Who are You? Names in China

If you ever decide to study Chinese, as a foreigner one of the first things the teacher will do is help you select a Chinese name. It is tradition that everyone who studies the language has a Chinese name. Students also learn to write their name in characters (hanzi), and the name will stick with you for as long as you study Chinese. I suppose it’s possible to change it, but I don’t know many people who have.

You might find it interesting to know how the teachers come up with the names. There are two parts to the name, and the family name is written first, unlike in most countries in the West. Some students, from Korea and Japan in particular, already have names that can be written in traditional Chinese characters. The pronunciation is different, but the meaning is the same. Park Junwoo becomes Piao Junyou, for example. For people from other countries, the teacher often takes the first couple letters of each of your first and last names and tries to find names that sound similar to those syllables and also have a nice meaning. For example, Jennie Griffin becomes Zhen Gui, which sounds like Jennie and means ‘really honorable.’

Sometimes the names are not related to your legal name, but instead are related to your interests. Jake Rod, a runner, became Liu Xiang, named after a famous Chinese hurdler who won gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Whatever your Chinese name is, it is important that you know it and can write the characters for it. This is especially true when you are studying at BLCU. The first day, when you go get your student ID, the first thing they ask you is your Chinese name. From then on, all teachers and staff at the university refer to you using that name.

So what’s my name? Glad you asked. At Portland State, Liu laoshi decided to call me Hu (pronounced who?) Wei, 胡伟. Hu is a common family name in China. In fact, Hu Jintao is the current president of China (if you like to play nerdy word games (which, admittedly, I do), you can bring back the old Abbott and Costello routine:  “Who is the president of China? Hu is the president of China. Who? Hu. Who? Hu. That’s what I’m asking! That’s what I’m saayyying!!!” Check out the original here if you don’t know what I’m talking about). Wei can mean big or large, which I think is why laoshi gave me the name, but it can also mean great. So from now on, if you want to, you can call me the ‘Great Hu’, or if you prefer, I suppose you could call me the ‘big who?’Hu who?