Chinese People and English Names

Slate ran an interesting piece yesterday about the increasing frequency with which Chinese people have, and use, English names. The author of the piece (Huan Hsu), a Chinese-American living in Shanghai, writes, “At my workplace, which is 90 percent mainland Chinese, just about everyone I interacted with had an English name, usually selected or received in school […] what really struck me was how commonly people used them when addressing one another, even when the rest of the conversation was in Chinese.”

The reasons for this, according to the Hsu’s conversation with a UCLA anthropologist, run the gamut: English is the lingua franca for business, Chinese who work for international companies want names their bosses can pronounce, English names are more “egalitarian” than many Chinese forms of address, etc. According to the respondents in the anthropologists study,

[Having an English name is] essential to being Chinese and achieving Chinese goals. Whereas in the past patriotism was expressed by self-sacrifice, it is now expressed through economic activity. So by working for, say, 3M, Chinese citizens are helping to build up China, and the English names they take on in the process are as patriotic as Cultural Revolution-era monikers like Ai Guo (Loves China) or Wei Dong (Mao’s Protector).

To be fair, Hsu admits that the trend is, thusfar, confined to cities:

For now, English names remain limited to those living in urban areas or with access to education—ask a migrant worker for his English name and you’ll get a quizzical look. But as China globalizes, more and more Chinese pass through checkpoints where they’ll acquire English names. Since 2001, all primary schools have been required to teach English beginning in the third grade (for big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, lessons start in first grade), and parents regularly choose English names for their children. China now churns out approximately 20 million English speakers each year, and the estimated number of English learners in China is in the hundreds of millions. In fact, there are probably as many Chinese who can read this sentence as Americans.

Even so, Hsu may be overstating things. People in Shanghai are probably tired of hearing it, but the city is not a fair representation of the Chinese urban environment. As of 2007, about 594 million Chinese lived in cities; Shanghai’s population is about 19 million. English names are likely also prevalent in other, more Westernized cities like Beijing and Hong Kong, but the population of those three cities combined accounts for less than eight percent of the total Chinese urban population.

In other cities, Chinese people who have — and frequently use — English names are significantly less common. In my own experience, I’d estimate that only ten to fifteen percent of my students, who are mostly English majors, have English names, and many of them first introduce themselves using Chinese names, even when the introduction is in English.

Furthermore, any foreigner who has been to China is well aware that the “English speakers” China turns out are, at best, inconsistent. Many students have indeed studied English for years, but few of them have attained any level of fluency.

The idea that having an English name is “essential to being Chinese and achieving Chinese goals” seems patently ridiculous from here, though it may well ring true in Shanghai or Beijing. It seems a bit preemptive to suggest that Chinese people “living in urban areas” or with “access to education” are adopting and using English names nationwide. Apparently, they’re doing it in Shanghai, but that doesn’t mean it’s happening everywhere.

0 thoughts on “Chinese People and English Names”

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report
  2. Interesting! But I think there’s on more thing to take into account – the tradition of people in China having several names. In the old days people used to get an alternative name as they entered school. The practice of giving children English names could be seen as an outgrowth of that tradition.


  3. Mainly in Shanghai, I believe, and in the tourism industry anywhere in China. (tourguides who deal with foreign groups almost always have English names). Not so much in Beijing: Most people I know here don’t use English names.


  4. I have an English name, but I’ll just tell people whom I first meet, in order to have them call my name easily in some formal places. I prefer people to call my Chinese first name though, sometimes I let my friends call my nick name like Jinger, Jing a ling or Jingle bell.
    I’d say in workplace, an english name is no more personal than a name code. It’s not that endearing, and defitenly won’t brings up your Childhood good memories. There could be 10 people in your company named Bor or Mike unless you have their surnames included, but not very often you’ll hear the same two Chinese names in a company.


  5. @ logofili, yes, the author made that point in the original article. I didn’t bother to quote it here, but that’s true.

    @ rachel: yeah, I’m actually not that surprised to learn it isn’t a big thing in Beijing either. Tour guides and other professionals dealing with foreigners, that makes sense; calling having an English name an essential part of being Chinese is where I get off the train. (Also, I have a class full of Tourism English majors here who don’t have English names, or have never told them to me, their English teacher. I imagine they will adopt names when they move into the work force out of necessity, though.


  6. Custer, I’m surprised that you say none of your students have English names. All of my 150+ students have English names, though some of most of them rarely use them and so some of them have even forgotten them. As far as this happening with Shanghai, it doesn’t really surprise me all that much. Shanghai seems to be consistently ahead of the curve in terms of globalization — using English words in conversation in Chinese started there, after all. Also, I remember watching a TV show a little while back that took place in Shanghai where there was a man from Taiwan that they consistently addressed as Mr. Hunter, even when the rest of the conversation was in Chinese.


  7. I would say sometimes english names are not so usefull. I work sorrounded by more than 35 chinese collegues (actually I’m the only foreigner in the office) and I keep telling everyone not to give their english names cause when I ask for is -where is andy?- no one knows who the hell andy is! also chinese names are not that difficult, at least last names like Li, Ma, Yang, Yu, and so many others…


  8. I’ve been teaching in China for some time and I don’t think one needs to look for anthropological or nationalistic drivers to find an answer to this one, it’s a matter of convenience. The same reason anyone who is serious about studying in China takes on a Chinese name. I’ve lived in a few cities and I think its safe to say that it is happening nationwide.

    These days it strikes me that many Chinese are becoming more creative in their name selection as a way of retaining their own identity and adopting a practical approach to integrating into an English language work environment. Maybe it was always that way. When I taught in a small town high school every student had an English Name. Some of my favorite names include Ammo, Answer (who incidentally, always knew the answer) Ego (Dancer), Jesus (I suggested a name change on for him and for “God” as well), Banana, and Caesar. I’ve taught just about every fruit and flower out there.

    I know plenty of people who deride those who have non-standard names but, for the most part I think its great.


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