Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Choosing A Chinese Name: Part 1

One of the projects we’re going to do as part of our China study is to have the kids choose Chinese names for themselves. I did some research into Chinese names about a year ago because I’d been playing around with Chinese calligraphy and brush painting and wanted to know how to sign my works in Chinese (they actually do this using a name seal or “chop,” but that’s a topic for another day).

Anyway, I discovered that there are a couple different ways to pick a Chinese name based on your English name. As with many things in life, there’s an easy way but it gives you fairly lame results, or there’s a way you can get better results but it’s a lot more work. Read on, but you can probably guess which route we’re going to go!

The easy way is to look up the “Chinese equivalent” of your English name using any of the lists that are available online. Here is one list from here and one from here . The good thing about doing it this way is that it’s easy. You just look up your name and you can see the Chinese equivalent in the actual Chinese characters. For example I looked up my name, which is “Aaron,” and I got 艾伦. Incidentally, the Romanization of this (using the pinyin system) is “ài lún.” That was quick and painless!

Unfortunately, there are a couple problems with this. The method used is a “transliteration,” which basically means it’s a group of Chinese characters that are pronounced similar to the way your name sounds in English. Using my example, “ai lun" sounds fairly close to “Aaron.” However, it’s still fairly unlikely you’d recognize your name as spoken by a native Chinese speaker, because the sounds are so different. But the main problem is that this isn’t a real Chinese name and doesn’t make any sense in the Chinese language as a name.

This can be easily illustrated using my name, and truth is indeed stranger than fiction. According to one online Chinese dictionary, the characters translate into “mugwort” and “human relationship”. I had no idea what the heck mugwort is, so I looked it up. According to, mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is a plant from the daisy family used in traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture, but also for such diverse things as “to season goose, especially the roast goose traditionally eaten for Christmas” and in witchcraft, where it is purportedly “useful in inducing lucid dreaming and astral travel.” Yikes! You really couldn’t even make this stuff up. So anyway, “ai lun" could probably be translated into something like “medical herb causing hallucinations that help improve your relationships with others”. OK, I made that up. But the point is, this doesn’t seem like a very auspicious name to me, and certainly not one I’d expect any sane Chinese parent to christen their bouncing baby boy with.

Ok, so what’s the alternative to “your Christmas goose is cooked and so is your relationship with your in-laws”? Well, that’s a bit more complicated and I’m out of time, so I’ll have to tackle that tomorrow.



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