Chinese Baby Names: Meet little Larry from Shanghai

International Baby Names

To commemorate the Chinese New Year, today’s guest blogger Michael, aka Mai-kuh, a keen first-hand observer of Chinese culture, reflects on some of the idiosyncracies of international name exchange.

Several years ago, I visited a Chinese friend, Wu, who was completing a business degree in Virginia. We had originally met almost ten years prior in China, when we studied together during my college semester abroad in a city near Shanghai. Even as a college student in China, Wu had been something of an addict when it came to American popular culture, casually sprinkling his English conversation with slang expressions picked up from counterfeit DVDs of Friends. But I was still shocked when, visiting Wu in his Virginia dorm room, he proudly showed me a picture of his newborn son back in Shanghai.

“He’s so cute!”, I gushed. “What’s his name?”

Larry.”

Larry? Short for Lawrence?”

“No, just Larry. Well, he has a Chinese name of course,” Wu quickly explained, “but I decided to make Larry his English name. It’s handsome, don’t you think?”

Whatever your particular feelings about the merits of the name Larry for a Chinese infant, Wu’s story captures something of the capricious way that people in mainland China often choose their English names, should they decide they need one. And these days, many Chinese in large cities — even if they don’t ever plan to leave China — decide to pick a Western “nickname” for ease of doing business with foreigners, for fun, or to be fashionable.

A Chinese student in Beijing or Shanghai might choose his or her English name in high school or college (and presumably, Larry will have the freedom someday to change to a new English name if he so chooses). When I spent a summer working at a financial firm in Shanghai, it was mandatory for all Chinese employees to use their English names — even in conversation with their Chinese coworkers. The only “Claude” I’ve ever known was a 22 year-old Shanghai native in the cubicle next door.

The process by which Chinese parents name their children is anything but simple. Chinese given names are generally chosen for meaning, sometimes with the consultation of a naming expert who ensures the name is auspicious according to Chinese astrology.

By contrast, the process of a young Chinese student choosing his or her own English name is an exercise in fun and cultural freedom. Chinese shares few linguistic similarities with English, so the typical Chinese name has few built-in clues to suggest its English equivalent. Unlike an “Alexandrei” from Moscow who might use the English name “Alex,” Zhang from Beijing is under no obligation to chose “Johnny” as the closest approximation.As a result, many Chinese choose Western names that sound “cool” to them, or have interesting meanings. I have met two Chinese women with the English name “Echo,” and more than two named “Rain.” A friend who taught English at a college in China told me about her difficulty stifling a giggle — and determining whether to overrule her students’ right to choose — when on her first day of class, one of her male pupils chose the English name “Fancy.”

Other Chinese might borrow names from international celebrities, without realizing that they are unusual or carry specific cultural associations. A friend from Shanghai chose the name “Rooney” — an Irish name that Nameberry tells me means, improbably, “red haired” — after his favorite English soccer player. I’m waiting with bated breath to meet a Chinese woman named “Beyonce” or “Brangelina”.

Humor value aside, the Western names that mainland Chinese people choose tells us a few things about our increasingly global culture. Western names no longer belong solely to the “West,” just as it’s fashionable now for Americans to choose names from just about any continent. And of course, it works in reverse. With the growing importance of China in the world, more and more of our children will travel, study or work in China, where they will be expected to choose Chinese names if they plan to spend any length of time there.

Speaking from personal experience, I can say that they will enjoy trying out their new Chinese names, even when those elicit laughter from their Chinese friends. My own Chinese name, Mai-kuh, given to me by my first Chinese language professor, immediately identifies me as a foreigner because it is an obvious approximation of “Michael.” Chinese are frequently mystified by the tattooed Chinese characters that increasingly grace the biceps of American pro athletes, most of which make little sense to native eyes (“dragon man fight sword”?).

In short, welcome to the wacky world of names in the 21st century, where creative license and cultural miscues abound.

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18 Responses to “Chinese Baby Names: Meet little Larry from Shanghai”

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JLyn Says:

February 10th, 2010 at 8:49 am

I enjoyed this piece very much as I have always had a fascination with other cultures, particularly Asian. Thank you Nameberry and Mai-kuh!

diana Says:

February 10th, 2010 at 11:24 am

The fillipinos do this too. I’ve known an Agnes and a Glenn who was female.

Bella Says:

February 10th, 2010 at 12:17 pm

His son is very handsome! A very interesting read!

Jill Says:

February 10th, 2010 at 1:51 pm

Great blog! I really loved this topic and learning about the naming process. 🙂

Take care!

