Finding a proper Chinese name

Family has to blend traditions, cultures for what to call baby




I have never liked my English name.

My parents didn’t know that Cindy was short for Cynthia. Or that Cindy Brady was the Cindy of the moment. They were only a few years removed from Taiwan.

They chose it because it sounded like my Chinese name, Shin-tzer (pronounced Sheen-dzuh).

Hear the resemblance? Neither do I.

Shin — “heart.” Tzer — literally, “a swamp.” By extension, tzer means glossy, radiant, enriching. My name isn’t full of flowers, fragrance or delicacy like most Chinese girls’ names. My grandfather wanted me to have strength of character, not mere physical beauty.

“Cindy” seems colorless by comparison. It’s just a couple of syllables that sound good together.

I grew up speaking English and eating with a fork. My family didn’t even celebrate Chinese New Year. Yet the Changs are ultra-traditional about names, down to our use of an ancient naming poem, a rare practice even in China and Taiwan.

When the language and the customs are gone, this is the shred that endures: a name.

A name for baby

It was March, and my brother and his wife were expecting their second boy. The emails began to fly as we conferred about the baby’s Chinese name.

There was a bicultural complication. My brother’s wife is Korean, so the name had to sound good in Korean, too.

One thing was certain — his name would contain the word shi, or “world,” which can also mean “generation.” We are on the sixth word of a couplet that my family has used to name its sons for generations, probably part of a larger poem lost during the Cultural Revolution.

Hu guang xuan bei dou (Light from the lake reflects the Big Dipper) — (literally, North Dipper).

Shi dai le yong xi (Generations delight at the Golden Age).

My great-great-grandfather was named Hu-zao. My great-grandfather was Guang-xin and my grandfather was Xuan-yao. My father is Bei-dwo — (Northern Bell) and my uncle is Bei-jiann — (Northern Key).

Thus forming Hu guang xuan bei dou.

But my grandfather didn’t think dou was a good word for a name, so he substituted tian, which means “sky” or “heavens.” My brother and male cousins all have tian in their names. My brother is Tian-shu (Heavenly Axis).

Why am I not Tian-something? According to Chinese tradition, I would become part of my husband’s family, not a Chang, after I married.

Expression of hopes

Most Chinese names are one of a kind, a coupling of two words out of thousands of possibilities expressing the family’s hopes for the child. I don’t expect to ever meet another Shin-tzer.

In China, unusual names are viewed as a sign of literary creativity, UCLA sociology professor Cameron Campbell said. Researching 18th- and 19th-century Chinese villages, Campbell traced lineages based on generational markers like the bei and tian in my family. During the Cultural Revolution, names containing one character were popular, sometimes with Communist connotations such as “Red.”

“Picking a rare character is kind of like a marker of learning,” Campbell said, while in the United States, one-of-a-kind names are sometimes viewed as odd.

Traditionally, an elder such as a grandfather or a great-grandfather chooses the name. The pressure is off the parents, but they must live with the results.

A friend of mine asked her father-in-law to come up with her daughter’s Chinese name. He took a character from her name and one from her husband’s name to form a strange amalgam with one hyper-masculine word and one hyper-feminine word. Other grandparents come up with hopelessly old-fashioned names, the Chinese equivalent of Doris or Mabel.

Some families rely on fortune tellers to vet the names. I have a friend who changed his Chinese name in his 30s after one convinced his mother that his birth name was unlucky.

For all that effort, most American-born Chinese don’t use their Chinese names. Only a handful of my relatives call me Shin-tzer. I write it on my business cards when I introduce myself to Chinese people, but they, too, call me Cindy.

My father always told me Shin-tzer meant “Heart in a Swamp” without explaining the more poetic connotations. As a child, I cringed when anyone attempted to say it.

Later, as I studied the language, the layers of meaning became clear to me. When I lived in Taiwan, people often complimented me on my name. My grandfather chose well.

A list of shi names

If my grandfather were still alive, he would name my brother’s child. Without him, we scrambled.

A few years ago, my uncle made a list of shi names for us to choose from. My cousin had two sons, my brother had a son and my other cousin had a son. There were only a handful of names left on the list: Shi-zhong (World Arbitrator). Shi-pei (Admired by the World).

My aunt in Taiwan offered some more suggestions and my parents followed with a few of their own. World Leader-in-Waiting. World Nobleman. World Standout.

Boys’ names are often master of the universe. But there are also prim and proper names, extolling Confucian virtues like filial piety. World Scholar. World Benevolence.

I like the oddball ones like my dad’s Northern Bell. Shi-shen (Extending the World). Shi-ren (Shouldering the World). These would be my selections from the list we submitted to the Korean side of the family. But squaring the demands of two cultures proved to be complicated.

Pronunciation troubles

My older nephew, Christian, is named Shi-jun in Chinese, Sae-joon in Korean — “World No. 1 Talented, Smart, Handsome Man.”

Although Chinese and Korean names are written with the same characters, pronunciations can be just different enough to cause trouble. Some words that crop up in Chinese names sound strange to Korean ears.

Nor did we have the entire dictionary at our disposal. By Chang family tradition, not only must every name contain shi, but the second word must belong to the same family of words.

For my brother’s generation, it is wood — trees, fruits and wood objects. “Plum.” “Pine.”

For my father’s generation, it is gold, encompassing metals and metal objects. “Bell.” “Key.”

For the current crop of male Changs, it is words that describe human characteristics or actions. “Believer.” “Scholar.” “Benevolence.”

Word came back from our Korean relatives. The only name that worked for them was Shi-zhong (World Arbitrator), which in Korean sounds almost the same as his brother’s name. Sae-joon and Sae-joong. It would be like naming your sons John and Jonathan.

We were at a bicultural impasse.

Last-minute entry

By July, the baby was almost here and we had still gotten nowhere.

My dad made a last-minute submission: Shi-xia (pronounced Shr-shya). According to the Far East Chinese-English Dictionary, xia is a chivalrous person, a Robin Hood who is “adept in martial arts and dedicated to helping the poor and the weak; one who fights rather than submits to injustice.”

The Korean relatives weren’t familiar with the word xia, pronounced hyup in Korean. But they didn’t rule out Sae-hyup.

My dad made the final call.

Julian Shi-xia Chang was born in New Jersey on Aug. 4, weighing 8 pounds 8 ounces.

Probably not many people will address him by his Chinese name, Shi-xia. My parents live on the other side of the country, so his only chance at a second language will be Korean, not Chinese.

Still, this half-Chinese, half-Korean, third-generation American kid is starting life with a proper Chinese name.