Similarities in Given Names of Chinese and Anglo-Saxon Origins

By Woo Louie, Emma | Chinese America: History and Perspectives, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview

Similarities in Given Names of Chinese and Anglo-Saxon Origins


Woo Louie, Emma, Chinese America: History and Perspectives


Studies of personal names show that history, language, and social attitudes are some of the information encoded in all names, which include family names or surnames and given names. The term "given name" is used in this paper instead of "first name" for describing the name or names we are given at birth, or which we give ourselves. I believe it is a more appropriate and inclusive term because the family name in many countries comes first in a name.

Names of Chinese origin in America have close ties with the history and language of Chinese America. For example, Cantonese-sounding surnames, many with Americanized spellings, dominated its first one hundred years. The removal of restrictions on immigration from Asian countries in 1968 and the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 brought about tremendous new immigration that resulted in the proliferation of different dialect-sounding names. Mandarin-sounding names now predominate, and, due to immigration from the People's Republic of China since 1980, Pinyin spelling is replacing Wade-Giles romanization in popularity Also, since 1980, the foreign-born constitutes the majority in Chinese America.

Social attitudes can be detected in the use of given names. Since the change in demographics, Chinese given names are more frequently seen today; sometimes combined with a Western given name. Native-born Chinese Americans, whose legal names usually consist solely of one or two Western given names, are also likely to possess a Chinese given name, except that it is written in Chinese only It seems natural to have one to go with a surname of Chinese origin. While Chinese Americans as an ethnic group do not share the same collective memory of Chinese America, they have a common legacy of Hart Chinese name traditions (Han Chinese refers to the vast majority of the people of China).

CHINESE GIVEN NAMES

Chinese given names consist of either one or two characters. A name of two characters is simply one name even though each character is written as a separate word. It is composed of two words that have been selected to form one name. Historically, one-character and two-character given names fluctuated in usage. The two-character name tended to decline in times of political turmoil, but usage always rose again in times of prosperity and political calm. This occurred because the two-character given name usually consists of a generation name that identifies individuals by family, a naming custom that will be described later on. Although there has never been a law requiring it to be used, over 80 percent of Han Chinese, by 1900, had a two-character name. (1) In a study of names in Qingdao, Shandong province, the figure rose to 95 percent for females and to over 90 percent for males by 1940. (2) The two-character given name is considered the quintessential Chinese name.

COMPARING ORANGES AND APPLES

Unfortunately, recent writings about the two-character given name would have us believe it consists of two separate names. One writer calls the first character the "middle name" and the second character, the "first name." (3) A Southeast Asian writer calls the first character of the two-character name the "first name" and the second character, the "middle name." (4) Still another Southeast Asian writer refers to the second given name character as a "last name." (5) These terms "first name," "middle name," and "last name" have specific meanings in the English language so that using these terms to describe a Chinese two-character given name is misleading and confusing. It is like comparing oranges and apples.

Although the Chinese also have one-character and two-character family names, there has never been any confusion about the two-character surname being one name. Each character may be transcribed into English as two separate words, as in "Soo Hoo," yet you would never hear anyone say that the first character is the first surname and the second is the second surname. …

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