I was reading an interview with Cindy Pon at Squeaky Books where the blogger asked her about the names of her two brothers in The Silver Phoenix as well as why the titular character has a name that is translated and sounds like a title. It was a very good question:
One of the things I was really curious about in the books were the names of the characters. Some characters had one-part names, some had two, and some had three! Is there any meaning to how many names there are? And do you have to do extra research to create these names (more than someone who makes up random European-sounding names, I mean)? I’m specifically curious about Li Rong And Silver Phoenix. Because wasn’t his family name Li? So is he Li Li Rong? And why does Silver Phoenix have a name that seems more like a title?
You can read Cindy’s answer and the entire interview here: Squeaky Books – Author Interview with Cindy Pon
I’ve seen similar questions about my naming choices, such as to why I named all my characters with Chinese names in My Fair Concubine, but Fei Long’s sister Pearl is referred to by a translated name.
Needless to say, in Cindy Pon’s case and mine, we put a lot of thought into how we name and refer to our characters. These were authorial decisions and have varying reader reactions. For instance, in Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, she refers to her character as “Snow Flower”, her translated name. In See’s Shanghai Girls, she explains why her protagonists go by more western names: May (the western spelling of Mei) and Pearl, though in an intimate moment Pearl’s husband calls her “Zhu Long” which is her full Chinese name of Pearl Dragon.
The naming of Chinese characters and even the choice of Romanization, pinyin vs. Wade-Giles, can be a hot topic in academic as well as fiction circles. (In The Taming of Mei Lin, I didn’t realize that I named a character “Cho” and another character “Zhou”. Only when I was trying to read it aloud for an audio recording did I realize that these names, though they look distinct to the eye, sound exactly the same!!)
As authors writing Asian-set and Asian themed fiction in the English language, these are choices we have to face. There is no definitive “right” answer and no matter what your choice, someone will likely object. Language is an issue very close to culture and the heart as well as politics and power. As my linguistics professor used to say, “Language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”
So my character names are often mistaken in reviews. I don’t take any offense, as I realize that Asian naming standards are new and different to many Westerners. On top of that, I don’t stop in my books to explain the whys and wheres of naming, believing that a Chinese character in his own POV wouldn’t be thinking of explaining naming traditions to other Chinese characters, you know what I mean? Heck, as I just noted, there are debates and questions among people familiar with the usage.
I’m reminded though of all my years in school when teachers would mangle my name. (BTW, for those who don’t already know, my real name isn’t “Lin.” It’s much more daunting looking name with consonants that look like they shouldn’t go together.) I would let it slide, “Oh, that’s okay. I know what you mean.” I’d answer to any reasonable mispronunciation.
But then I realized, these teachers and classmates didn’t need me to make it easier. They earnestly wanted to know the right way to do it. Just as bloggers and readers want to know the right way.
So on Chinese names:
First, let me say I take a huge liberty by not using courtesy or style names. Specifically, it’s rude for someone younger or of lower status to refer to an elder or someone of higher status directly by name. (This made it SO hard on me to go to friends’ houses where the parents were like, call me Linda!) So courtesy names would be assigned in imperial times. These names would be used among associates who were not close. Honorifics such as “sir”, “lord”, “uncle”, “brother”, etc. were also commonly used. Birth names were only for very intimate circles, family or the closest of friends.
So for instance, in Butterfly Swords, when Ai Li gives the western barbarian Ryam her true name, it is not likely any commoner has heard of that name associated with the imperial princess. She would commonly be referred to by a courtesy name.
Courtesy names would come into effect for instance with a man like Li Tao, in The Dragon and the Pearl, who was a powerful general/military governor. But everyone calls him by his actual name in the book. I did it for readability and also to bring readers closer to the characters. Courtesy names, by their very nature, are meant to be distancing.
