Tag Archives: wordplay

I have three Chinese names. Which one should I use?

People with English names sometimes take Chinese names. In fact, some expats in China consider a local name to be as important as a mobile phone number. It’s a must-have.

I don’t live in China, but I’ve been learning Chinese for a few years. Many of my fellow students have Chinese names. I decided that it’s high time I got one. Or three.

Three? It’s an insurance policy: China is full of westerners with abandoned Chinese names that have been tried out a few times on the locals—and failed. In the real world of the China street, they look or sound…weird.

So, I needed a Plan B. And C.

My first Port of Call was Boston’s Chinatown, where I go once a week to wrestle with the Chinese language.

Boston-based Chinese teacher Wenjing Li (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Boston-based Chinese teacher Wenjing Li (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Wenjing Li, my teacher, grew up in Shanghai. And this is what she came up with when I asked her to give me a Chinese name: 博刻思 (Bo ke si).

There’s a nice lilt to that (listen to the audio above). It has a passing resemblance to my English name, which Wenjing says is all you need. Mandarin and English have such different phonetic systems that it’s pointless to try to force one language to sound like the other. You’d end up with one of those weird names.

Bo, the first syllable, means plentiful. But it might also imply a certain, shall we say, seniority, which Wenjing tells me is appropriate, “because you are older than me.” I ask her if it’s a name for an old person. Not necessarily, she says. Just someone who’s been around the block, and seen a few things.

The second and third syllables—ke and si—mean constantly, and thinking or considerate.

Wenjing has thrown in some wordplay too. The first two syllables bo and ke, pronounced differently, mean podcast. Very clever. She’s also included a potential banana skin in the final syllable, si. Pronounce it the wrong way with the wrong tone, and it sounds like the word for to die.

I tell her that it’s fitting that Chinese teacher gives me name that demands that I get my tones right.

For my second name I go to meet Tony Huang at the Great Mandarin Restaurant in the Boston suburb of Woburn.

Tony Huang, co-owner of Great Mandarin Restaurant, Woburn, MA (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Tony Huang, co-owner of Great Mandarin Restaurant, Woburn, MA (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Tony is the co-owner, and he’s the father of a friend of mine. He was born and raised in Taiwan, and here’s his name for me: 白翠克(Bai cui ke).

Bai cui ke has some similarities to Bo ke si. Both play off the sound of my English name; they’re both three syllables, also like my English name; and they both include a ke, albeit different ones. But Tony’s name is assembled according to totally different principles: numbers and elements.

Numbers have traditionally played a key role in Chinese names. Older generations of parents would visit a fortune teller with date and time of birth of their child. The fortune teller would then assign a name based on a series of calculations involving, among other things, the number of strokes it takes to write the name in Chinese characters.

For my name, Tony didn’t need to go to a fortune teller. “I went to the fortune teller website,” he says.

I have trouble following all the calculations that Tony is doing. He leafs through page after page of notes. He has spent hours checking charts in books and on websites so he can be confident that my name is sufficiently auspicious.

The character stroke count of Bai cui ke is 26, which, Tony tells me, has both good and bad points. (It depends on a bunch other stuff, which you can read about here.)

When Tony points out a couple of aspects of the math that are “bad,” I ask him if he’s giving me a bad name. He says of course not, though I have trouble following his reasoning. There are apparently issues with the number of strokes of the first and second syllables combined (19) as well as the second and third (21).

But Tony knows what he’s doing. He’s configured things so that the name’s negative aspects indicate bad times for me in my 30s. I’m older than that—as Tony says, who cares what my name says about the past? From my mid-40s on, it’s all wealth and happiness.

There’s one more problem. Because the last two characters add up to 21, I apparently may not have a good relationship with my boss. We may just have to live with that.

I now have two names that I love. I may not need another Chinese name but I’m getting greedy. I want one.

I visit a friend, artist and calligrapher Wen-hao Tien. Wen-hao grew up in Taiwan and she lives now in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Artist and calligrapher Wen-hao Tien (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Artist and calligrapher Wen-hao Tien (Photo: Patrick Cox)

“I like to find names that are a little vague and are humorous,” she says.

No stroke calculations here. Just intuition—and the look and sound of the name.

“You strike me as a very energetic person,” Wen-hao tells me. “Sporty. Somehow the sound of Cui and Patrick is a good fit.”

Cui is pronounced “tsway.”

Wen-hao continues: “Actually, there’s a famous rock singer, his name’s Cui Jian.”

How can I resist?

Wen-hao decides that like Cui Jian, the rock star, my name will have just two characters: 崔可 (Cui ke). “Ke means doable, OK, achievable,” she adds.

She paints the characters on a sheet of paper. She asks me what I think. I tell her I like it but I don’t have trained eye for these things.

“Oh, I think it looks pretty cool,” says Wen-hao.

Listening back to these interviews, I hear myself laughing—much more than usual. It’s giddy getting a new name. And judging by the laughter from Wenjing, Tony and Wen-hao, it must be giddy giving one too.

