This Thing About China, Chinese, and Western Names…

This is by no means something easy. Chinese names can either appear to be too short, too standard, too Japanese-looking or too outlandish.

(Just like train station names except for the one-of-its-kind station with just one letter — 宋 station, aka Song Railway Station. Musical kits optional here.)

I digress. But Chinese names are comparatively more “boring” (but also more “diverse”) when compared with those in other languages — especially those you see in Europe and North America. There’s the “boringness” in terms of how long these names are (probably no more than six characters), but also in terms of what characters are used — these names are unique and diverse in their own ways. I remember the most complex of all characters were around 40 or more strokes per character

But just how many characters make up a name can be an art in its own. Here’s how the whole thing works in general…

  • Two character names (eg 張三) — too “short” and running out of “unique names” (look, we’re a billion and counting!)
  • Three character names (eg 張國民) — too mundane; nearly everyone’s got a three-character name…
  • Four character names (eg 上官文清) — probably a tad too “Japanese”; the Japanese are often known to come “preset” with four character names, such as 田中一郎 (Tanaka Ichiro). So why are they here in Chinese? Most likely through the combination of two family names, or through using a double-name such as Duanmu (端木).
  • 5+ character names — probably too outlandish unless you belong to a nationally recognised ethnic group (56 of those on the mainland, plus a few more on Taiwan), or if you had your non-Chinese name “sinicised” (even here, more foreigners are adopting two or three-character names).

Hard already? Imagine the mess you get when you add a Western name into the whole thing. My Chinese name by characters is 馮琰 (Feng Yan in Hanyu Pinyin) but I add the English name David because few people can both spell and (more importantly for me) pronounce Yan (even I had a hard time doing so).

The other question is how they finish up in terms of the name ordering. I could either be David Feng, or David Yan Feng, or Yan David Feng, if I add my Chinese Pinyin (a la my name given at birth) to my “other names”. And in none of these events would I have a middle name. This is why foreigners registering with the police around China might have minor issues if they have middle names.

Far worse is a hypothetical foreigner that’s married and has the name Annina Stefanie von der Graf van den Bergh. That’s a total of eight names and you could easily imagine the cop freaking out as he struggles to find just what name(s) to register into the police database!

A greater still problem exists my end, for my former Chinese passport did not recognise Western names (I started using David as early as 1988, after a family friend suggested it to me), and I converted to a Swiss passport — totally forgetting any mods to my names. Hence my flight tickets (although not train tickets as of this post) bear my Pinyin name, whereas everywhere else I am known as David Feng (although the odd “ghost” media interview is adamant I “only” have a Pinyin name).

Given how complex names are my end of the world, you could be forgiven, then, if you find it odd that Chinese-looking locals at the Starbucks give themselves English names even if they hold a Chinese passport…

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