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Similarities in given names of Chinese and Anglo-Saxon origins.

Studies of personal names show that history, language, and social attitudes are some of the information encoded in all names, which include family names or surnames and given names. The term "given name" is used in this paper instead of "first name" for describing the name or names we are given at birth, or which we give ourselves. I believe it is a more appropriate and inclusive term because the family name in many countries comes first in a name.

Names of Chinese origin in America have close ties with the history and language of Chinese America. For example, Cantonese-sounding surnames, many with Americanized spellings, dominated its first one hundred years. The removal of restrictions on immigration from Asian countries in 1968 and the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 brought about tremendous new immigration that resulted in the proliferation of different dialect-sounding names. Mandarin-sounding names now predominate, and, due to immigration from the People's Republic of China since 1980, Pinyin spelling is replacing Wade-Giles romanization in popularity Also, since 1980, the foreign-born constitutes the majority in Chinese America.

Social attitudes can be detected in the use of given names. Since the change in demographics, Chinese given names are more frequently seen today; sometimes combined with a Western given name. Native-born Chinese Americans, whose legal names usually consist solely of one or two Western given names, are also likely to possess a Chinese given name, except that it is written in Chinese only It seems natural to have one to go with a surname of Chinese origin. While Chinese Americans as an ethnic group do not share the same collective memory of Chinese America, they have a common legacy of Hart Chinese name traditions (Han Chinese refers to the vast majority of the people of China).


Chinese given names consist of either one or two characters. A name of two characters is simply one name even though each character is written as a separate word. It is composed of two words that have been selected to form one name. Historically, one-character and two-character given names fluctuated in usage. The two-character name tended to decline in times of political turmoil, but usage always rose again in times of prosperity and political calm. This occurred because the two-character given name usually consists of a generation name that identifies individuals by family, a naming custom that will be described later on. Although there has never been a law requiring it to be used, over 80 percent of Han Chinese, by 1900, had a two-character name. (1) In a study of names in Qingdao, Shandong province, the figure rose to 95 percent for females and to over 90 percent for males by 1940. (2) The two-character given name is considered the quintessential Chinese name.


Unfortunately, recent writings about the two-character given name would have us believe it consists of two separate names. One writer calls the first character the "middle name" and the second character, the "first name." (3) A Southeast Asian writer calls the first character of the two-character name the "first name" and the second character, the "middle name." (4) Still another Southeast Asian writer refers to the second given name character as a "last name." (5) These terms "first name," "middle name," and "last name" have specific meanings in the English language so that using these terms to describe a Chinese two-character given name is misleading and confusing. It is like comparing oranges and apples.

Although the Chinese also have one-character and two-character family names, there has never been any confusion about the two-character surname being one name. Each character may be transcribed into English as two separate words, as in "Soo Hoo," yet you would never hear anyone say that the first character is the first surname and the second is the second surname.


A far better comparison for the Chinese two-character given name is the two-worded Anglo-Saxon name, a name such as Edith or Robert. Anglo-Saxons, a people of English and Germanic stock, also had names that consisted of either one or two words. The Chinese and the Anglo-Saxons of England had, remarkably, very similar naming practices.

The Anglo-Saxon period occurred from about 500 to 1066 CE. That was a time when Chinese name customs were still being honed and perfected. Anglo-Saxons, however, identified themselves by one name only; they did not have surnames. (6) By comparison, the Chinese had family names early on. These were required of all households at the onset of the Qin dynasty--255-209 BCE. However, family names had existed several hundred years earlier among the aristocratic clans, which were abolished by the first Qin emperor. (7)

Nonetheless, describing Anglo-Saxon naming customs is also to describe Chinese name traditions. Anglo-Saxons did not have "ready-made" names; names were composed from words selected from the language they spoke. And the majority of words selected for names were ordinary nouns and adjectives. Their names consisted mostly of one word only but by the ninth century, names of two words became standard form. To the Anglo-Saxons, a name composed of two words was simply one name that was created by placing two words together. (8) For example, Edith consists of the words "rich" and "war"; Robert is composed of the words "fame" and "bright." (9)

The Chinese still have manufactured given names. There are no books listing Chinese ready-made names as there are in the English language. There are, however, books today that suggest Chinese given names that have a positive meaning or are based on the sound of a Western given name. For example, Anna may be phoneticized into Chinese by the characters for "peace" and "graceful." Because of the countless possible combinations of two words, it is unusual to find two persons in a roomful of Chinese people who have the same two-character given name.

