Personal Names in Asia: History, Culture and Identity

By Lim, Jason | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Personal Names in Asia: History, Culture and Identity


Lim, Jason, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


Personal names in Asia: History, culture and identity Edited by ZHEN6 YANGWEN and CHARLES J.-H. MACDONALD Singapore: NUS Press, 2010. Pp. 339. Maps, Plates, Notes, Bibliography, Index. Rebuilding the ancestral village: Singaporeans in China By KHUN ENG KUAH-PEARCE Singapore: NUS Press, 2011. Pp. 279. Maps, Plates, Notes, Bibliography, Index.

Both Personal names in Asia: History, culture and identity and Rebuilding the ancestral village: Singaporeans in China share a common theme of individuals and communities having to change with the times. Personal names examines individual and collective reactions to societal transformation through name changes; Rebuilding the ancestral village examines Chinese Singaporeans' collective memory of, and struggles to maintain ties with, such villages in China.

Personal names in Asia is clearly organised and readable. A very good introduction by Anthony Reid and Charles Macdonald points out the problems inherent in studying the subject. Asian names have changed over the last two centuries as a result of foreign influences or imperialism and Reid and Macdonald rightly point out the confusion that Westerners have in identifying surnames--when, as in the case of the Javanese, there may not be a family name at all, or additional Arabic or Western autonyms are assumed upon religious conversion. Names have been changed for political purposes too, as when the Chinese in Thailand and Indonesia were compelled by the state to adopt non-Chinese names in 1913 and 1961, respectively.

The book is divided into four sections, beginning with a historical perspective on naming. Anthony Reid begins with an overview of the development of Southeast Asian surnames. Francis Alvarez Gealogo (chapter 2) follows, showing how the Spanish colonial demand that Filipinos adopt surnames was not an attempt to Hispanicise them, but rather a record-keeping exercise. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Spanish governor-general of the Philippines Narciso Claveria enforced a law demanding the adoption of surnames by the indigenous population to standardise Catholic Church baptismal records. When the Americans took over in 1899, they too introduced new measures to standardise names. In chapter 3, Zheng Yangwen looks at how Chinese names evolved as a result of Confucian revivals, family and clan histories, and contemporary events. After the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 in China, for instance, characters such as 'san' (three) were added to indicate adherence to, and promotion of, the Three Principles of the People.

Charles Macdonald's transitional chapter provides a structure for the rest of the book by classifying Asian names into three classes--'A' (those belonging to simple egalitarian societies), 'B' (competitive societies) and 'C' (complex centralised societies).

The 'simple egalitarian societies' in the next three chapters classified as Class 'A' are not really 'simple', but there is a suggestion that their organisation had remained unchanged over a long period prior to the developments discussed. Chapter 5 by Kenneth Sillander looks at teknonymy and its influence on kinship among the Bentian, a Dayak group in Kalimantan. Ananda Rajah's interesting study in chapter 6 looks at teknonymy among the Polokhi Karen in Chiang Mai as well as the impact of religious conversion (particularly Christianity) on names and how this affected individual and collective identities. Magnus Fikesjo's chapter on how, since 1958, Chinese characters and surnames have been used by the Wa living along the border with China is not only an important ethnography; it also queries the impact of the People's Republic of China on Southeast Asian domestic affairs.

Part III consists of two kinds of study (Class B and A). The first three chapters (as exemplars of Class B) look at the impact of foreign influences on Asian naming systems. Chapter 8 by Joel Kuipers studies the political use of names in post-Suharto Indonesia, using 'Bloody Thursday'--a protest by the Wewewa in West Sumba outside the Regency Office on 29 October 1998, which precipitated a massacre--as a case study. …

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