Guest Post: What’s Your Chinese Name Story?

I’m thrilled to run this guest post from Emily Hsiang, a production assistant and editor for a film startup in Taipei called MURIS producing the new documentary Hanzi. This film explores international design, visual culture and identity through the lens of modern Chinese typography, and is being supported by a Kickstarter campaign (already fully funded with only 7 days to go!). Here’s the introduction to the film from Kickstarter:

Chinese is one of the oldest and most used languages in the world, yet it is perceived as difficult to learn. Furthermore, there has been a lack of discussion on Chinese typography and its transition into the digital era compared to its western counterparts. Recently there has been a renaissance and reviewing of Chinese characters in Asia and internationally, with typography and lettering books often topping the best selling books, and more and more typographical courses and workshops being held in the cities. We think that’s worth exploring to the discussion of design and cultural identity.

Collaborating with filmmakers from New York, Hong Kong, London and Taipei, Hanzi includes interviews from ShaoLan, founder and creator of Chineasy in London; Akira Kobayashi, a Japanese renowned Roman font designer; Sammy Or, a veteran Chinese font designer based in Hong Kong; also Ri Xing Type Foundry, the last traditional Chinese letterpress type foundry in the world and more, gathering some of the most important figures and insight in the current Chinese education and typography field.

This film is not just about Chinese characters, we wanted to keep the ideas and messages applicable to all languages and cultures. Exploring universal subjects such as “How does language shape identity? What role does handwriting play in the digital age?”, Hanzi encourages audiences around the world to revisit and rethink their own culture, language and identity.

You can learn more about the film and watch a trailer at the Hanzi Kickstarter campaign page.

(Photo by Kevin Dooley via Flickr:

Hanzi is an upcoming feature-length documentary exploring international design, visual culture and identity through the lens of modern Chinese typography.

We didn’t want this film to just be about Chinese characters, we wanted to keep the ideas and messages applicable to all languages and cultures. Exploring universal subjects such as “How does language shape identity? What role does handwriting play in the digital age?”

One of the themes we talked about in Hanzi is cultural and personal identity. And one of the biggest factors in “finding and having an identity” comes from your name.

Most of us grow up with a name chosen by our parents. Just like how Asian American kids would have English names, many Westerners that came to Asia to study are given Chinese names. Asian cultures, in general, take great pride and thought into picking names. Each combination of characters not only needs to sound nice, it usually has meanings of virtue or aspirations.

Ash Henson is the Co-founder of Outlier Linguistics, a new dictionary of Chinese characters based on the latest research on the Chinese writing system. As an American from Texas, he had to learn Chinese as an adult, which inspired him to create his app. In the movie, he shared with us about how and why he learned Chinese and the relationship between language and personal identity.

We asked him how he chose his Chinese name 李艾希:

When Ash was an undergrad, his roommate’s girlfriend was Taiwanese. Ash’s full English name is Ashley which came from the movie Gone with the Wind. His roommate’s girlfriend looked up the Chinese book version of the book – which was 艾希禮. Since 禮 sounds the same as 李 – a very common last name in Asia, Ash adapted his name into 李艾希 to avoid confusion from local Taiwanese.

Other examples of Chinese names and their meanings from a local point of view could show the expectations and hopes of Chinese parents. With that in mind, 國榮 is a very popular boy’s name. 國 means nation, whereas 榮 means prosperity. So 國榮 means “to bring prosperity to his or her nation”. Heavy stuff huh?

Growing up as an Asian American, I have a complicated feeling towards my names. In English, my name is Emily – a popular girl’s name. In Chinese, my name is 項藍 – composed of a rare one-letter name and an even rarer surname. 項 in ancient Chinese means the part between one’s skull and the back of one’s neck. 藍 means blue – an inspiration of a bright, cloudless day on which I was born. While I identify with both names, I do have a sort of special pride in having the color blue in my name.

What’s your Chinese name story?

Emily Hsiang is a production assistant and editor for MURIS, a film startup in Taipei producing the new documentary Hanzi.

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8 thoughts on “Guest Post: What’s Your Chinese Name Story?

  • June 24, 2017 at 12:21 pm

    My husband said to me immediately when I asked him what my Chinese name should be “Julie”. That’s my given name! He said its perfect. Ju- meaning gem or pearl and Li- pretty or beautiful. Go into an Asian market and likely the only English name you will see is Julie. It is a brand of biscuit. I love my Chinese name. Kong chose Feicui for our daughter that is still in utero. Feicui in English is Ajade. Best quality jade. Also, he says the A stand for American jade. It is hard not to adore my husband ????

    • June 24, 2017 at 2:26 pm

      That is so lovely that your English name can also be a beautiful Chinese name. And I love Feicui for your daughter’s name!

  • June 25, 2017 at 7:49 am

    I definitely didn’t want to have the name of something like 霍利(huo li) or 荷莉 (he li). It was several years ago, about 5 or 6 years now. I had an internet friend give me the name “佳琪” (Jiaqi) because it sounds like 佳期. or a “good wedding day”. It kind of stuck with me.

    I chose the surname “唐” Tang. Because I love the Tang Dynasty and also shhhh I had a thing for Tang Yuzhe, the Taiwanese model and actor 😉 Then, after so many years of changing my surname, I’m 胡佳琪. The reason for my surname now is because of my gege, in which his surname is Hu. I used to be called 唐佳琪 for a few years, but last year after careful consideration, I’m a Hu. (it’s a long story why I changed my last name from Hu to Tang, then Hu again.)

    so, Hu Jiaqi is my name.

    Or…if we are good friends, or becoming friends, you can call me 佳佳!(Jiajia)

    如果你们叫我 佳佳,这让我很开心啊!calling me Jiajia makes me super happy regardless <3

  • June 25, 2017 at 8:53 am

    Looking at the issue of Chinese names from the point of being one of such a descent, I just see them as a way to create unique identification. All the hyperbole about wishing for sons to be “national heroes” or daughters to be graceful, flower like delicate etc fall by the wayside once the names are created, nor does anybody really bring up the subject of name related great expectations therefore. I guess when westerners look at the such a totally different departure from the simpler selection of generic John, Michael, Jane etc, romantic images can be conjured up.
    From a practical standpoint, the generic western names do make it easier to remember, especially for those of us who don’t have a knack in memorizing names after an initial introduction.
    Sorry for being such a spoiler.

  • July 14, 2017 at 4:57 am

    I love this post subject… and the content of the documentary! That’s pure brilliance! I also think the evolution of typography is fantastic, the modern forms of calligraphy and how they’re being incorporated into the digital world is really innovative and some of the best artwork around.

    There is so much meaning in a name, and I think every foreigner studying Chinese has a story to their ‘name.’

    My Chinese name was made with the help of my best Chinese friend, Z. I thought about a good last name that wasn’t common and I thought of Hai (海 – Sea). I asked Z if this was a common last name and she said no–but it wasn’t unheard of, she said it sounded like a hero’s name! Z suggested a flower would be fitting and thus my first name be 若兰 (like an orchid). So altogether it’s ‘hai ruo lan’…which sounds just like my last name in English (Halloran).

    What’s your Chinese name?

    • July 14, 2017 at 11:25 am

      Thank you for the comment, and I love your Chinese name Mary! It’s so poetic and totally matches your last name!

      Mine is simple — 艾琳 (Ailin). The family name echoes the start of my last name, and the given name echoes the end of my given name. Since I have such a long and complicated name in English, it’s kind of nice to have a simpler Chinese name.


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