What’s in a Chinese name?

My Chinese friend was disgusted. ‘We give beautiful names to foreign countries but all they can think of is to call us China – like pottery.’

The Chinese word for America is ‘Beautiful Country’, for France it is ‘Law Country’, for England ‘Brave County’, and for Germany ‘Moral Country’.  Ireland is ‘Love Orchids’ country, or is it, ‘They love Orchids’?

Maybe that final one reveals that those names evolved from phonetic resemblances in Chinese, the nice meaning was only secondary.

The Chinese have a number of names for their own country, the main one being ‘Middle Kingdom’ (or ’Country’).  The word ‘China’ is believed to have been introduce into the West by the Portuguese and derived (via Persian) from the early Qin (pronounced ‘Chin’) dynasty. In any case, it lacks a ‘beautiful’ connotation.

In Chinese tradition names are important, so much so that they are rarely mentioned in public. Personal names are used only by those with whom you have a special relationship. Rather, in addressing others, titles are used in according with the person’s role in society or family (like ’teacher’ or ‘second-younger brother’).

Having a Western name usually gets around formality and for that reason, and the Western novelty, many Chinese students assume (temporary) Western names.  Like elsewhere, Christians get a saint’s name at baptism and take the association with that saint seriously. As it happens, this Easter 31 adult Chinese catechumens were baptised in the Dublin Chinese Catholic community and began life renewed in the land of the ‘Lovely Orchids’ with a new name.

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