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.