I realize now how much thought goes into giving someone a Chinese name, so much more than the other way round—calling someone Lucy or Lily or Tony. Tony tells me a Chinese waiter will change his English name if that name is already taken at his workplace.

As for my Chinese names, I’m not going to pick one, at least for now—I like them all. So American of me: spoiled for choice.


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How Technology is Changing Chinese, One Pun at a Time

This post is written by Nina Porzucki.

When Sabrina Zhang and Jack Wang took their high school writing exam in China they remember a funny new rule written at the bottom of the test.

“You can’t use Internet words in the writing,” remembers Zhang. But, says Wang, “It’s just natural right when we use it. It’s the youth way of expressing ourselves.”

What might seem like the petty irritation of an old-fashioned professor might actually be something bigger. There are now more than 500 million people online in China. They are microblogging, instant messaging, texting. The result is changing the Chinese language says David Moser, an American linguist living in Beijing.

According to Moser, the Internet has become a place for people to play with the Chinese language. Puns and wordplay have a long history in Chinese culture. Chinese is the perfect language for punning because nearly every Chinese word has multiple homophones. Homophones are two words that sound similar but have different meanings like hare that rabbit-like creature and the hair on your head. In Chinese there are endless homophones.

“Because there are so many homophones there’s sort of a fetish about them,” says Moser. “As far as the culture goes back you have cases of homophone usage and homophone humor.” Many times forbidden or taboo words in Chinese are taboo precisely because they sound like another word.

A good example of this is the number four, which in Chinese sounds like the word for death and the number eight, which sounds like the word for prosperity. Moser has a Chinese aunt who used to work for the phone company and she could make money selling phone numbers. People would beg her for a phone number with a lot of eights. “People would actually give her gifts or bribes for an auspicious phone number,” says Moser.

Today, wordplay online has less to do with getting auspicious numbers and more to do with getting around censorship. Moser cites an example of a recent phrase he saw online mentioning the Tiananmen Square incident – only the netizen didn’t use the words “Tiananmen Square” or even 6/4, which refers to the date the incident took place. Tiananmen Square and 6/4 are both censored online. Instead the netizen referred to the “eight times eight incident.” Moser was confused when he first saw the reference. “And then I figured out, eight times eight is 64,” says Moser.

The Internet is ripe with clever examples of how people evade the censors. However, censorship is just one reason netizens play with words online. Another is the very technology that enables people today to input Chinese characters onto their cell phones and computers.

Jack Wang explains how he types Chinese characters with his phone. He uses an English keyboard and uses the pinyin system. Pinyin is the method for converting Chinese characters into our alphabet. For example, the Chinese word for “today” is 今天, which is rendered into pinyin as “jintian.”

Wang types the English letters “jintian” on his phone. As he types the first three letters, “jin” a list of Chinese characters pops up on the screen. Each different character sounds just like the word for today, “jin” but means something completely different. Wang points to each possible character and explains its different meaning: gold, clothes, only, and finally 今, the character for “today.”

Everyday, people are typing in a word like “today” and seeing all of the potential homophones for that word. This says David Moser has fueled wordplay like never before.

“I think that’s given rise to a lot more puns then would normally have been uttered in the earlier days when you had to just pull everything out of your head,” says Moser.

People have gotten even more creative playing with this input system to intentionally create new Chinese slang, translating English phrases into pinyin and then into Chinese characters. The meaning of these new words can seem random but they’re not. For example the Chinese character for glass, 玻璃, pronounced “boli” has come to mean “gay man.” Turns out, the slang term actually comes from an English phrase, “boy love.” But netizens have abbreviated the phrase into the English letters “B L” and then they looked for a similar abbreviation in Chinese, typing “B-L” into their computers and out popped the character for glass. “Suddenly the word glass was being used for male homosexuals,” says Moser.

The Internet has even given out-of-date Chinese characters new life. One of the most popular of these new old characters is囧 pronounced “jiong.” The character looks like an unhappy face with drooping eyes and a frown. People started using the character like an emoticon, representing embarrassment or frustration. However, virtually nobody knows what the character originally meant. There are thousands of obsolete characters like 囧and part of the fun is mining these forgotten characters to create new meanings.

But, this casual inattention to the meanings of these characters online concerns some linguists like John Pasden. “We’re getting weird mutations of the language mixing with English phasing in and out of Chinese and non-Chinese,” says Pasden. “This complete disregard for the meaning of the characters has some serious long-term implications if it keep going on.”

Pasden worries that once people divorce the meaning from the character they will start wondering, “Why am I writing all these strokes if I’m just using it as a sound?” Then its a slippery slope towards simplifying to a phonetic writing system says Pasden.

For 19-year-old Jack Wang, this is not a problem. This new word play is the future. “I think we should catch up with the time,” says Wang. “If people use it, we should use it.” Then right on cue his phone buzzed with a new text.


Patrick Cox adds:

Here’s the video to the North Korean song I mentioned in the pod, Excellent Horse-Like Lady, sung by Hyon Song-wol:



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