I’ve studied several foreign languages and I’ve had friends from lots of different countries. My Japanese teacher at University was called Etsuko, I had a Czech flatmate called Lenka and another from Quebec called Xavier. I’m pretty sure that if I had looked at their passports these are the names I would have seen.
Then when I was doing my masters and started studying Chinese I made a Chinese friend called Eva, but I very much doubt that if I looked at Eva’s passport I would see the name Eva. Chinese people seem to have this unique practice of choosing a so called “English name” (in reality their English names aren’t always English, I once had a Chinese student whose “English name” was Yuki).
Admittedly, my Latvian friend Kristiāns and my Polish friend Krzysztof both go by the name “Chris” but that’s an anglicisation of their names. It’s not a completely new name that sounds nothing like their actual names. So why so do so many Chinese people choose to go by a random English name that is unrelated to their real name?
apparently “Bruce” isn’t a traditional Chinese name
If you ask a Chinese person this question the most common answer is “foreigners can’t say Chinese names” or “foreigners can’t remember Chinese names”. Aside from that fact such comments could be seen as slightly racist, they’re also completely untrue. I’ve never heard an English speaker say “I can’t remember the capital city of China because it has a Chinese name”. Similarly, I’ve never heard a Chinese person say “I’m from a City called ‘John’. Actually, it’s called ‘Shanghai’ but because foreigners can’t say ‘Shanghai’ I’ve chosen the English name ‘John’ instead”.
The “foreigners can’t say Chinese names” excuse also fails to explain why I once met a Mandarin teacher at Zhejiang university who went by the name ‘Sabrina’ or why Chinesepod used to have a Chinese host called ‘Jenny’. Are they so bad at teaching Chinese that they can’t even teach their students to say their names? And what about when you ask a Chinese person for their family name? I’ve only ever heard a Chinese person say a Chinese name when asked for their family name. So why do they expect English speakers to remember Chinese family names and place names but not given names?
The fact is it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. As an English speaker I do indeed find Chinese names difficult to say and remember. It’s not because Chinese names are inherently more difficult than other names, it’s because they don’t tell you their names. If I never told you my name you would find it very difficult to say my name too. When I was teaching English to students from Saudi Arabia I also had difficulty with their names at first, but because they all told me their real names I quickly got better at it and after a month it was no problem.
So why do Chinese people choose an English name? Below are what I believe to be the three main reasons.
1. The emphasis on ‘standard Mandarin’ in the Education system
Chinese primary school children are drilled on the phonology and tones of Mandarin. In many parts of China speaking a dialect or dialect-influenced Mandarin can signify a lack of education. Chinese people tend to place these same standards on foreign speakers, even when they’re speaking English.
This has been made clear to me on those rare occasions when I’m speaking English and say a Chinese place name (in English) but find my pronunciation corrected by a Chinese speaker because I said the place name in accordance with English phonology. Some Chinese people seem to think you shouldn’t pronounce Bejing as [beɪdʒɪŋ] even if you’re speaking English, you should still say [peɪtɕɪŋ] with those all important tones added.
The same applies to peoples’ names; Chinese people often think you either said it in the correct standard Mandarin way or you said it wrong. I don’t mind being called “Louis” when I speak French, or being called “Ruisu” when speaking Japanese, but most Chinese people don’t like doing this. There is no place for anglicisation of Chinese names and rather than hear a butchered up version of their Chinese name they’d prefer to just pick a completely different one.
2. It’s not part of Chinese culture to use given names
Maybe at school you were one of the cool kids who had a nickname. At my school most nicknames simply consisted of just putting the letter “y” at the end of a name. So “Scott” became “Scotty” and “Robert” became “Robbie”. Not very adventurous. But in China it is far more widespread for people to have a sort of nickname that is nothing like their actual name. So at high school “Mengqian” might have been called “Sasa”.
And that’s when Chinese people use names. It’s far more common for Chinese people to refer to each other by their relationship to one another. In the same way you don’t call your mum by her given name, Chinese people will often call each other “brother” or “sister”. In fact, they call each other brother and sister even when they’re not related at all and it’s just another person roughly the same age as them. Teachers are simply called “teacher” and landlords are called “landlord”.
Because of this it might be a bit strange for a Chinese person to be suddenly start using their given name just because they’re speaking English. They might even find it a bit awkward. It’s better to choose a different name. The idea of an “English name” is therefore similar to the idea of a “public name” that people in China would traditionally adopt. Confucius had several names that he went by depending on who he was being addressed by and was even given posthumous names. An English name is perhaps a continuation of this tradition of having multiple names for different social circles.
3. It’s cool to have an English name
Most Chinese people seem to view English as a classy language. Chinese people who can’t even speak English love to use those one or two English words they know, the same way a British person might try to impress by throwing out a French word (or a French person might show off by using a Latin one). That’s why you see so much English everywhere on stuff like shop signs, adverts and clothing.
not all English clothing looks classy
Having an English name (and thus implying you can speak English) is maybe a good way to seem educated. But for kids learning English it’s probably more about the fact they get to choose their own name, and it’s pretty cool if you can name yourself after your favourite pop star or movie character. One of my mates back in Britain asked me if I got to choose my own Chinese name and I told him it was just the closest approximation of the name Lewis that is possible using Chinese characters. “That’s boring” he said, “I would have called myself sword master!”
Comments: maybe you agree with me, or maybe you completely disagree. Let me know what you think in the comments section below.