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How to Pick a Name for Your Baby: Name Customs in Chinese and Western Culture
A Chinese name starts with the family name, followed by the given name.
We avoid the name, but do not avoid the surname. The surname is common; the name is peculiar. --Mencius (372-289 B.C.)
China's huge population shares a great deal of surnames. According to the ancient Chinese documents, they ranged from 300 to 3000. But most specialists in this field agree that the most common Chinese surnames number some 500.
Chinese people always attach great importance to the choice of given names. A name functioned far more than just a code for every specific person. In the past, when elders named a newborn baby, they took several factors into consideration: the astrological principles, the birth date and time, the array of five elements (metal, wood, water, fire, and earth), the written form, pronunciation, and meaning of name. Now superstition being lessened and constraints reduced, there are still some rules of thumb to be followed.
As a rule, names are not repeated from one generation to the next. Children are not named after parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and any older family relative.
Another name taboo forbade naming a child after a hero or too famous a person (both renowned or notorious), e.g. names of emperors, names of presidents, because this was considered presumptuous and disrespectful. The way to get around it is to select just one of the characters in that famous person's name for a namesake. Like parents everywhere, Chinese parents may hope that by choosing such a name, some of the qualities that led to such fame or wealth or power will rub off on their child.
Some traditional families even name their children according to birth order - the word Three can be a name, e.g. in the name Zhang San, Zhang is family name and San (means three) is the given name. Interestingly, I notice that in Star Trek: Voyager there is a girl called ‘Seven'.
Despite these name taboos, the Chinese have been quite creative in their selection of given names. This is because they compose their given names, taking words from the common written language; words deemed suitable for names. Over the centuries, the popular practice of having two characters for a given name has enable them to avoid the repetition of names among family members and celebrated names in history. Thus, in contrast to the limited number of Chinese family names, there is a seemingly limitless number of Chinese given names.
Compared to Chinese Name customs, western names seem just the opposite. Firstly, the name order is that given names are followed by family names.
Given names for western people are less important than for Chinese people. Parents often name their child after an elder relative, father, grandfather, uncle, for instance, or a hero, or a famous person. Therefore, there is a limited number of western given names, and they are less creative and are lacking distinctiveness.
Our children's names
Our daughters have both Chinese and English names.
We named their English names using western customs. Our first daughter's name is Brenda, after the company her daddy was working for when she was born, Saint brendan's Irish cream liqueur Co. Ltd. Our second daughter's name is Dory, after the blue lady fish in Brenda's favorite cartoon Finding Nemo, because I like her optimistic and easygoing characteristic and hope Dory could have some of them.
Brenda's Chinese name is Buyi (means cotton dress or ordinary people). We hope her being simple and ordinary since we believe that an ordinary life is a happy life. She may study when she oughts to, work when she oughts to, marry and have babies when she is supposed to. She doesn't have to be goodlooking, smart, wealthy or marry wealthy people, in order to live happily.
Dory's Chinese name is Rihong (means sun and rainbow). We consider more on the astrological principles, the birth year (her animal zodiac is rat), the array of five elements, the written form, and pronunciation, than meaning of name. Hence, her name is less eccentric than Buyi, according to her grandparents' opinion.