Chinese and Other Asian Naming Systems

Which is Du Xiao Bao's family name?
by George Leonard, Jeeyeon Lee and Chung Hoang Chuong.

No-one researching the Asian roots of Asian American literature, no-one trying to understand the relationships of Asian characters in a novel, will get far if he or she cannot tell a family name from a given name; but the Asian systems are entirely different from the American. This article, of course, speaks of the practices of Asians, not of Asian Americans.

Everyone who discusses this topic starts by noticing one highly significant difference. In America, the individual's name comes first. In Asia, the family's name comes first. (To grasp the full significance, see this volume's article on Confucian family values, and the Asian American Family.) This is true of informal spoken, as well as formal written language. You would say, in speech, "This is my friend, Lincoln Abraham." Mao Zedong's family name is Mao, and saying "Chairman Mao," which sounds like familiarity or affection in English, is merely the ordinary formal way.

Aside from that generalization, Asian naming systems are far more different from each other than European systems are from each other. So much so, that this article can only be an overview.

1. Chinese

Nearly ninety five percent of Chinese belong to the dominant Han ethnicity. (Fifty six ethnicities are officially recognized.) Han Chinese names have two parts: the xing, (family name or surname) and the ming, (given name.) (Note: this article uses the pinyin system of Romanization. Please see our article, "Asian characters")

Nearly all modern Han family names are one syllable (Chan, Du, Lee, etc.).

Nearly all modern Han given names are two syllable. Until recently the two syllables were divided by a dash, so that we are used to seeing names like Chou En-lai, and Mao Tse-tung. The modern pinyin system of romanization prefers to drop the dash, so that Chou En-lai becomes Zhou Enlai; and Mao Tse-tung becomes Mao Zedong.

In Maoist China women stopped taking their husband's name. In traditional China, and in Nationalist Taiwan-- where Mao's enemies, the Guomindang fled-- women used their husband's surname and then their own, separated by a hyphen. If Miss Huang Xiaoyan marries Mr. Lee, she becomes Lee-Huang Xiaoyan.

Even formal terms of address like Mr., Mrs., Professor, Doctor, appear after the name, not before it. In Pinyin they are not capitalized. Mrs. Lee is Lee taitai. Miss Wong is Wong xiaojie. Chairman Mao is Mao zhuxi. In English we routinely say Doctor Smith or Professor Jones, but do not, as a rule, specify many other professions. In Chinese, however, one would also routinely say "Technician Du," or even "Driver Tan," referring to a work unit's assigned chauffeur/delivery man.

Within the family, it is very common for even adult children to refer to each other by their roles as "elder brother," or "younger sister." One might almost say, refer to each other by their rank. In traditional China mentioning clearly who was the elder and who the younger served the same purpose as specifying who was the sergeant, and who the private. Even today , in my own family, my fiftyish brother in law refers politely to his older sister as Older Sister, "Jiejie" rather than call her by her name. Sometimes he'll shorten that casually to "Jie," but he uses it. I myself, as husband of the youngest sister, am only his "meifu" "Little Sister Husband," a person of lesser rank. And I would be reminded of my rank and its duties every time I was addressed.

In pre-maoist China, as in America, the children inherited only the father's name, and the mother's name was lost. Each year, for thousands of years, a surname vanished if a family had produced no sons. The five thousand Han surnames that once existed have, through this erosive process, dwindled to a few hundred shared by some five billion Chinese. We have the impression that there are more Chinese names than there are, since we will take a single name, like Wong ("King") and spell it many ways-- Wang, Huang, Hwang, Hwong. Similar situations exist in Korea and Vietnam.

The Chinese, like the Koreans and Vietnamese, compensate with imaginative given names. Someone named Jones might name a child "Jaxon," rather than "Jack" if only to spare him lifelong difficulties with computers and post offices. The Chinese follow this logic. We, with our vast number of family names, can afford to give our children, over and over, the familiar twenty or thirty given names. The Chinese and Vietnamese, stuck with the so few family names, create a great variety of given names.

Classical author's names present different problems, because a man had his given name, plus a name he assumed on reaching manhood (his zi), plus, in some eras, yet another name he assumed on reaching a certain station in life, or even just reaching maturity, the hao. In Kong Fu Tse's (Confucius's) time there was, in addition, a variety of honorific titles a man could be awarded. His name, Kong, has had two honorific titles signifing "master" added to it. The last sound, zi, we romanize too many ways, as "tse" and "tsu" and "tzu" and "zi." It is pronounced most like "zi." Lao Tzu and Kong Fu Tse both, in Chinese, end in that one same sound. Yet a mistaken convention has developed in English to say make Lao Tzu's name rhyme with the woman's name Sue. It shouldn't.

We cannot begin to deal with all the conventions of pennames, Taoist names, Buddhist names, nicknames that all 3200 years of recorded Chinese culture have left us with. It is enough to be aware of the complexity.

2. Japanese and Korean

Since Japan and Korea were within China's cultural orbit during their early cultural history, it is no surprise that they share in much of what has been said above. Family names are given first in both languages. Someone named Suzuki Ken'ichi is Mr. Wakatabe in English. (Suzuki is the most common Japanese surname

A Korean named Lee Soon Chul, is Mr. Lee in English.

