How would you like everybody to call you Big Mountain?
How would you like to be named “Big Mountain”? The name— Da Shan (大山) in Chinese— has a bit of macho flair, after all. It also happens to be the Chinese name of Mark Rowswell, a Canadian well-known as a talk show star on Chinese TV. His Chinese is so good that it is often considered the gold standard for the ability of laowai (foreigners) to speak Mandarin.
But choosing Da Shan for yourself might be problematic, and that goes to the heart of the dilemma foreigners face when choosing a Chinese name.
First, it is kind of a cool name. But if you choose it, you might be seen as somewhat of a poseur because of its star power. Also, unless you are a very large lumberjack from Heilongjiang province, it might seem a bit presumptuous on another level.
The naming game is one that virtually all expats here play. At first, it really is a game. “Oh, won’t this be fun!” And it helps us to feel like we fit in a little bit, our first little touch of Chineseness. And there are so many possibilities. Compared with most Western names, most of which are pretty standard, even boring, Chinese names have all kinds of meanings. It’s easier to pick one to fit your personality.
In fact, Chinese students learning English often employ that rule when choosing English names for themselves. For every Jack or Jessica in English class, there may be a Demon, Lucifer, Fish, Cotton, Lemon, Seven or Eleven. (These are real examples from just one teacher.) Unless these students intend to use their English name professionally (depending on the profession, of course), these names are just a good bit of fun.
But choosing a Chinese name seems to have a bit more gravitas. The Chinese are careful in picking out a baby’s name because they believe it can affect the child’s future. While a Chinese name is a wonderful conversationstarter, few would want to be mocked because they decided to call themselves Shan Dianqiu (闪电球), or “Lightning ball”.
Foreigners initially enthusiastic about picking out a name can quickly become entangled in a maze of linguistic and cultural brambles.
Some other names that may sound great but are best to avoid, as noted by the Chinasmack website, are the presumptuous: Gao Fushuai (高富帅) “Tall, rich handsome”, or Mao Taimei (毛太美) “Hair too beautiful”. Another complication is that Chinese often employ homonyms, words that sound like other words, in their daily speech. So, Fan Tong (范统) may sound great, but it’s a homonym of a word meaning “idiot”. Dai Naizhao (戴乃照) also has a nice ring, but it’s a homonym for “wearing a bra”. That makes it a particularly bad choice for a guy.
For those ready to give up, don’t. It’s possible to pick a really good name, but there are a fewcardinal rules. First, and most importantly, enlist the help of some of your new Chinese friends (preferably those that don’t like to play practical jokes).
If you know enough Chinese, you can think of the characteristics you want to portray, and look up some of the words. Make a list and ask a Chinese friend for suggestions. You’ll want two to three characters— no more— and make sure the characters don’t have an excessive number of strokes so you can learn to write them. Pick a name that’s gender-appropriate so you don’t end up being a boy named Sue. (Though Su is a legitimate Chinese surname.)
One easy way around the dilemma is using a Chinese homonym for your birth name, such as Luo Pei (罗佩) for Robert. But the Chinese language teaching website Ninchanese notes this also can be tricky. It advises against a person named Rose choosing Rou Si (肉丝), which means “Slices of pork”. Similarly, it says, Daniels should avoid Da Niu (大牛) unless they want to be known as “Big cow”.
When I went to pick out my name, I settled on Ma (马), which sounds likemy given name Matt. It means “horse” — but is a legitimate Chinese surname— asmy family name. Besides, perhaps Alibaba founder Jack Ma will decide I’m a long-lost relative.
For the other characters, representing my given name, I went with the sound and the characteristics I wanted. A Chinese friend in Shanghai helped me choose. I liked Wen (文), which can mean “Educated man”— at the risk of sounding presumptuous. And I picked Tao (涛).
But choosing a Chinese name seems to have a bit more gravitas. The Chinese are careful in picking out a baby’s name because they believe it can affect the child’s future.