Chinese Language

Chinese Families and Names

Zhong wen

David Wright introduces the traditions for names.

Within the family, Chinese children refer to their Mum as Mama or just Ma and Dad as baba or ba . More formally, parents are 'mother' muqin and 'father' fuqin . Elder brother is gege , younger brother didi , elder sister jiejie and younger sister is meimei . The differentiation according to age comes from the traditional emphasis on respect for those who are older than you. This tradition has obviously come under strain with the one child policy, in use in China in the last 30 years. In some families, younger children still call their older siblings gege and jiejie as a sign of politeness, rather than using their given names.

Song Qingling; widow of Sun Yatsen
Song Qingling; widow of Sun Yatsen,
photographed in 1981

Children are often given pet names known as 'milk-names' ruming when they are young, quite different from their formal given name and often this name is still used within the family as an affectionate nickname. The affectionate name is often a reduplicated syllable such as Yoyo or Lingling (hence the habit of giving giant pandas names such as An-an and Chi-chi).

The formal given name, called mingzi , is often two syllables, like Zedong or Xiaoping . The mingzi usually has a meaning, although the significance is not always obvious to someone outside the family. Zedong, for instance, means 'anointing the East', and xiaoping 'small peace'. In some families, the first or second syllable marks the generation to which you belong. Mao Zedong's brothers Mao Zetan and Mao Zemin too had the syllable 'ze' as the first part of their given name. Other families choose to keep the second syllable constant, as with the famous Song sisters, Song Qingling , wife of Sun Yat-sen and Song Meiling , who married Chiang Kai-shek.

Of course, in modem China the old Confucian ideas are no longer rigorously followed, but naming is still taken seriously. The name needs to sound right, and should not cause amusement or recall something unpleasant. Thus, while there is no standard list of mingzi of the type British parents consult for the names of their children-to-be, the choice of mingzi is not entirely open and it is not uncommon for people from different families to share the same or similar given names.

Names can reflect the political climate: Babies born in the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) period frequently were given names denoting political 'redness'. In one case someone actually changed his name because it was so similar to that of a Cultural Revolution 'hero' Zhang Tiesheng (who in the 1970s handed in a blank examination paper saying that he had been too busy studying Mao Zedong Thought to revise for exams) that he was treated as a celebrity wherever he went. This change of name turned out to be a wise move, as, after the death of Mao, the 'hero' became a 'villain' and the similarity of names could have been a serious liability.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2001 : China Now 142, Page 20 1992

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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