An Illicit Temptation is the closest I come to explaining courtesy names as both the heroine and hero were assigned new names by the court. Kwan-li actually explains that his name was given to him and it was a courtesy name. His actual name wasn’t Han Chinese. I actually chose a Xianbei name, Tailuo, as I only had a handful of Khitan names to choose from. An-Ming is similarly a courtesy name assigned to Dao. The names in this case double as their “alter-egos” which fits the story.
Now what about given names? Why do I keep the last names on some characters such as “Li Tao”, whose name represents his family name (though we learn he just adopted that name…which is also not uncommon, BTW) and given name, while other characters go by just their given names such as “Fei Long” or “Bai Shen” in My Fair Concubine.
So here’s the quick and dirty: In Chinese names, the family name always comes first. (I like how in the Olympics, they show the family name first and do ALLCAPS so you realize this is the family name. It seems that all announcers nowadays know to get it right.) Chinese given names can be a single character such as “Tao” or they can be compound names such as “Bai Shen”. Historically, it’s rare, except under the most intimate of situations with friends and family, to refer to someone by just their given name. This seems especially true if they only have a single name versus a compound name. So even someone like Suyin, who was eventually Li Tao’s love interest, would call him by “Li Tao”. Suyin, whose given name has two characters, and is also of lower status than Li Tao — it just “felt” right to have him refer to her just by her given name.
Similarly, in My Fair Concubine, you’ll see Fei Long and Bai Shen refer to themselves by their full names when trying to be mockingly formal:
“The sun rises in the west today. Li Bai Shen is lecturing me,” Fei Long said.
“Snow falls in the summer. Chang Fei Long is making a joke.”
At other times, because they are good friends, they’ll refer to themselves by their given names. But note that they always use the compound name. Never just “Fei” or “Bai”. Often the compound name means something, so when you break out a word like that, it seems awkward and doesn’t make sense any more to the person.
Note that this is also different from modern usage. My true name is a compound name that my mother gave me, quite poetically, to match up with my sister’s name. My sister’s name was also the name of a famous princess. But in usage at home and in public, we’ve broken apart those names and very informally just use the root name. This makes our names much less pretty, because the root names are actually common boy’s names. Cause boys are more likely to have non-compound, non-pretty names, I guess. Oh, also I must give the disclaimer that I’m not Chinese. But Vietnamese names have some common usage with Chinese names.
Now that I’ve laid out these rules, I actually break them here and there in my stories. As I’m sure there are breaks when people who are friends talk to one another. In Capturing the Silken Thief, the hero who is a farmer turned scholar, is named Luo Cheng. His family is Luo and his given name is Cheng. He is referred to in the story frequently as “Cheng”, which isn’t incorrect, but given that the heroine (and the reader) doesn’t know him at first, an unfamiliar person would most likely refer to him by last name, “Luo”, if they were going to drop one name or the other. On the other hand, when referring to himself, I was faced with whether or not he would think of himself as Luo Cheng or just Cheng. I chose the latter.
I have seen other questions about naming. For instance, the name “Chang” is the same as the name “Zhang”. It’s just two different choices for romanization. When I’ve checked usage, I see that even academic papers don’t always conform to one style, so I do apologize if I offend anyone with romanization, but I am aware that the question of which style to use is not one that I alone grapple with. It’s also a choice that I make entirely on my own. My editor and publisher use the romanization I provide verbatim. My editor has in fact noticed how I take liberties with name usage and has asked me about it.
And then we haven’t even gotten into dialects and regions. Everyone in China doesn’t speak “Chinese”, especially in the Tang Dynasty. In the cosmopolitan settings like Changan, I took liberties with mixing all sorts of names together. In my upcoming book, it’s set in Fujian province, so I tried to make the names conform to Fujian names whenever appropriate.
And finally, there are days when I curse at the authors who can just name their characters Henry or John or even Rafe and be done with it. And no one is going to question or be offended by their choice. *shakes fist* Professional jealousy is an ugly thing sometimes.