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  • Only Hanyu Pinyin have been used for Chinese names and these are shown in Italic

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    Chinese Names (2)

    In a Western name, take for example a well known past US President:

    Harry S Truman

    It starts off with his personal name “Harry” in the front. Next it is followed by a middle name, in this case, it is just an initial “S” which was used because the family could not agree on the choice of a suitable name to satisfy both sides of his families. Finally, the last part is the surname, “Truman”. This then is the general Western practice:

    (Personal Name) + (Middle Name) + (Surname)

    However, with a Chinese name the convention is quite different. Here again a complete name may consist of two or three characters (words). Take a famous modern Chinese name like (written in Hanyu Pinyin):

    Mao Zedong
    毛    澤   東

    This name consists of three separate characters. Notice in the Chinese characters shown there is no such thing as an upper or lower case as shown by the alphabet for the Hanyu Pinyin. As well, unlike a Western name, the first character “Mao” (毛) is actually the surname because in Chinese culture the family name (surname) is paramount, so it must come first. The second name is generally a common character adopted for the family, in this case “Ze” (澤) which can sometimes also be a clan Generation Name to identify a generational hierarchy. The last character “Dong” (東) is the personal name of the individual and by convention comes last. Mao Zedong's Style Name, Zi (字) was Runzhi (潤之) where his Generation Name was Run (潤). Thus by custom a Chinese name is written in the exact reverse order of a normal Western name.

    (Surname) + (Generation Name) + (Personal Name)

    Now what happens when the name consists of only two characters? Does it mean the Generation Name is non-existent? Not really. A Chinese character can be broken down into its individual components and each can therefore be classified by its “root” source which is called a radical from whence its meaning was derived. The other component will generally provide the sound. This radical device can thus be utilized to provide the Generation Name without the need of an additional middle character. An example will clarify this concept. Take a name like (written in Hanyu Pinyin):

    Wang Hui
    王    煇

    The person’s surname is Wang (王) and since there is only one other character remaining, so, it can only be the personal name, Hui (煇). So, where is the Generation Name if it exists? It is the radical for fire (火) which is the left hand side “root” component of Hui (煇). Now that is a nifty little trick! However, this approach does not work throughout the spectrum for Chinese characters but, nonetheless, it is one sneaky way to dispense with a separate Generation Name and shorten a name to just two characters. Now, that is something that cannot be done when alphabets are used.

    In the past, this basic difference in the naming sequence between Western and Chinese names caused some very strange results. When a Chinese person arrived in a Western country the immigration officer who registered the new arrival would write the name in an imperfect Romanized fashion in an attempt to match the spoken words enunciated by the person when asked his full name. Assume the respondent said his name was Quan Fuk Sing (this is a Cantonese Romanization) which followed the formal Chinese naming practice. It was thus entered into the official register. But, this simple act of ignorance on the part of the immigration officer had suddenly transformed the Chinese person into Mr. Sing according to Western practice whereas he was actually Mr. Quan. That often happened in the past and many overseas ethnic Chinese descendants have inherited very unusual “surnames”. The mix-up is quite comical today but these overseas descendants would have no chance of tracing their Chinese roots by their Romanized “surnames” unless they are lucky enough to have the proper Chinese characters for their ancestors’ names inscribed on their tombstones or official Chinese documents.


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