What’s in a Name?

A friend in Shanghai recently blogged about the importance of foreigners in China choosing appropriate Chinese names.

Chinese names are beautiful, rich in symbolism and possess a sense
of history that places the bearer securely within the culture. Finding
an appropriate Chinese name for a foreigner is, perhaps, even more
difficult than it is for the native-born. Many opt for the easy way out
– simply translating the sound of their name into Chinese phonemes. Of
course, that means the Chinese characters are devoid of meaning. Most
foreigners don’t mind, but if you want to belong then you should find a
“real” name. So if you want to make sure you have a good Chinese name, you’ve got
to approach the situation not unlike your China business strategy – you
need to take some control and work with people you trust. My Chinese
name was chosen many years ago by a committee formed by my closest
Chinese friends. Their mission: to find a name that matched my
personality. However, the most appropriate, “Donkey-Face-Monkey-Boy’”,
does not translate well in Chinese……..

As they say, read the whole thing.  

My Chinese name is 周宁 (Zhou Ning).  Zhou is a common surname (as in Zhou En-lai, China's first premier) that also means to surround.  Ning means peace, serenity. Come on now, stifle that laugh.  This has been my Chinese name since I began my language study in 1990.  I was a student at a university in Changchun at the time, and on the first day of class I asked my teacher to help me find an appropriate Chinese name.  I had four requirements.  First, the surname (which comes first in a Chinese name) must be Zhou, which sounds like my first name Jo.  Second, I wanted a 2-character name (most names are made up of 3 characters). Third, the name had to be relatively easy to say (I wanted to stay away from the praticularly troublesome sounds of Chinese, of which there a legion).  Fourth, the name had to be easy to write (not a lot of strokes in each character). 周宁 is what my teacher came up with, and it has stuck. 

Nineteen years later I am as much 周宁 as I am Jo.