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Old July 2nd 03, 01:15 AM
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Default Zhing Zhing

OT: This post discusses naming conventions, the real subject of this thread.

"Bill Smythe" wrote in message ...
"PJDBAD" wrote:
... I think the fact that Chinese "last names" are spoken first and should
be also written that way is fairly well known....

Even the phrase "last name" is prejudicial (Jerome Bibuld might even say
"racist"). I prefer "family name".

Do the Chinese write their names "backwards", or are we the "backward" ones?
I say the Chinese have it right. How often, in English, are our family
names listed first (e.g. in alphabetized lists), sometimes with commas,
sometimes without? How much unnecessary time (and even computer
programming, for example) is spent trying to reverse things between one
context (e.g. telephone book) and another (e.g. paycheck)? If we did things
the Chinese way, all these problems would disappear.

'Names are far more useful than things, being more generally understood, less
liable to objections, of greater calculation, besides occupying much less room.'
--James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans)

Dear Mr. Smythe,

Your perspective is refreshingly non-ethnocentric, though I doubt that your
proposal will be adopted anytime soon. Still, matters could have been worse.

Fortunately, the ancient Romans did not have computers, which did not have
to process Roman names. A male Roman name comprised, in order: 1) the
praenomen (personal name), 2) the nomen (family name), 3) the cognomen (personal
surname). Sometimes an individual was granted additional cognomina as a mark
of distinction: Publius Cornelius Scipio appended the cognomen, 'Africanus',
after he defeated Hannibal in the Battle of Zama, which won the Second Punic
War. Roman females were not given personal names, and even sisters were known
simply by their family names, which could be terribly confusing. Fortunately,
Roman women did not have credit cards. :-)

'He that hath an ill name is half hanged.'
--Edward Bulwer-Lytton (What Will He Do With It?)

There are two world-class Chinese women short-track speed skaters named
'Yang Yang' (who are unrelated). At first, to assist the international media
in distinguishing between them, Chinese sports officials decided to call one
skater, 'Yang Yang (L)' (large), and the other, 'Yang Yang (S)' (small), even
though they are about the same size. But 'Yang Yang (L)' objected to being
described as 'large', and she changed her international media name to
'Yang Yang (A)'. She already has won the World Short Track Speed Skating
Championships six times. And, given her fortunate name, Yang Yang (A) never
has had to face the continuing Western ignorance and prejudice about confusing
Chinese family and given names.

Other Chinese in Western societies tend to be less fortunate in that respect.
Yao Ming, a (226 cm. tall) star basketball player for the Houston Rockets of
the NBA, has become one of the most famous Chinese persons in the United States.
(Jackie Chan seems even more famous.) Yao has been featured in some highly
publicised television advertisements (for Apple Computers and Visa). Hence,
Yao Ming should have been in an ideal position for a Chinese person *not* to
hear more of the routine "it's just ignorance" excuses for the continuing
misuses of his name.

Yao Ming's entry into the NBA (beginning around October 2002) is an interesting
test case of American acceptance or non-acceptance of traditional Chinese names.

According to some Chinese friends of mine who have lived in the United States,
here are some common excuses for why Americans should not be expected to learn,
or even to make any attempt to learn, how to use Chinese names correctly:

1) Chinese are too obscure for Americans to be expected to learn their names.
"Who has ever seen or heard of this Chinese person?" Ignorance is bliss.

How many Americans refuse to watch television? (See above.)

2) Chinese names are too hard to learn how to spell or to pronounce.

'Yao' has only three letters, and its pronounciation rhymes with 'how'.

3) It's too hard to remember that the Chinese names go 'backwards'.

Suppose that an American tourist were to visit the United Kingdom, Ireland,
Australia, New Zealand, or Japan. Then should it be too hard for him or her
to remember that the people there drive on the 'wrong side' of the road?

4) The Chinese tend to look alike, so it's too hard to associate the correct
name with the Chinese person whenever one happens to meets him or her.

As he's 226 cm. (7'5") tall, Yao Ming tends to stand out everywhere he goes.
And whenever he's at work, on the basketball court, his family name, 'YAO',
appears in large print on his uniform. But for months after the NBA season
had started, evidently, most American broadcasters and journalists at Yao's
games and elsewhere still tended to insist on calling him 'Ming' or 'Mr. Ming'.
Indeed, when I recently visited the popular sports website,, a page
for Yao's team still had him listed incorrectly as 'Y. Ming'.

Fortunately, after one full NBA season of lavish publicity, most (though
probably not all) American sports journalists seem to have learned, finally,
that 'Yao' really is Yao Ming's family name. Unfortunately, those journalists
still tend to misuse the names of the lesser known Chinese players, such as by
referring to Wang Zhizhi as 'Zhizhi' or even as 'Mr. Zhizhi'. Evidently, most
American journalists have learned how to use a single Chinese name correctly
in the famous case of Yao Ming, but they have yet to learn how to use Chinese
names correctly as a consistent general principle.

'Diversity is not inconsistency.'
--Samuel Johnson (Rasselas)

Contrary to a Western stereotype of it as a homogeneous monolith, China is a
highly diverse civilisation, wherein about 10% of its population are regarded
as members of recognised ethnic minorities. Some of the minorities have naming
conventions that differ from the Han Chinese majority's. For example, a Chinese
publication may print a minority person's name along with a note explaining
that he or she has only a single name (not distinct family and given names)
on account of his or her cultural tradition.

"I look at her clean, white ears and say, 'Yunnan has the most diverse
population in China. Each minority has its own unique language and culture,
and the lives they lead are much more interesting than the American lives you
dream about. There is more to China than communism and the Han Chinese. If
you don't understand your own country, you will feel lost when you go abroad.'"
--Ma Jian (Red Dust, translated into English by Flora Drew, p. 208)

And not every Chinese writer, not even every reputed Chinese 'dissident' writer,
decides to express himself or herself in a similar voice that can be clearly
identified as 'Chinese'. Chinese literature is diverse.

Ma Jian is an iconoclastic Chinese writer, who has been described as a
Whitmanesque beatnik. His books are banned in China, yet his rebellion against
the Chinese authorities seems much more an expression of his untameable
individualism than of deliberated philosophical principles. Now he lives in
London with his English translator and partner, Flora Drew. As he considers
himself a 'genius' at writing Chinese, Ma Jian has declared that he never
intends to learn English at all. Hence, Flora Drew's future seems secure.
On the other hand, Gao Xingjian, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000,
now lives in Paris. He is fluent in French, and he has become a French citizen.

'We have lost the faculty of giving lovely names to things. Names are
--Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray)

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