When citing the meaning for an Anglo-Saxon name--which includes Old English and Germanic names--name experts point out that the correct way is to state the meaning of each word without embellishment. (10) Robert therefore does not mean "bright in fame." This applies as well to the Chinese two-character name. For instance, the given name of the late author Lin Yutang means "language, hall." It does not mean "hall of language."

Other Anglo-Saxon name practices also describe Chinese name traditions: (11)

* A child was not named after relatives.

* Every child was given a unique name, completely different from any other in the same village.

* Words for names were often selected to inspire the child in the growing-up years.

* Even though words selected for names did not have to make a meaningful combination, they often did.

* Since new names for individuals were continually created, the list of given names was enormous in number.

* There was no clear way to distinguish between the names of men and women.

There is an exception for the Chinese, however, to the third and last name traditions: in the great desire for sons, parents have been known to give an unwanted daughter a name that would forever remind her and everyone else of her despised status. Names could express such thoughts as "Don't want" or "Hope for brother." (12)


The two-worded Anglo-Saxon name is variously described as a dithemic name and a two-theme name because each of the two words could be combined with other words to create other names. Each new word, in turn, could be paired with other words to create still more names. Each repeated word is therefore like a theme. Some theme-words had to be placed first in a name while others formed the second word. Most words could be in either position. (13)

For example, the word "bright" (originally spelled beorht) was a favorite word in Anglo-Saxon names. It could be either the first or second theme-word. Bertha means "bright." Bertram means "bright, raven." Albert means "noble, bright." (14) The Chinese also like bright or Ming in names. Ming can be a one-character given name; it can be the first or second word in a two-character given name. It is also a surname.


In addition to wanting individualistic names, both Anglo-Saxons and Chinese also wanted names to indicate family relationship. Anglo-Saxon parents did so by selecting words that began with the same letter or the same initial sound. (15) In the tenth century, Eadweard of Wessex (an old Germanic kingdom in England) repeated the theme-word Ead, meaning "rich" or "prosperity," of his name, in the names of his sons and daughters. His sons were Eadred and Eadmund and his three daughters, Eadburg, Eadgifu, and Eadgyth. (16)

The Chinese also used different ways to indicate family relationship in names, and, toward the end of the fifth century, it became common practice to use a full character instead of part of a character for repeating in the names of siblings, (17) The repeated character is called the generation name. The Chinese, as a rule, would never repeat the same theme-word in the names of members of different generations. The whole idea of showing family relationship in names was to distinguish members of one generation from those of previous and succeeding ones.

Traditionally, sons and daughters had different generation names. For example, the famous Soong sisters, whose lives were closely tied to events in modern Chinese history, were named E-ling, Ching-ling, and Mei-ling. Their brothers were Tse-vung, Tse-liang, and Tse-an. Their generation names "ling" and "tse" show that the generation name could be either the first or second word in the two-character name. In traditional China, men received another generation name when they married and adopted a marriage or adult name. Beginning with the Northern Song dynasty (960-1126), a poem, in which no word was repeated, was used by many clans for predetermining in advance the generation name for the marriage name. In this way men knew their place in the genealogy of their clan and their ranking in relationship to one another. (18)

Since the early 1900s, the traditional generation-name system has been modified. The custom of men having a marriage name is no longer followed. Modern-thinking parents began giving the same generation name to their sons and daughters. For example, the Chinese given names for the son and two daughters of Chang-lin "lien, the late Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, are Chihan, Chihping, and Chihyih. Immigrants from Taiwan and Hong Kong brought this naming practice to America in recent decades. In comparison, the generation-name custom may not be observed in mainland China since Han Chinese families have had to abide by the one-child-per-family law that was enacted in 1979. (19)

