot an adoptive parent I just played the game for I thought it was sort of fun!
My son was actually named after a Bible Name and his grandfather!
Really I sort of always knew in my heart what it might be!
Better get back to the front door now almost running late!

Jean said...

It is so interesting! Ming Ming is our Sarah's Chinese nickname- Wei, JiangMing was her full name. Everyone born in 2000 had the surname of Wei

Yuan is one of our new daughters- she is shy quiet and slow to trust- Quan is the younger sister.

Is there a book where I can find out more about this subject. I can't remember what Anna's name means- Le Yi.

3D said...

Very interesting! Thank you for sharing this. Helpful.

Keep smilin!

Annie said...

That was so great, TM!!! Thank you so much! I did not know a lot of what your post talked about!! BTW, mentioned you in my blog post today!!! Something to do about Santa:) Hehe!!

Colleen said...

Very good post : ) We didn't keep either one of our girls Chinese/Korean names...just a personal choice.
I loved how you spelled it all out in this post...very very well done and very interesting : )
I sure hope you are feeling better?

Dita said...

TM, thank you so much for this post. I imagined that there would be much symbolism involved but i never knew exactly how detailed and meaningful the names were.

Boy, and I thought it was hard to pick one name! I'm such a lightweight!

Great post!