In practice however, Japanese names and name customs must partake of the entire exquisite code of Japanese behavior. If hierarchy and rank are preoccupations of the Chinese language, they are near obsessions of the Japanese. There are entire different forms of speech appropriate when speaking to a superior or a subordinate, and the Japanese concern to denote "inside" from "outside" (of the family, the clan, the country, whatever) surfaces in speech.

In practice, first names are not routinely given. Only small children are called by their first names, and then it is followed by the softening word "chan." People could work in an office together for years without learning, or using each other's first names. "My name is Yoshimura," is an adequate introduction. When single names like this are given, assume they are family names, not first names, as would more likely be the case in America. It is perfectly polite to say, "Yoshimura won't be in today," or "Where is Yoshimura?"

As in Chinese, a great variety of professional titles are appended after names.

Everyone must know the chain of command. "Ano, chotto ii desu ka, Shosuke kakaricho?" would be, literally, "Excuse me, is it okay, Shosuke Section-chief?"

One could also say, "Shosuke Kai Cho" "Shosuke Company President" and many other specific titles. "San" for Mr., is routine, and "Sama," even more deferential is frequent, depending on the rank difference between speaker and person addressed. Women use different, and very deferential forms of address, especially when speaking to men, adding a particle like "kun" to the end of the name. "Sensei," or "teacher," may be added to many professional men's names, as a simple honorific. Little of this is translatable, but translators try.

In Korean, the special problem is that no good romanization systems exist, and the same person's name appears in many conflicting translations. Syngman Rhee, the first public of the postwar Korean republic, could have been "Lee," in another system. Quite a problem, since 65%, at one estimate, of Koreans now share either the surname Lee or Kim. Furthermore, "the curious truth about the surname Lee," Jeeyeon Lee writes, "is that in the Korean phonetic language, there is no such surname. My last name is Lee in English, but in Korean it is actually Ee. The pronunciation of it never includes a consonant sound. Remember that ë80's rock and roll girl named Sheila E.?" Her father regrets that he didn't opt for the more distinguished, in his eyes, romanization, "Rhee." But there was also "the option of Yi," and since Korean had an Yi dynasty, the name, in Korean, can "either drip with prestige or pretense, depending on who you are. Some peole try to reap the proverbial gold from that dynasty's legacy, by Romanizing the name as "Yi" instead of Lee or Rhee. My did still ponders what life would be like, had he traveled the more glamorous Rhee road, since Lee is the plainest of all."

3. Southeast Asian

The colonial term "Indochina," a translation of the French "Indochine" at least called attention to the dual heritage of South Asia-- a heritage from India as well as China, a heritage more strongly Buddhist than Confucian, the closer to India one came.

As in the rest of Asia, the family name again comes first in Vietnamese, Thai and the former Indochina. China, after all, dominated the region for a thousand years. Chung Hoang Chuong is in English, Mr. Chung. The name attrition we remarked in China and Korea has advanced even farther in Vietnam, where only 99 family names are left. On top of that, fifty percent of the country shares the name Nguyen (pronounced "win" or "gwin". There is no W in Vietnamese, and various combinations of letters are used to produce it.). Only 25 or 26 of the names are common; indeed, the top 14 alone account for most of the country aside from the Nguyens. The Vietnamese compensate by using as many given names as there are words in the language. A Vietnamese list of names, in the old country, would, of necessity, not start with the last name (half would be Nguyen) but with the first one.

Vietnamese is, like Chinese, almost entirely monosyllabic. The "middle name" which appears is very important, since it can tell male from female. Nguyen Van Minh would be a man, and Nguyen Thi Minh a woman.

Cambodians, by contrast, have no middle name. They give the family name first, and the two names which follow are, as in Chinese, actually a single two syllable given name. Sam Sok Bo is Mr. Sam, and his first name is Sok Bo.

It is a mark of how far they rode outside the Chinese orbit that the Hmong use only two names, and give the family name last. General Vang Pao would be General Pao, not General Vang. The Hmong are a special case, a preliterate hill tribe. For their culture, see this volume's article, "Story Cloths."

One reminder, in closing: this article speaks of practices back in the old countries. In this country-- if only to stay on the right side of the DMV and the IRS!-- Asian American newcomers have had to conform to the general American system of Given Name followed by Family Name. Even so, as a point of cultural pride, some will, socially, prefer the traditional order.

Further Reading:

Schwartz, Benjamin, The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985.

State Bureau of Foreign Experts, The People's Republic of China, The Foreign Experts' Handbook: A Guide to Living and Working in China. Beijing, China: New World Press, 1988.

See also APA Insight Guides' excellent series on East Asia. Hong Kong: APA Publications Ltd., 1991.

Mangajin's Basic Japanese Through Comics (Atlanta, Georgia: Mangajin, 1993) uses the Japanese adult comic book industry to illustrate social practices. Superb.

I thank Jeeyeon Lee, Chung Hoang Chuong and Mr. Vy Trac Do, whose course on South East Asian peoples living in the United States I took in the Fall of 1982.