Perhaps the Anglo-Saxons might have developed the generation-name practice had it not been for the Norman Conquest of 1066. Their name customs came to an almost abrupt end after William, Duke of Normandy, invaded and conquered England. The Normans looked down on the Anglo-Saxons and their name practices, and within two to three generations, the old Anglo-Saxon names practically all disappeared. Only a few survived. A main feature of Norman French name customs, which the English began adopting, was to repeat the same given name over and over, from one generation to the next, in the same family. Due to the scarcity of Norman given names, especially for women, it became popular to use biblical names. The scarcity of given names also led to the use of surnames in England. (20)

Actually, many Norman names that were taken to England, such as William, Richard, Roger, and Henry, were of Saxon or Germanic origin. (21) The dithemic Anglo-Saxon names that survived the Conquest were respelled as the English written language evolved. For example, Eadweard became Edward and Ael-fraed changed into Alfred. The Norman Conquest completely changed English name customs.

Although Chinese name traditions have undergone modifications, these can be found in every country in which the Chinese settled. Some immigrant parents even adapt the generation-name custom when choosing Western given names for their children. For example, the three sons of a Mu family in Los Angeles were named Stanley, Stanton, and Stanford. In San Francisco, three brothers received names that ended in the same sound: Raymond, Edmund, and Gilman. The daughters of a Wing family in Evanston, Wyoming, were bestowed names that began with the letters "Li": Lily, Lilac, Lillian, and Lilia. In Paris, the older siblings of a Chuan family were named Victor and Victoria. To be sure, immigrant parents may misunderstand Euro-American name customs. In a Sacramento, California, family, for instance, two brothers were named Bill and Billy. In a San Francisco family, two brothers were named Ed and Eddie.


On the other hand, descendants of the immigrant generation may not understand Chinese name customs and may assume the two-character given name is composed of separate names since each word or syllable is written as a separate character in the Chinese writing system. Perhaps the custom of having a generation name makes it seem to be a separate name. Or perhaps certain name styles contribute to the difficulty of understanding that the two-character given name is one name.

For example, the name style used by the eminent linguist Yuen Ren Chao was to write his two-character given name as separate words. This is still a popular name style in use today. The late Professor Chao always placed his surname last, as in Western practice. The name style used by I. M. Pei--may also give the impression that the two-character name is composed of two different names. In comparison, in the Wade-Giles romanization method for Mandarin, a hyphen is placed between the two words--as in "Yo-Yo Ma"--to indicate their connection. In Pinyin romanization, the two-character name is written as one name, as in Lin Yutang's name. He may have been the first Chinese to advocate treating the two-character name as a polysyllabic name and writing it as one name. (22)

Unfortunately, computers may not recognize a given name composed of two separate words as being one name. This came to my attention during plans for a Louie family reunion. In our attempt to eliminate recording middle names so as to save space on a family tree banner, the relatives with the same generation name and who transcribe their Chinese given names as separate words all ended up with the same "first name." Fortunately, the hyphenated name was accepted in that single space.

There is one great advantage to using the hyphenated name style. When the first word of a two-character name ends in a vowel and the second word begins with a vowel, the hyphen is an aid to pronunciation. For example, my Chinese given name is pronounced in Cantonese as yauh oi, meaning "friend, love." If transcribed as one word, as in Yauhoi, it looks as though it should be pronounced "yau hoi." If transliterated into Mandarin Pinyin as Youai, it may sound like the protest of a cat.


Nonetheless, it should be pointed out that, in America, the correct way to spell a person's name is according to its owner and family members. The choice of spelling and use of name style is the prerogative of the owner of a name. There have never been naming laws that require American citizens or residents to spell their names according to dictionary or official listings. Mandarin may be China's national language and Pinyin its official spelling system, but a name of Chinese origin in this country is an American name. Moreover, as Patrick Hanks, editor of Dictionary of American Family Names, pointed out, "... origin must not be confused with correctness" in the spelling of personal names. (23)


In conclusion, citing certain two-worded names of Old English and Germanic origins helps to explain how the Chinese two-character given name is one name composed of two words. Anglo-Saxon names such as William and Willard, Edward and Edwin, Robert, Gilbert and Hubert, which were originally composed of two separate words to form one name, are also excellent examples to explain the Chinese generation-name system. Equating the two-character given name as being like a "first name" and "middle name" or a "last name" is to compare oranges and apples. But it points out the importance of using terminology that will carry the same meaning to people who speak different languages and observe essentially different customs in order for it to be meaningful.

