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Friday, July 03, 2015

Your name may be a sign of the times

Your name may be a sign of the times | My Paper | 我报

PEOPLE'S names are markers of time, according to Chinese onomastician Ji Changhong, as certain names are peculiar to or popular in certain periods.

Therefore, if you were a writer spinning a tale about Singapore in the 1960s, you should know that Chinese names such as Han (meaning refined) or Yu (universe) were rare, if not non-existent, at that time.

To capture the atmosphere of the era, go for names such as Ah Fu (blessing) or Ah Fa (prosper) for males, and Ah Lian (lotus) or Ah Hua (flower) for females.

I know these are now names associated chiefly with Chinatown or Geylang, but they were everywhere in the past.

The so-called more "elegant" (wenya) names began to proliferate only in the 90s and noughties as parents started to see more alternatives.

Indeed, look around you now and you will find that many young people sport names with Han and Yu in them.

And names like Fu and Lian seem to be disappearing.

Zhou Yanmei, a former Chinese national who runs a tuition centre here, is one who has noticed the shift, and concluded that name-giving is like fashion - different kinds of names mushroom in different periods.

Her classes support her view as, besides Han and Yu, she is now encountering many Xuan (daylily) among her female students, Wei (majestic) among the boys and En (benevolence) among both sexes.

"These characters could make up a Chinese 'alphabet soup'," she mused.

While tastes have changed, young parents still seem to have tunnel vision, as they stick to only a narrow range of "elegant" names.

Ms Zhou has an explanation.

"The young might know more Chinese characters than their parents, but not much more, due to the language environment here," she pointed out.

"There is a huge iceberg of Chinese characters that they find strange and won't want to explore.

"Off the radar are also those characters considered to be coarse, outdated or inauspicious. So the choices left for them are few."

But according to noted Chinese folk tradition expert Tong Noong Chin, we should look beyond our borders for the main reason.

South Korea, to be exact.

Mr Tong, a fortune teller in Singapore who proposes auspicious names for Chinese babies for a fee, said many parents come to him already with a name in mind - that of a South Korean star.

Their visits are only to check whether the Chinese version of the Korean name will adversely affect the future of their child, he said.

At one time, Mr Tong recalled, there was such a craze over South Korean movie heart-throb Bae Yong Joon that many parents wanted their sons to be a Yong Jun, the Chinese version of Bae's name, or at least a Yong (brave) or a Jun (handsome).

Another name that has won hearts here is Xi (bright), thanks to another South Korean star, Kim Hyun Hee. One of the characters in the Chinese version of her name is Xi.

And, of course, Xian (wise) is all the rage now as the male and female leads of the immensely popular South Korean television drama series My Love From The Star both have this Chinese character in their names.

I used to believe that the choosing of a child's name depends on what catches the fancy of the parents.

This is still true, but it has also become clear to me that what seems to be personal fancy in the choosing of names is often shaped by social influences.

One striking phenomenon in China now is the trend of single-character names being on the wane and that of double characters on the rise.

A single-character name comprises just a surname and a given name, such as those of Chinese actresses Gong Li and Zhou Xun, while Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have double-character names.

The swing is so unequivocal that you might think the nation voted for it in a referendum.

Single-character names were the norm throughout much of Chinese history, until the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

The Mongols, with their un-Chinese ways, caused the Han Chinese to finally accept double-character names as not against ancient tradition.

It was probably the iconoclasm of the Chinese Communists, rather than nostalgia, that brought single-character names back in the 1970s, after double-character names predominated over the past few centuries.

The trend was likely revived during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), during which austerity was worshipped in China, such as the living conditions of the peasants.

And a single-character name is definitely simpler.

But the trend was short-lived, as it took only 30 years for double-character names to return with a vengeance, boasting a poetic feel - a trait which during the Maoist time would be seen as anti-socialist and "counter-revolutionary".

Some said such "poetic" names are inspired by the romantic TV dramas of Taiwan, particularly those adapted from the novels of the island's Barbara Cartland, Chiung Yao, whose main characters all have dreamy names.

But not everyone welcomes the change.

One mainland parent recently wrote online that in the nursery his son is attending, there are just so many Zixuans (sagely and dignified) and Yuhans (universal and refined) among the pupils that he felt these are not lyrical names, but product brands.

According to a recent BBC report, Emma was again one of the most popular names for female babies last year in the United States, since it caught on in 2002 after a character in the TV show Friends gave her baby this name.

Religion and pop culture have been major influences in the baby-naming trends throughout history, said the BBC.

While Christian babies in Singapore would continue to be christened according to the prevailing fancy in their community, the picking of Chinese names has come under the sway of pop culture.

So, 20 or 30 years from now, we would still be able to see the legacy of the hallyu sweeping us now - in the names of those born around this time.

Note: Most Chinese characters have multiple meanings. Those given here are just the primary meanings.
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