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Zheng Yangwen and Charles J.H Macdonald (eds), Personal names in Asia: History, culture and identity.

Zheng Yangwen and Charles J.H Macdonald (eds), Personal names in Asia: History, culture and identity. Singapore: NUS Press, 2010, xi + 339 pp. ISBN 9789971693800. Price: USD 32.00 (paperback).

What's in a name? This book argues that that is the wrong question. Better to ask, what's in a naming system? Or what's with governmental forms that require a personal name and surname, no more and no less? This book aims to describe, classify, and begin to explain historical and cross-cultural patterns of naming systems. It highlights the richness and variability of local naming systems, showing what is lost when these systems are diminished or replaced (directly or indirectly) by the state. The book, derived from a conference held at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore in 2005, consists, primarily, of contributions from anthropologists and historians whose cultural focus is Southeast Asia and it is within that nexus of geographic and disciplinary interests that the book is strongest. Anthony Reid and Charles Macdonald do a good job of providing context by surveying naming systems in Asia and beyond in their introduction.

The book is divided into four parts: the first concerns historical processes in naming, particularly in regard to family names. MacDonald's tripartite typology in Chapter 4 provides the structure for the three remaining parts. James Scott's preface and Reid's chapter establish one of the book's two major projects: theorizing the relationship between naming systems and the historical development of the state and capitalism. They review the benefits to the state, social hierarchy, and the accumulation of wealth, of state imposed 'official' naming systems that obscure, replace or delegitimize the intricacies of local 'vernacular' naming systems supporting local social systems. All of the authors, but especially Gealogo, Fiskesjo, and Hew, speak to this point as well. Scott emphasizes that, in order for a state to reinforce its power and be able to efficiently identify and monitor individuals, it must stabilize and minimize the fluidity and complexity of vernacular naming. Therefore, for communities and individuals resisting the state, evading this kind of conformity can be freeing and empowering.

Reid, for his part, shows how important the family name has been in the development of patrilineal and patrilocal family structures seeking to consolidate wealth and power. He evaluates four alternative explanations for the global shift toward patrilineal family names and tests them with evidence from Southeast Asia and elsewhere. He notes that Southeast Asian Muslims have been particularly resistant to family names and that their imposition by the colonial state and church in the Philippines may in fact have encouraged, at least among elites, a more patrilineal family than in other lowland societies. He further describes a synergy between democratic principles and uniformity of naming, with the latter symbolizing equal worth. Citing Tanya Li, Reid concludes that family names reinforce identification with the patriarchal family and therefore aid the consolidation of family power and wealth in in capitalist societies. It is interesting in this light that Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia have not required family names, perhaps indicating the limits of state power in these nations (although Reid does also suggest that the era of the family firm may be over). The chapter by Francis Alvarez Gealogo supports the theorized relationship between state and surname by demonstrating that their imposition by the Spanish government was not to Hispanicize Filipinos but to regularize record keeping for taxation and law enforcement.

Macdonald's contribution constitutes a broad and ambitious theoretical and methodological statement. His focus is the interrelationship among culture, society, language, and naming systems. He argues that most anthropologists who have investigated naming in recent years have not really tried to develop a comparative classificatory framework in the tradition of Morgan on kinship systems. His two principle aims, therefore, are 1. to show how formal properties of naming systems are determined, or at least constrained, by cultural and social factors and 2. to propose the beginnings of a typology of naming systems for Southeast Asia. A central principle of his approach is the distinction he makes between name type and name tag. He asserts that the focus of investigation and analysis should be on the interplay of all name types in a system. Other foundational assumptions needed in anthropological analysis of naming that seeks to avoid particularism include the following: that all existing naming systems contain several name types; that all naming systems seem to consider one of those name types to be the 'real' name, the 'autonym'; and that the relationship, organization, and combination of name types make up the naming system. Building upon these principles, Macdonald then outlines a set of analytic variables that seem to correlate with socio-cultural patterns. For example, a major distinction is between naming systems that string several kinds of name tags together (syntagmatic) and those that also have multiple name tags for an individual but only allow one to be used at a time (paradigmatic). Another distinction is between those name types that have an open repertoire of name tags versus those with a finite set. What Macdonald found was that those societies with naming systems that are paradigmatic, with an open repertoire and several other features, emphasize egalitarianism, while those with syntagmatic naming systems, closed repertoires, and other correlated features, encourage competition and social hierarchy.

Based on these observations, Macdonald presents a typology of naming systems: Class A 'Paradigmatic', found in the Philippines, Borneo, and Peninsular Malaysia, Class B 'Syntagmatic', of Eastern Indonesia, and Class C 'Titles/title system', typical of class societies in Central Indonesia. The patterns associated with Class A versus B 'make sense' in terms of the size and orientation of these 'types' of societies, while Class C feels underdeveloped. (For example, there could have been greater definition of the word 'title'.) Macdonald also presents examples of naming systems in the region that are 'mixed' typologically. It is not so important whether Macdonald is partly or entirely right or wrong in his formulation. What is important is that he has offered a basis for theorizing a systematic method that researchers can accept or reject, refine or revamp based on their attempts to apply the model.

