When I first arrive in Beijing, I feel like I’m drowning in the language. The written characters are utterly foreign to me and I strain my ear to distinguish between the spoken tones. My head spins. I can barely pronounce the name of the neighborhood where I live.
I make new Chinese friends, shake their hands and listen as they introduce themselves. I mouth out their names, trying to voice the foreign-sounding syllables. Their surname comes first, and then their personal name (the opposite from English), and I meet dozens of Wangs, Lis and Zhangs, the three most popular surnames in China. I am confused. So they smile and mercifully offer me their “English names.”
They are not surprised that my Chinese is terrible, or that I have trouble pronouncing their native names, so, like good hosts, they accommodate me. Since Reform and Opening Up, more and more Chinese workers have been taking on English monikers, because their new, foreign, unilingual business partners could not remember their names.
But I don’t want to be one of those privileged, loud Americans, who bark their way through all cultures other than their own. This is a new, global world; abroad, we must be new, humbler Americans. Next time, I tell myself, when a Chinese person asks me for my name, I’ll offer them one that they can pronounce easily. Instead of waiting for their English name, I’ll offer them my Chinese name.
Two American friends of mine came to China to seek their fortunes. They recommend that I choose a good business name, and suggest the company Good Characters, Inc.—self-professed masters in “the art and science of Chinese naming.” This company guarantees to make the naming process easy for me, and claims to have assisted hundreds of foreigners in choosing “appropriate” personal names, brand names and corporate slogans. Choosing my name, it seems, could be approached like a marketing campaign. Good Characters Inc. could provide me with “a roadmap for developing high-impact personal names for the entire Greater China market.”
Is that what I need—a “high impact name,” something that Chinese businessmen would remember after they met me? This would be the kind of name that would go over well in the boardroom, knock down office doors, and make me some kind of business champion.
I find another resource—mandarintools.com/chinesename—a site that asks me to insert my full name and my date of birth, select my preferred character attribute (strength, wealth, wisdom or beauty) and within seconds provides me with my “new Chinese” name. “Every time you use this tool,” the site tells me, “you will likely get a different name. So if you don’t like the first name you get, try again.” It is all a little too impersonal to me.
And I’m interested in more than doing business in China; I also want to know about the culture, the history and the tradition. China is a modern country, with the fastest growing economy on the planet, but isn’t it also a country of superstition, mysticism and ancient wisdom? I want to find my new name, and I want there to be some magic involved. I go looking for a fortuneteller.
The Lama temple, north of Beijing’s city center, became a place of worship in 1744; its tall gates are ornately decorated with Buddhist gods and goddesses. There were rumored human sacrifices here years ago—reported disappearing tourists and whisperings of bizarre ceremonies. Today, the temple may seem more of a tourist-site than supernatural holy ground, but there is still something mysterious about the neighborhood.
From blocks away, you can smell the pungent aroma of incense; the streets are lined with shops selling statues and gods’ effigies. And while the main strip outside the temple is packed with both foreign tourists and Chinese worshipers, the hutong neighborhoods surrounding the temple are eerily quiet. This is where I will find my fortuneteller.
Two Chinese friends, Echo Zhao and Ginger Huang, are with me as we explore the narrow alleys, looking for signs that will say “Choose names,” or “Qi ming (起名).” Many Chinese come here to choose their child’s first name, to decide on their wedding day or maybe even, Ginger explains, to change their own name.
“Do adults change their names often?” I ask.
If a Chinese person has been having particularly bad luck lately, she tells me, it’s thought that it might be due to a poorly-chosen character in their name. One friend of hers was always sick, but never knew why. So he went to a fortuneteller who diagnosed his problem: he needed a new name. According to the Chinese concept of Wuxing (五行), he had too much of the “water element” in the characters of his name. He was out of balance.
The Five Elements—wood, fire, earth, metal and water—have been a part of Chinese thought since ancient times, and are used in many fields: martial arts, feng shui, medicine, music and military planning to name a few. If properly studied, the five elements provide a structure, a metaphysical framework; following this guide can lead to a balanced life.
In the naming process, the characters that make up your hour, day, month and year of birth all represent different elements. Your name is chosen in relation to these. If you have too much of the water element in your birth date, you should add a fire element to your name; if you have too many metal elements, you should add a character that represents a wood element.
We step into a number of fortunetellers’ shops, each different. One is clean and spacious, a secretary sits at a computer and the fortuneteller emerges from a backroom, neatly dressed and recently shaven. Other shops are cluttered and old, the walls plastered with diagrams and photos. One fortuneteller, deep within the hutongs, lives in his shop and sleeps on a simple, bare mattress in the corner of the room. He has a long, grey beard and yellow teeth. He peers closely at me and smokes a cigarette, “Why does this foreigner want a Chinese name? He can’t even speak the language!”