JAKS Says:

February 10th, 2010 at 3:02 pm

Actually, with Filipinos, it’s not really the same…First names there are usually of Spanish or English origin, as the Philippines was under Spanish rule for hundreds of years with the US mainly being the dominant power in the years following. There seems to be a strong, and growing, American influence on the culture of the Philippines to this day. Filipinos also seem to be a bit more…’adventurous’ when it comes to naming. I will say, though, that the practice of picking an ‘English’ name in addition to a given name seems to be pretty common among Koreans, too.

teabee Says:

February 10th, 2010 at 3:49 pm

Fascinating entry!

susan Says:

February 10th, 2010 at 4:23 pm

I go to church with a lot of Koreans. They have told me that Eunice is a very popular English name among Korean women. Apparently Eunice sounds a lot like a common Korean name. Grace is popular, too. Our pastor is named Kevin and his wife is named Grace.
I live next door to a Chinese American couple. The man is named Dr. George. He’s from Montana. The woman is named Hua or something like that. Sounds like Hua or Hwa, but I don’t know how her name is spelled. Hua doesn’t talk to me, but she smiles. Dr. George talks to us sometimes. He is so nice! Our neighborhood is half Chinese. The adults mostly have Chinese names and not-so-stylish English names, kind of like Larry. The children all have either top ten names like Emma, cool names like Auden (a boy), or classic names like Rachel and Anna.
I have gotten to the point where I am exceedingly bored if I’m not in a multi-cultural environment. Love the cultures all around me so much!

simplelife Says:

February 10th, 2010 at 6:00 pm

When my husband worked abroad in Taiwan, he met several Taiwanese business people and workers that had chosen very interesting English names. Among them were ABC and Tarzan!

Ann Says:

February 10th, 2010 at 7:14 pm

There is a Chinese exchange student at my school, and she goes by Nancy.

We also have 2 Korean students, one goes by her actual Korean name (it isn’t very hard to pronounce) and the other goes by Sophia.

disa_lan Says:

February 11th, 2010 at 1:46 am

I loved this blog and found it to be very interesting. It makes me wonder how acceptable it would be here in America to give your child a name like Catherine Jane and call her say, Ruby.

UrbanAngel Says:

February 11th, 2010 at 3:42 pm

That baby is just ADORABLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Charlotte Vera Says:

March 2nd, 2010 at 1:11 am

I have been a regular attendant at both Chinese and Korean churches and the naming practices, when it comes to English names, seem to differ slightly. The English names of my Chinese friends tend to be chosen either because the parents just like the sound of the name (Chester, Bernadette, Bianca — and the same holds true for those who chose their own name, as in Trixie and Jocelyn) or for the desirable trait of having the success-related word “win” (Winnie, Kelvin, Vincent, etc.).

My Korean friends’ English names were chosen due to their similarities to Korean names ( lots of “j”s: Jenny, Jeanie, Jane, John, Judy, Justin but also Hannah, and Sue and Eugene are used for both men and women) or because the names are found in the Bible (Phoebe, Sarah, Michael).

One constantly popular name is Grace; I know many Korean Graces, many Chinese Graces, and quite a few Graces that claim other ethnicities.

Mystery0_0 Says:

December 25th, 2010 at 11:55 pm

Several friends while in China on exchange a long time ago, meet the class heart-throb. His name was Frank.

david hocking Says:

July 4th, 2011 at 8:57 pm

There is a new app called Name Guru. It’s a dictionary of western names that comically (and accurately!!) tells you about the personality a particular name provides. it’s amazing!!!

Mary-la Says:

September 2nd, 2011 at 12:59 pm

The Taiwanese kids I volunteer with choose their own names and we always end up with Queenies, Momos and Brandys among the Vivians, Nancys and Alices who are among the Amys, Jennys and Tinas. We always have a lot of names that end in y, like Amy, Jenny, Johnny, Patty and Sandy. And quite a few nickname names.

billig ipad Says:

March 31st, 2013 at 9:03 am

billig ipad…

Chinese Baby Names: Meet little Larry from Shanghai – Nameberry – Baby Name BlogBaby Name Blog – Nameberry…

23 Marzo 2013 alle 09:27 Says:

April 12th, 2013 at 7:02 am

23 Marzo 2013 alle 09:27…

Chinese Baby Names: Meet little Larry from Shanghai – Nameberry – Baby Name BlogBaby Name Blog – Nameberry…

kitchi1 Says:

March 12th, 2014 at 11:39 am

Larry for a Chinese infant is awesome!

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