The chapter by Kenneth Sillander focuses on teknonyms and pseudoteknonyms within the larger naming system of the Bentian of Borneo while reviewing anthropological theories of teknonymy generally. Teknonymy refers to the practice of renaming parents after the birth of their first child so that they become '[Father or Mother] of [child's name]' and constitutes a name type. Pseudo-teknonymy, a concept Sillander himself coins here, like teknonymy, includes the parent term, but in this case it is followed by a nickname rather than a child's name. The Bentian seem to treat the two name types interchangeably. And because teknonyms are names with status implications, Sillander argues that individual autonomy and sociocentrism are both reflected and reinforced when one looks at the entire naming system. The analysis provides a fine example of innovative, detailed ethnography made possible by a comparative theoretical framework.

Magnus Fiskesjo's chapter on Chinese imperialism and Wa naming autonomy on the Southeast Asia-China frontier describes how official imposition of the Chinese personal name system has competed with the Wa naming system to diminish the identification of individual Wa with their lineages as well as their collective identity as an autonomous people. Lineage genealogies today reinforce land claims; Fiskesjo suggests that, therefore, the suppression of lineage names undercuts property rights. The article clearly demonstrates the importance of personal naming systems to the political autonomy of a people. My question is why this chapter was placed in the 'Class A simple egalitarian societies' section. The Wa have had patrilineal descent groups, considerable wealth, opium cash cropping, lengthy genealogies of lineage ancestors, and a mostly limited repertoire of autonyms, characteristics that place them squarely into Class B.

While the book is primarily structured by Reid's and, especially, Macdonald's schemas for analysis of naming, the other chapters are variable in their use of these approaches. For example, it was difficult to tell how Zheng Yangwen's historical survey of Chinese naming practices connected to the project. Other authors had trouble fitting in all the support needed for their argument. For example, Ananda Rajah's chapter on the Karen in Palokhi, Thailand, argues that the particularities of the Palokhi naming system are all part of a cultural ideology that requires an understanding of religious, subsistence, gender, and marriage systems. He applies Macdonald's as well as Geoffrey Benjamin's (tribal/peasant/ruler and indigeny/exogeny) typology but in a fairly mechanical way. One chapter provides inadequate space to support such grand assertions. I also suspect that unless one collected the data using these typologies, it is difficult to retrofit them after the fact.

The papers in Part III concern segmented societies with leaders who concentrated wealth and social obligation through feasting and thereby achieved prestigious and ancestral names. In each case the authors sketch the older naming system while describing the process of change that has occurred. For example, Ku Kun-hui focused on the Paiwan (of Taiwan) term vusam translated as 'seed-millet' and by extension as 'firstborn' and 'nobility.' Vusam, in both social senses, has become less meaningful in recent times as all siblings should now inherit equally. Similarly, the boundary between nobility and commoners has been weakened by more frequent intermarriage. While Reid and Macdonald's introduction discounted the utility to an analysis of naming systems of linguistic and philosophical theorizing on sense versus reference, both Joel Kuipers and R.H. Barnes make these competing dimensions of meaning central in their analysis. Barnes presents a plethora of ethnographic data on naming in eastern Indonesia to argue that variability of naming practices is much greater than that imagined in Macdonald's typology; but he basically lists the information, making little effort to connect the data in any systematic way to each other or to society. He argues that personal names in Eastern Indonesia have sense as well as reference (while some names inform about social categories, others may have other meanings or be simply indexical) and that ethnographers should pay attention to both. He contends further that there are no firm boundaries between proper names and titles, and that there is no real need to distinguish between the two. Kuipers analyzes how a speech event at a political demonstration in eastern Sumba in 1998 after the fall of Suharto led to 'Bloody Thursday' in which at least twenty-six people died and scores of houses were destroyed. The Loli demonstrators, in the spirit of Reformasi, were protesting a Weyewa politician's use of surrogates to take a civil service test for him. Kuipers concludes that, at the same time that the more traditional rules of naming in a competitive society were disappearing, a breach of those rules was interpreted as a threat by the politician's supporters who retaliated accordingly, at least from their point of view.

In regard to complex, centralized societies, Mary Louise Nagata, in her clearly written chapter on autonym changes among commoners in early modern Kyoto, describes Japan prior to the Meiji Regime as conforming to 'Class C,' by relying on titles to communicate status. She further hypothesizes and confirms that autonyms were not changed in coming-of-age rites but instead signaled changes in status within family businesses, which needed to absorb non-family members. M.W. Amarasiri de Silva similarly uses quantitative data, in this case, notifications of name changes in newspapers, to assess the reasons for name change among the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. De Silva argues that, in the context of the emergence of class and modernity, caste can affect one's class status through preferred names similar to or associated with higher caste family names. But since anyone can change their name, it seems, to whatever they want, it is not clear that he proved his point here.

Finally, Hew Wai Weng's fascinating chapter describes the religious boundaries maintained by Malaysia through its control of official names. In Malaysia, a Muslim cannot marry a non-Muslim. Therefore, Chinese who convert to Islam to marry a Malay (Malays cannot disavow Islam) must adopt a hybrid name to distinguish them from Bumiputera Malays. This practice serves the purposes of the state as well as the converts' wish to maintain their connections to the Chinese community. Because of the divide between Malays and Chinese in Malaysia, the converts remain anomalies, although their continued existence may perhaps weaken the boundary they inhabit. The author casts the situation in the best light while mostly sidestepping the coercive nature of these name changes. By soft pedaling some effects of state action, the article provides an interesting counterpoint to Scott's preface.

This is an important book that breaks new ground in the systematic analysis of naming in anthropology and history. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the meaning of personal names.


Keene State College, Department of Sociology and Anthropology
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Author:Gianno, Rosemary
Publication:Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia and Oceania
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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