One of the signs of a Western celebrity having “made it” in China is that they are given an affectionate Chinese nickname, given that their real names don’t often translate well. But the reason why Katy Perry is called “Fruit Sister,” Benedict Cumberbatch is “Curly Blessing,” and Jennifer Lawrence is the “Cousin” involves an exploration into Chinese phonetics, cultural connotation, anecdotes, and other factors both strange and terrible.
To use an example from the current entertainment news, no self-respecting gossip magazine or website in China would report the sensational “Hiddlesplit” using the bland, boring, and standard transliterations of the names of American Grammy-winning singer Taylor Swift and British actor Tom Hiddleston’s, i.e. “泰勒·斯威夫特” and “汤姆·希德勒斯顿”, which make your minds numb and eyes glaze over as soon as you glance at them. Instead, Taylor is whimsically referred to as “霉霉” (Méiméi), while Tom is “抖森” (Dǒusēn), two nicknames given by their own fans. While the latter name is a shorted transliteration of “Hiddleston,” the former actually means bad luck, as in 倒霉 (dǎoméi, to have a stroke of bad luck).
Though the name screams Taylor haters, a fan on Baidu Knows (Baidu’s Q&A platform) explained, “This is an affectionate nickname, without any intention to belittle her.” According to the fan, Taylor was first referred to as “小美女” (Xiǎoměinǚ, little beauty). But every time she had a new single on the rise to top the Billboard, she would meet with unexpected competition and ended up in second place. Her fans thought she had a lot bad luck. Since “beauty” (美 měi) and “bad luck” (霉 méi) sounds similar, they began to call her the latter. Still, it’s weird to call your idol “bad luck” and claim it’s a gesture of love, so alternatively, her fans sometimes refer to her as “小清新” (Xiǎoqīngxīn, young, pure, and fresh).
Some nicknames are chosen to be not only punny, but reflective of the celebrity’s fame and prestige. For instance, Ryan Gosling is known as “Commander Gao” (高司令 Gāo Sīlìng), while Justin Timberlake is known as “Boss Jia” (贾老板 Jiǎ lǎobǎn), referring to his formal style of stage attire and his successful business ventures outside of his singing career.
“爷” (yé), a respectful term to address a man of senior age or certain status, is another word fans love to use on male celebrities. British actor and Sherlock star Martin Freeman is known as the “Lord of Fashion” (潮爷 Cháo yé) for his personal style. The name (and let’s face it, everything else) of American rapper, songwriter, and producer Kanye West lends itself to the nickname “Master of Chatting” (侃爷 Kǎn yé). Along that line, the godfather of fashion, Karl Lagerfeld is known as 老佛爷 (Lǎo fóyé), literally, “Old Buddha”. This also happened to have been how Empress Dowager Cixi, the ruthless dictator of the Qing Empire, was addressed in the imperial court.
Fans also tend to refer to their beloved idols as if they were parts of their families, I mean, who wouldn’t want a cool cousin like J-Law? Therefore, the Australian actor and Thor star Chris Hemsworth is known as “Hammer Elder Brother” (锤哥 Chuí gē), while his younger brother, the Hunger Games star Liam Hemsworth is known as “Hammer Younger Brother” (锤弟 Chuí dì). American actress and sex symbol Scarlett Johansson is called “Widom Sister” (寡姐 Guǎ jiě) for her amazing performance in the Marvel franchise. Star of The Amazing Spider-Man, Emma Stone, is known as “Sister Stone” (石头姐 Shítou jiě). Australian actor Hugh Jackman, and 2008’s Sexist Man Alive is regarded as “Uncle Wolf” (狼叔 Láng shū) for his role in the X–men series. Three-time Academy Award winner Meryl Streep is “Aunt Mei” (梅姨 Méi yí) among her fans, though recently the new British Prime Minister Theresa May is beginning to share this nickname.
Inspired hardcore fans would stop at nothing to give their beloved idol a perfect nickname, aiming to flatter (mostly, also depends on what you find flattery, the range is quite wide and culturally specific). There’s some effort for phonetic resemblance, but for the rest—it’s quite spontaneous.
Rihanna: 日日 (Rìrì)
With the character “日” meaning “day” or “sun”, the nickname seems out of nowhere. But when you put her English nickname “Riri” into Chinese pinyin, those happen to be the two characters you end up with.
Eddie Redmayne: 小雀斑 (Xiǎoquèbān)
Literally means “little freckles”. It seems that the Academy Award-winning British actor’s adorable blemishes made a deep impression on his Chinese fans.
Jesse Eisenberg: 卷西 (Juǎn Xī)
The Now You See Me actor’s Chinese nickname is “Curly Xi”, referring to his lovely dark brown curls, while “Xi” resembles the “si” sound of “Jesse”.
Matt Bomer: 孔雀 (Kǒngquè)
The White Collar star is regarded as “Peacock” by his fans. Some say it’s the blue-greenish color of his eyes, while others say his handsomeness conjures up the image of the charming bird.
Michael Fassbender: 法鲨 (Fǎshā)
“Fa” resembles the pronunciation of Irish-German actor’s family name, but sha here refers to “shark”. Turns out his fans thought his teeth-revealing smile bares strong resemblance to the shark on the Finding Nemo poster.
James McAvoy: 一美 (Yīměi)
Literally “Number One Beauty”, rumor says that the X-men star was the winner of a magazine vote of Britain’s best-looking actor. Certain Chinese media have “creatively” dubbed him “the most beautiful star in Europe”. His fans who appreciate him more of his acting than his appearance thought it was hilarious, and decided to keep the nickname.
Other cases involving the “Winter Soldier” Sebastian Stan as “384” (Sānbāsì, the Chinese pronunciation of these numbers resembles his given name), Kristen Steward as “Twilight Girl” (暮光女 Mùguāng nǚ)…you can trust the Chinese fans to be creative.
Unlike the above fan communities, the fanbase of late-night US comedy shows is considerably smaller but going strong, and you can trust them to keep the spirit of comedy in their nicknaming endeavors.
Stephen Colbert: 扣扣熊 (Kòukòu Xióng)
Leftist political satire show The Colbert Report is known as “Koukou Bear’s Report” in China. The host himself is tenderly referred to as “Koukou Bear” while he carries on with his tongue-in-cheek, politically-edged humor in the Late Night Show, or “Koukou Bear’s Late Night Show”.
John Steward: 囧司徒 (Jiǒng Sītú)
Though also an actual Chinese character, “囧”is often used by netizens as a popular emoji resembling a embarrassed face. It certainly also sounds like John. “司徒”is a common double-character Chinese family name. In ancient times, it was also a title for officials in charge of civic affairs.
John Oliver: 囧橄榄 (Jiǒng Gǎnlǎn)
Along the same line, the Last Week Tonight host’s given name is represented by a emoji, while “橄榄”means “olive” in Chinese (and not a rat-faced man with glasses).
Seth Myers: 赛金花 (Sàijīnhuā)
Phonetically, the name bears certain resemblance to Seth. Interestingly, the name means “prettier than a golden flower”, which weirdly also happens to have been the name of a famous socialite/escort in China at the turn of the 20th century. Fans may have picked it because of certain feminine quality they see in Seth, but he probably wouldn’t mind since last time someone on his show said “you are basically a woman,” he said “I’m honored.”
However, the two Jimmys in the comedy world aren’t going to be happy with this list, since one of them is called nicknamed “fat” (肥伦 Féilún, Fallon) and the other is called “chicken feather” (鸡毛 Jīmáo, Kimmel).
Cover image from duitang.com