China Musings #23: Apple, Dolphin, Water, Vegetable and Beer.

Apple, Dolphin, Water, Vegetable and Beer – what do these things have in common? These are just some of the rather unusual names I heard people introduce themselves in China. 


When I started working for Ofo in Beijing, I asked for an email address. Annoyingly, the name that was put on my Gmail account was not “Omid Scheybani,” it was “Scheybani Omid.” So every time someone would receive an email from me, especially in the US, they would think that Scheybani was my first name. How do I know? Well, they replied with “Hello Scheybani.” Sigh. 

This was my first lesson in how Chinese names were just different, yet surely not my last.

I soon realized that some of my Chinese colleagues had Chinese names, others had English names. And they would always start with the surname. For example my COO’s name was Zhang Yanqi, Zhang was the surname, Yanqi was the first name by which he was called. On the other hand, one colleague’s name was Zhao Fan, where Fan was the first name, but he went by his full name “Zhao Fan.” It’s like walking around and being called “Smith Jason” or “Goldberg Josh.”

I learned that until the mid-1900s, a person had three names besides their surname: ming, zi, and hao (these are terms, not names). Ming is the name that your parents would give you. Zi is the name granted to a person at the beginning of adulthood, and the Hao is a less formal kind of name chosen by the person themselves. 

Those “Hao”s by the way were pretty sophisticated. It could be something like Dong Po Ju Shi (the man who resides in Dongpo) or Zhe Xian Ren (the banished immortal). 

It wasn’t until China was opening up in the 1970s, with increased exposure to the West, when people started giving themselves English names as well. In some ways, these English names are informal “Hao”s that represent another layer of identity. 

The reason why people give themselves English names is primarily because foreigners struggle pronouncing some of the Chinese syllables. The letter X like in Xi Jinping’s name is pronounced more like a “sh” sound. The letter C is more like a “tz” sound. It’s not easy, and it can get messy with some Chinese names like 诗婷, a girl’s name that means ‘poetic and graceful’ in Chinese, yet is pronounced and written as “shiting.”

Now the challenge is that in a culture like in China, it’s hard to choose English names that “fit.” What do I mean by that? Well, some people name themselves after “things” like Apple, Dolphin, Water, Vegetable and Beer. Trust me, meeting someone new and hearing them introduce themselves as “Vegetable” can cause a lot of awkwardness. 

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