Until the Chinese themselves realize that certain name styles make it seem that the two-character given name is composed of two separate names, misunderstanding will continue to occur. At the same time, it is important to recognize that the diversity in spelling and name styles is part of the history, language, and social attitudes that pertain to particular times in Chinese America.


(1.) Wolfgang Bauer, "Der Chinesische Personenname" [Chinese personal names], Asiatische Forschungen 4 (1959): 66-73; Emma Woo Louie, Chinese American Names: Tradition and Transition (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1998), 47-48.

(2.) Li Zhonghua, "Given Names in China: One-character or Two-character Given Names" (paper presented at the American Name Society Annual Meeting, Oakland, California, January 6-8, 2005). To be published in Onomastica Canadiana.

(3.) Thomas W Chinn, "Genealogical Sources of Chinese Immigrants to the United States," in Studies in Asian Genealogy, ed. Spencer J. Palmer (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1972), 224.

(4.) Evelyn Lip, Choosing Auspicious Chinese Names (Singapore: Times Editions, 1988; Torrance, CA: Heian International, 1997).

(5.) John B. Kwee, "The Many Implications of Name Change for Indonesian-born Chinese," in The Chinese Diaspora, Selected Essays, vol. 2, ed. Wang Ling-chi and Wang Gungwu (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1998): 51.

(6.) C. M. Matthews, English Surnames (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1966), 17-18.

(7.) Louie, Chinese American Names, 16, 20.

(8.) Matthews, English Surnames, 19, 20.

(9.) George R. Stewart, American Given Names (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 104, 252; Leslie Dunkling and William Gosling, The New American Dictionary of Baby Names (New York: Signet/Penguin Books, 1985), 115,359.

(10.) Elsdon C. Smith, Treasury of Name Lore (New York: Harper Row, 1967), 165.

(11.) Matthews, English Surnames, 19-21; Stewart, American Given Names, 4; J. R. Dolan, English Ancestral Names: The Evolution of the Surname from Medieval Occupations (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1972), 2-3; Teresa Norman, Names through the Ages: Includes Thousands of Names from the Dark Ages to Contemporary Times (New York: Berkley Books, 1999), 9; Elsdon C. Smith, New Dictionary of American Family Names (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), xix.

(12.) Louie, Chinese American Names, 46.

(13.) Stewart, American Given Names, 3; Matthews, English Surnames, 19.

(14.) Stewart, American Given Names, 50, 68.

(15.) Smith, Treasury of Name Lore, 165; Norman, Names through the Ages, 9.

(16.) Smith, Treasury of Name Lore, 166.

(17.) Louie, Chinese American Names, 52-53.

(18.) Louie, Chinese American Names, 53-54, 56.

(19.) Lu Zhongti and Celia Millward. "Chinese Given Names Since the Cultural Revolution," Names 37 (1989): 275-76; Li, "Given Names in China," indicated that the two-character given name dropped in usage from 1965 to 1989 due to new social policies, the Cultural Revolution (ca. 1966-1976), and declined use of generation names. But since 1990, usage began to recover, and since the year 2000, the two-character name reached its former maximum of 90% of all given names.

(20.) Matthews, English Surnames, 29; Stewart, American Given Names, 5; Leslie Alan Dunkling, First Names First: New Ideas, Information and Anecdotes about the First Names of the English-speaking World (New York: Universe Books, 1977), 51.

(21.) Patrick Hanks, ed., Dictionary of American Family Names (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), xv; Norman, Names through the Ages, 18.

(22.) Lin Yutang, My Country and My People (New York: Halcyon House, 1938), 366.

(23.) Hanks, Dictionary, xi.
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Title Annotation:2I Paper
Author:Woo Louie, Emma
Publication:Chinese America: History and Perspectives
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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