Chinese names, to the untrained ear, may sound somewhat similar. They jumble together in a scrambled binary of Changs, Wangs, Wus and Hus. They are hard to remember, since they are all 2-to-3 segment K’NEX sets of syllables that fail to strike a strong note with western minds. Yet upon further intensive (albeit unscholarly) investigation, you will find that Chinese names, when translated word-for-word, are in fact more daringly bestowed than those hippie children’s (Flowerpot, Oaktree) names from the 1970s.
Some names are just common. After the Cultural Revolution and reign of Mao, the boy’s names “Patriot” (Aiguo) and “State-Run” (Guoli) caught on with ferocity. The name Morning Diligence (Xiaoqin) is also a widespread popular girl’s name. There are several other majority names that one might suspect a stereotypical Chinese family under mainland party rule to name their kids. Yet despite the somewhat 1984-ish popular names, there are a slew of second tier names, as well as original creations, that are much more vibrant. Some full of history and artistic mastery, others simply wacky.
My first contact in China, a man who studied film along side my mother over 20 years ago, is named Liao Ye. His surname is used in ancient texts to form words that both mean spacious and rare. The surname Liao itself also happens to be rather rare. To further add profoundness to his title, his parents endowed him with the given name Ye, which he said in ancient text means a monument that shoots out brilliant light from the ground. So he is Mr. Liao Ye, the film professor. Or you could say Professor Rare-and-Spacious-Laser- Volcano-Monument. Chinese language is so much better at economizing meaning-per-square-centimeter ratios.
For a quick sample of the glory and folly of Chinese names and their direct translations, I need to look no further than the colleagues at my office. A team of engineers with names like Leftside Mountain, Plumtree Universe Creator, or Frightened-Look Changes to Flying (sorry, that last one came out looking like the English subtitles on Chinese bootleg DVDs).
Perhaps written the western way, with the surnames at the end, will make them flow better? I continue looking up, character-by-character, the names of my coworkers, via the emergency contact spreadsheet and nciku online dictionary. I come up with things like Beautiful Bright Avenger, Translucent Ginger, Permanent City Wall, or Tiger Cub Field (almost like Tiger Woods!).
So, you see folks, despite the fact that all my friends back in California think Chinese get names for their kids by dropping a bunch of pots and pans down the stairs and listening to the first acoustic combination, its actually even more fun than that!
Again, let me remind my readers that this is by no means a professional translation. There are layers of meaning behind every Chinese character. Anyone that has studied the language as long as I have knows that not only can a character have multiple meanings, but their meanings change over time and space. These are just the water-cooler ponderings of a semi-bored expat worker in Beijing. 100% for slacker entertainment.
Yet I must say there is some truth in these translations; it’s just that something gets lost in translation. Even Chinese people think their own idioms sound funny in English. Just as Sitting Bull (whose childhood name was Jumping Badger) might not sound as mystic in its native Lakota language. Still, next time I talk to my colleague Innumerous Triumphs, sitting at his computer editing Java code with his slight frame, shark-tank thick glasses and goofy smirk, part of me will be smiling inside.