The price for a new name can vary; today we’ve been given prices that range from 100 to 1000 RMB. Different naming processes with more complex analyses, presumably resulting in a better name, cost more. Getting a new name can be expensive.
We meet a Taoist fortuneteller who sits behind a desk, a diagram of the “I Ching” on the wall behind him. He looks wise and old—a capable name-giver, I think. Taking a pen out from his desk, he asks my birth date. He nods and begins writing furiously. Pausing, he asks for my surname. “Kestenbaum,” I say. This is a hard one to pronounce, even for Americans. I repeat my name and he scratches his chin, bewildered. “Isn’t there a shortened version?” Oftentimes, foreigners create Chinese homonyms of their English names. Andrew becomes Anzhu (安竹). Nick becomes Nike (尼克). He’s wondering if he can do the same with mine.
He writes 克 (kè, conquer), half of the first syllable of my name, “Ke”, which means “conquering.” Then for my first name, he writes 城堡 (chéngbǎo, castle), making my name something like “Conquering Castles.” A very powerful name. Ginger and Echo shake their heads. It’s silly, they tell me, it sounds funny.
He comes up with two alternatives: “Conquering Horses,” or “Running Horse.” He scribbles a few more notes on a sheet of paper, but shakes his head. “The first one I came up with is a really good name—Conquering Castles! This is a strong name.” He points to the paper, “‘Conquering’ and ‘Castles’—what’s more powerful than that?”
We thank our fortuneteller; he gives us a toothy smile and asks to take a picture with me. “By the way,” he says before we leave. “My name is ‘Dragon in the Cloud’—it’s because I’m always wandering, always a little lost,” he pats my back.
As we leave the shop, Echo and Ginger walk ahead of me, whispering to each other. Then Echo turns to me. “We don’t think that you should take the name this man gave you. We’re afraid he might be a little senile.”
Ginger interrupts, a little less tactful: “He’s a fool! He doesn’t know what he’s doing!”
“We can give you a better name,” Echo offers.
As much as I wanted my name to come from a wizened mystic, I also like the idea of a Chinese friend naming me, someone who has gotten to know me. Echo and Ginger might be better fit for the task.
When Ginger, who’s Chinese name is Huang Yuanjing, was a young girl, her parents called her Jingjing. Similarly, when Echo, or Zhao Lei, was young, she was called Leilei. This is often the case with Chinese kids. When they are born, they take their family surname, but use an affectionate, shortened name until later in their lives, when they take on an adult name. When Ginger was 16, she had outgrown her nickname. She started going by her full name, Huang Yuanjing. When she entered college, she went through a number of English names before finally deciding on “Ginger.” She thought this name would be memorable. At age 27, she has already had five names.
Similarly, Echo outgrew her nickname, and, after trying out “Betty” and “Joanna,” eventually decided on “Echo” as her English name nine years ago, when she started working with English-speakers. She chose her name after the famous Chinese author “San Mao,” also known as Echo Chan.
Many Chinese people choose their English names themselves—picking any name they’d like, and they don’t have to be necessarily conventional. I’ve met people named Transformer, Juicy, Spirit, Sunny, Justice and Jade. Their names can be inspired by movies, TV shows, favorite authors or singers. Anything goes. It’s their chance to remake themselves.
Right now, I had a few Chinese names to choose from. Did I want to be “Conquering Castles,” “Conquering Horses,” or “Running Horse?”
“That fortuneteller,” Ginger says, “I think has some sort of fixation with strength and horses. He’s obsessed.”
Ginger suggests a variation on “Uncle Sam”—”Big Brother Sam” (山姆大哥, Shānmǔ dàgē). This could also be shortened to 山哥 (Shāngē). It’s funny, I like it. It’s a play on my status as a foreigner here, as an ambassador of sorts, a reluctant representative of my country.
Echo suggests I become Ke Haoquan (柯皓泉). Ke, for the first syllable of my surname, and Quan, “spring,” because according to my horoscope, I could use some water element in my name. This is also good, because I do want to lead a balanced life. “That one sounds nice,” she says. “But I’m still thinking of new ones.”
Though I set out to definitively remake myself, I realize I might not have to choose just one name. Like my Chinese friends, I can have a handful of names in a lifetime; it’s a fluid process. I can be called one name by my friends, one by my coworkers, and another by my parents or girlfriend. As I grow, I can choose new names for myself. And if I need to feel really courageous, I can go by Conquering Castle.
I can be light-hearted or mystic, my name can be serious or have humor. I could be Brother Sam, Running Horse or Tidal Wave. Each name is like a revision, an update, the latest version of who I am and who I’m becoming.
- Your name is very powerful.
- Don’t mind him, he’s just a little senile.