Chinese Lesson 2: Name

名字 (míng zì) when translated into English means name, as in a person’s name. What I didn’t know for the longest time is that ming and zi represented two distinct concepts in the ancient time. And 号 (hào) didn’t just mean “also known as.” As a Chinese period drama viewer, I took it for granted that the main characters had a million different names. It’s only after I read the commentaries for The Untamed that I finally understood the unstated significance of the names the characters used for each other (ie. Lan Wangji used “Wei Ying” while everybody else used “Wei Wuxian.” It’s his subtle way of suggesting he wanted to be more than WWX’s friend. *wink *wink)

(名 ming) – Birth name. The name your parents gave you when you turned 3 months old. As your elder family member, I would be calling you by this name because that’s how we roll.

(字 zi) – Courtesy name. The name you were given when you reached adulthood. Not everyone had zi. To have one meant either you went to school or you were from a well to-do family. As your cousin/ friend/ colleague/ subordinate, I would be addressing you by this name to show my respect.

(号/號 hao) – Pseudonym or title. The name you were given when you turned famous. As your junior or a person of a younger generation, I would be referring to you by this name to reflect my admiration of your great accomplishments.

Drama: The Untamed (陈情令)

Birth name (名): Wei Ying (魏婴)
Courtesy name (字): Wuxian (无羡)
Title (号): Yiling Laozu (夷陵老祖)
lit. Yiling Patriarch
Also known as: Ah Xian (阿羡), Xianxian (羡羡), Ah Ying (阿婴)
Drama: The Untamed (陈情令)

Birth name (名): Lan Zhan (蓝湛)
Courtesy name (字): Wangji (忘机)
Title (号): Hanguang-Jun (含光君)
lit. Light-bearing Lord
Also known as: Second Master Lan (蓝二公子)
Drama: The Untamed (陈情令)

Birth name (名): Jiang Cheng (江澄)
Courtesy name (字): Wanyin (晚吟)
Title (号): Sandu Shengshou (三毒圣手)
lit. Three Poisons
Also known as: Ah Cheng (阿澄), Clan leader Jiang (江宗主)
Drama: The Longest Day in Chang’an (长安十二时辰)

Birth name (名): Li Bi (李必)
Courtesy name (字): Changyuan (长源)
Title (号): None
Also known as: Xiao Li Bi (小李必)

Side topic: I don’t have a nickname or an abbreviation of my formal name, but I do have a baby name that only my family use. Kinda similar to Ah Ying or Xiao Li Bi. I get super weirded out if my friends try to use it and I will immediately shut them down for calling me that. But that’s beside the point. What I want to talk about is how “Ah”, “Xiao”, “Lao” make a quick and easy nickname to help promote immediate familiarity between two semi-strangers.

Say, you are Zhao Yunlan (赵云澜) from Guardian. There are at least 27 ways I can call you. But as your colleague, I would likely call you Lao Zhao (老赵) if I think you are older than me but not too old to be my drinking buddy. Conversely, I would call you Xiao Zhao (小赵) if you are my junior. I could also call you Ah Yun (阿云) or Ah Lan (阿澜) to denote more familiarity or closer friendship. I would avoid using repeated sounds, such as Yunyun (云云) or Lanlan (澜澜), or even worse, Xiao Yunyun (小云云) or Xiao Lanlan (小澜澜), unless you are a child under age 10 or we plan to hook up tonight. But if I have to choose, I would call you Lan’er (澜儿) because I want to baby you.

3 thoughts on “Chinese Lesson 2: Name

  1. Timescout September 2, 2019 / 6:11 am

    Interesting. Coming from a culture where interaction even at most workplaces is pretty informal, the levels of communication in Asian countries still feels quite strange. 🙂 Just about everyone here are in first name bases. My generation still uses polite form every now and then, depending on who we are talking to, but the youngsters have long since dropped that habit. Or as the case may be, they never even learned the use of it.

    We do use nicknames/pet names and/or abbreviations of our given names too, occasionally. I’ve never had one though. My younger niece has both a pet name in overall general use and a nickname that her long time friends use. The pet name came about when her older sis couldn’t pronounce the name properly but gave it her own spin. Eventually we all just started to use that and it stuck. Even her teachers hardly ever called her by her real name, ha.


    • kumaxell September 4, 2019 / 2:20 pm

      That is so cute about your niece’s pet name. I too have problem with pronouncing “r” sound and I can totally relate.


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