An obvious interpretation of naming practices claims that having a Western name makes it easier for a Chinese person to navigate cross-cultural interactions. While this assertion is true in part, it fails to explain why other globalizing countries do not partake as widely in such a phenomenon. Why do, say, the Japanese or Koreans not take English names? An alternative explanation views the enthusiasm for English names as a manifestation of a more general admiration for the West.
However, in my opinion, what both of these interpretations ignore is China’s own rich naming tradition. After all, when Chinese people take English names, they do not give up their birth names; the new name becomes merely an additional moniker. In fact, the adoption of a series of names and nicknames is a long-held custom in the country.
Until the mid-1900s in China, a person would normally inherit their father’s xing, or surname, at birth. Later, at 100 days old, the baby would be given a ming, a personal name chosen by the parents. At the beginning of adulthood — usually age 20 for men and age 15 for women — the individual would be granted an alternative personal name, or a zi. In the Confucian society of ancient China, it was common courtesy to address people using their zi.
Apart from the three kinds of formal names, a self-chosen name known as a hao was also very popular. The zi of the famous Tang dynasty poet Li Bai was“Taibai,”but to this day many Chinese know him by two haos:“The Lay Buddhist of Qinglian (青莲居士)”and“The Banished Immortal (谪仙人)”. The latter came from a tenet of folk wisdom, which dictated that those who had misbehaved in heaven were frequently exiled to the human realm and became people of great talent.
From the first half of the 20th century onward, as China began to modernize, the practice of taking zi and hao began to die out. Today, most Chinese have only xing and ming. Against this backdrop, the current trend toward taking English names can be viewed as a form of cultural resurgence — a continuation of ancient tradition with a modern twist.
More accurately, English names today play the same role as hao did in traditional China. Both are self-chosen and aim to reveal an aspect of the individual’s personality. In imperial China, the literati would commonly hold several hao at the same time, each intended to shine a light on a different side of their characters or reflect a valuable experience from their lives.
In the same way that one’s hao was bound by certain social conventions, so are English names subject to certain rules. In today’s China, English names may be commonly used among Chinese colleagues in the workplace but almost never in a familial context or among best friends.
As a form of address, English names imply a certain amount of distance between speakers. In this way, these adopted monikers allow people to embody different social identities, in the same way that xing, ming, and hao denoted social boundaries in former times.