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Home > Hot Topics > National Day Features
Young Chinese look to old ways to name their children
2009/10/23
 

by Wu Chen (China Features)

Names matter for the Chinese.

Generally speaking, a Chinese name should sound good, and carry certain auspicious connotation for it's believed a baby's name is connected with his or her destiny.

Yao Xue and her husband Wang Xiao, in their late twenties have experience this tough process.

The couple, both graduates of a prestigious university, had a baby girl last October. After the first excitement, giving her a name became a top priority for the whole family, including the four grandparents.

Initial discussions, focusing on the six adults' own knowledge and dictionaries, ended without agreement.

Then Yao recalled once testing her name on a numerology website that said her name was problematic based on the calculating of her Bazi, or "eight characters of her birth."

"You have to come across a lot of difficulties to succeed in middle age; you will often quarrel with your husband; you will not be in a good mood in your old age...," reads the explanation.

According to the Book of Change, or the I Ching, which describes the system of cosmology and philosophy that is intrinsic to ancient Chinese cultural beliefs, the eight characters are in four pairs denoting the time, date, month and year of a person's birth. Each pair is represented by one Heaven Stem and one Earth Branch, ancient measurements of time. And each character has its associated polarity ---yin and yang, and the five elements --- gold, wood, water, fire and earth.

Yao is afraid that someday her daughter would do the same thing as she did ---testing her name on a numerology website. "It would have a bad effect on her if the result is not desirable, " Yao says.

So that Yao went to a friend's father, an amateur I Ching enthusiast for help. Yao was told her baby lacked "fire" in her Bazi. It's normally difficult for a person to have all five elements, but a name can make up for deficiencies.

She took the suggestion of adding "fire" to her daughter's name. Yao and her husband enlarged the naming team to more than 20,including friends and relatives. The result was still not to their satisfaction.

Professor Wang Daliang, of China Youth University for Political Sciences and an expert on naming, says that "increasingly young couples pin more hope on children's names, as they are single-child parents themselves, and their babies are mostly only-children."

Naming a child in fact is a reflection of societal movement. Wang noted that many Chinese names took on a political tone from the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 to the late 1970s. Typical names include Jianguo-- to build the country, Yuanchao-- to help the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and Weidong ---to safeguard Mao Zedong).

With China's rapid economic development, such color is fading. And traditional naming methods have become good business.

More than 20 small naming shops are scattered near the Lama Temple in northern Beijing.

Zhang Helin, 32, called "Master Zhang" by other shop owners, says he was the first to run such a business in that area.

When Yao entered his shop, he was sitting in a broken sofa reading. Half of the 15-square-meter room he rents is his bedroom and the other half his office.

He wrote the baby's eight characters on a paper square and deduced they showed a lack of "fire", which should be added to the name to give her a good "ming" (destiny).

The number of strokes in the name characters also followed certain rules, Zhang said. For example, 29, 31 and 32 strokes were good for girl, while 34 was not.

After two hours of scouring self-made lists of characters and as mall dictionary, Zhang finally offered four names. But Yao didn't like them.

"They sound or look strange," she said.

"It's difficult to choose a name with the character component of 'fire' for a girl," Zhang argued. "You can discuss the names with your family. If they also dislike them, you can call me or send me text message and I will re-choose for you for free."

He wanted to charge 200 yuan, but it was cut to 80 after bargaining.

Zhang says competition has become intensive: "It was easy to get a business licence in the category of 'information consulting’ around 2003, and businesses sprouted all around the temple."

Zhaxi Doje, 30, who has owned a small shop selling joss sticks and candles, Buddha statues and Buddhist ornaments for three years in the Guozijian Alley near the temple, also invited a "master" into his shop to choose names for people or companies.

"Almost every shop has a master. If we don't, it will be less competitive," he says.

He and the "master," who came from nearby Hebei Province, split the profits.

But Zhang Helin scorns his competitors as unprofessional.

"I learnt fortune-telling from my father. It's a patrimonial business in our family, but not for them," he says.

He says he has changed some people's names to help them to live better lives, but refuses to discuss them on the grounds of client confidentiality.

Meanwhile, websites on traditional naming methods have flourished. A Google search of "naming" turns up more than 9 million results. The websites, like the one Yao Xue used to check her own name, feature naming and name-checking services and fortune-telling using a person's name and birth times.

Yao Xue believes ancient Chinese culture is convincing, although she and her whole generation were never educated on this topic.

"I think it's the charm of traditional culture," she says.

But she thinks many of the websites and real shops are fake, and many of the "masters" stepped into the business without really understanding the I Ching and relevant theory.

Wang Daliang agrees: "For the companies, naming is just a business. Their 'masters' titles are fraudulent."

He says modern parents want special names for their children and turning to the fortune-teller is just one approach.

"Some swindlers take advantage of parents' good intentions," he says.

However, the traditional approach can also be safe.

It didn't take long for Zhao Renwei and his wife to name their son who was born in April, with the help of another ancient Chinese book.

The boy was named "Zifei", after the first two words in ancient philosopher Zhuangzi's famous saying, "You are not a fish -- how do you know what fish enjoy?"

The other reason was that according to the boy's position in the family lineage, the boy's middle name is fixed on "Zi."

These traditions were almost eradicated during the "Cultural Revolution" (1966-1976) as an old way of life.

Zhao's name is also simple, besides the fixed middle name, the other character of his given name "Wei" means "great", a commonly-used character for a man's name.

"We like reading, so want to gave our son a name that means something," he says.

Yao Xue finally found a senior Taoist priest through a friend to help name her baby, who is now known as Wang Zhirui, with no "fire" component in the two given characters.

The priest explained that adding "fire" directly to the name was unnecessary. The child's destiny should be examined in a comprehensive way, including shape, sound, stroke and meaning of the characters, and "Zhirui" was good according to her "eight characters".

Yao said she couldn't fully understand the reason, but she and her husband liked the name as "Zhi" means knowledge and "Rui" intelligent.

"I believes he (the priest) is a real master, and that name he give is good for sure," Yao says.

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