Chinese names and address terms in translation

Cultural issues in address terms in translation

by Jing Mei HAN

With the incoming globalization, an increasing number of peoples have come to realize we have to know more about one another. To begin the communications, some native speakers of English may find it difficult to understand some basics such as the address terms in another culture. Thus knowledge about the correct use of address terms seems essential and to some extent crucial to help to avoid misunderstanding and potential conflicts and to have better interactions etc. To this end, I will aim to discuss a few cultural issues reflected in address terms in the Chinese culture, as contrasted to the native English speaking cultures e.g. namely Australian culture. The reason I do this is based on the fact that the Chinese including me, seemed to get into the habit of doing whatever we like due to lack of knowledge and experience about how to introduce oneself to native English speakers. By clarifying some issues I suggest the Chinese authorities setting the norms about how to put ones names into English when the Chinese introduce themselves to foreigners to be not only socially friendly but reader friendly to meet the international standard.


Address term acts in someway like business card to represent one’s social identity. Mr. is called worldwide and can find equivalent in most languages. However Mrs. in English is hard to find its counterpart in Chinese simply due to the fact that the Chinese wives don’t share the same family name with their husbands which may create misunderstanding. While Mrs. is applied used after a female’s marriage to be inline with the family name of her husband in English speaking countries, this is not the case in China. Thus on social occasions, this may create chaos to some foreigners because most Westerners easily take it for granted a wife shares the same family name with her husband. When they see a wife shares a different family name from her husband, they may feel confused about the couple’s relationship and doubt whether or not they have officially married. Before the founding of new China in 1949, the Chinese tradition required a married woman to share the family name of her husband. In fact, many women didn’t have even their first names. After the marriage, their name is names as follows, husband family name + her family name + Shi (old address term for women after marriage to show subordinate position). For example, someone is called Zhang Wang Shi. Zhang is her husband’s family name which is in the first position to represent its importance, as contrasted to English name when the family name is put at the end); Wang was her fathers’ family name which showed her own identity before marriage and its change of the position of importance) and Shi (Xinhua Dictionary p450) was to indicate the then females held a low social position. After 1949, the old tradition was eventually abolished. Women now retain their family name after marriage. The idea is that the husband and the wife are equal and a female is no long the subordinates of her husband. To me, share a family name after a marriage in English speaking countries may just mean a wife joins the extended family. It may be a tradition of thousands of years, not necessarily indicates inequality. When a husband is introduced as Mr X, his wife may be introduced as Mrs Y (her own full name plus Mrs as Australian Immigration Department calls my mother) or Mrs Y to native English speakers orally for fear of misunderstanding on social occasions yet put her own full name in writing in documents to be consistent with her name in passport as I witnessed friends and students have done in Australia. However, until now there has been confusion on international occasions about the Chinese address terms because we cannot find exact equivalent words about Mr and Mrs. in Chinese simply because the couple do not share same family names which demonstrate a cultural difference.


In addition, there has been similar confusion about the Chinese family name in written forms which always puzzles the foreigners. In English, family name is put at the end, e.g. in Mr. Jane Smith, Jane is first name and Smith is family name. However, in Chinese it is the contrary. Family name is put at the beginning, e.g. Wang Li, Wang is the family name and Li is first name. I can recall my own experience in Australia when eventually Prof. Michael Clyne asked me about how we should deal with the issue at a seminar at Linguistic Department, Monash University in 1997. My solution/answer then was to put the family name in capital letters to make a difference, e.g. Li WANG. Or we may choose to put family name first then put a comma before one’s first name, e.g. WANG, Li. I consider this can make a clear distinction thus reader friendly. In Australia now, I have witnesses Australian government agencies such as Centrelink and Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indignant Affairs will request people to provide details about family names and first names by using separate columns when filling the forms. They routinely deal with peoples coming from all over the world and know there might be misunderstandings if precaution is not taken. One organization even asked people to write which is their first given/first name and which is second and what first name they prefer to be called. I consider it to be a wise choice on formal occasions. We can see that many Chinese, scholars or not, will either write their Chinese names according to the Chinese tradition, i.e. family name is at the beginning in Pinyin form. However, on formal occasions, some will follow the main stream English speaking tradition to put their family name at the end. However, without explanations, native English speakers may take the surname as first name presuming the Chinese usually put family name first, like in our Cultnet list, family names are put in different positions which may make a difficult guess for foreigners who are without Chinese knowledge. The confusion may be due to the fact that no standard or correct usage is taught in classes or exemplified anywhere. Nor attention was paid to it. Thus misunderstandings are still there.


When my careless writing of my names caused confusion to Mike, it alerted me. Why not take an active approach to settle the issue in a clear cut way by setting a standard on formal occasions when the Chinese have become increasingly active, positive and responsible in international affairs? There are standards and regulations in every field and in every corner of the world. I feel ashamed that I’d not been able to realize the importance of the issue and did not tell my students and students teachers, etc. how to deal with the basic address terms earlier until I went to in Australia, though I started teaching in the universities since 1982. Nor did we know what to do due to limited experience and knowledge about English, its culture and the outside world until long after the Open Door Policy. When I went overseas in 1997 I witnessed the confusion which puzzled many foreign friends. Yet I did not take it seriously. Later I had an tram accident and become lazy due to poor health. Now it is high time we did something because it was not too late to mend thus I would like to bring the issue to the academic world for discussions because we do need a change the established way of writing casual address terms. Maybe, if we put our heads together we can come up with a better solution which would be wonderful. I sincerely hope the Chinese teachers of English etc. may be able to help the learners to know some basic socio-cultural differences in a foreign or second language environment and take actions to help narrow the differences in a friendly way to promote peace and prosperity for us all in the coming years. Another reason for me to write the article is I have failed to find any similar topic in the largest booksellers in Beijing and we cannot be indifferent to the needs of the needs of others who wish to know the Chinese and its culture, etc. in a global environment.


In daily life, the confusion is still there due to the casual nature of the communications. For instance, my first name is Jing Mei or Jingmei, two separate Chinese words put together or separately as many people do. Many ordinary people may take the same attitude in this regard. The two words first name is usually connected yet when converting into Pinyin form, the native speakers may take the first word Jing in Jing Mei, as first name and the second one Mei as middle name. Again this is just assumption as it is contrary to the English names. Mei in this case is the first name or part of first name yet the Chinese will put it to the end according to the Chinese way, whether or not the two-words first name are written as Jingmei or separated as Jing Mei,Mei or Jingmei can both be the first name. It is acceptable to call both Mei or Jing Mei/Jingmei. Although the latter would be accurate to the Chinese equivalent,  many are happy to be called whatever the addresser prefers. Both side don’t even bother about it and call whatever they may prefer thinking it is unimportant in daily interactions. e, g. I recall in Cultnet gathering in 2003, the friends or newcomers just asked one another what name they prefer to be called.


In spite of all the good natured friendliness of the peoples, there are occasions when precautions are requested on all formal occasions particularly when put name in  written forms. Currently, some native English speakers become aware that the Chinese put their family name first. Meanwhile, some Chinese put their family name in last position thinking that would make native English speakers easier to identify the names so they do in Rome as the Romans do. Yet, they some native English speakers may not realize this thus presuming their family name in last position was the traditional first name. Thus, to clear the confusion, I would propose that the Chinese put their family name in capitalized form as mentioned above to make a definite difference.


In addition, there are numerous typical English names, e.g. Mike, George, Tom, Jane, Pat, etc. which may just be the first names. However, many Chinese first names may reflect its unique culture. In order to express the wishes of the elders of the family, the new born will be given particular first names, e.g. to name the girls with virtue, good personal quality and with symbolizing flowers, such as Meili (beautiful), Yongmei (admiring a kind of flower symbolizing bravery and strength in face of difficulties, the qualities which the girl is expected to posses in life). Hui may have some different qualities when written differently as Hui辉(sending out light, excellent) , hui惠(good to others)and hui慧 (intelligent), etc. For boys, the elders usually choose words symbolizing strength, good quality and services to the nation. For example, Qiang 强(strong and healthy), Weiguo 卫国(safeguard the country), Bo 博(with intelligence, wisdom), etc. One family name plus one first name can be identified more easily because family name can be counted. However, two words first names can’t. Yet, when one uses the incorrect first names, it doesn’t seem to result in embarrassment or much misunderstanding in communications.


Currently, along with the progress of modernization and globalization, the Chinese society has changed much in such an open environment. Children have the legal rights to be named with either the father’s or mother’s family name. Moreover, there are kids named with bother father’s and mother’s family name, e.g. one may be called ZHAO Yang 赵 杨 (ZHAO is father’s family name and Yang is mother’s family name).


In a word, it may be a worthwhile topic when the [intercultural specialists/students] work together to help each other to know the different address terms in one’s own culture to help better understandings and communications, etc.