Shaping fates, tricking ghosts, and staying on the right side of the emperor
Names are a big thing in China, where parents believe that the right or wrong moniker can have a large impact on their child’s destiny.
Sure, scientists will call it superstition, but why tempt fate? Better to choose an auspicious name that reflects your blessing. A safe choice would be Changshou, which means “longevity,” or, for parents who have their own fates in mind, Yaozu, which means “make your ancestors proud.” In the past, parents disappointed by the birth of a daughter might try to bring future blessings on their own heads by naming their baby girl Zhaodi (“looking for a brother”) or Laidi (“bringing brother”).
According to the traditional lunar calendar, certain days are good or bad for certain things. So when people want to get married, build a house, or even travel, they pick a day that is supposed to be favorable for that particular activity. The same goes for giving birth to babies. Today, the date May 5 holds no unlucky connotations for the Chinese, but, according to the Han Dynasty text Fengsu Tongyi by author Ying Shao, the date used to be considered a particularly bad one for delivering a baby. Freud would have a field day with the old saying about May 5 babies, which warns: “if it’s a boy, he will harm his father, if it’s a girl, she will harm her mother.”
Of course, the exact day on which you deliver is a hard thing to control. If you’ve had the bad fortune to give birth on an unlucky day, though, you might be able to counteract things with a well-chosen name like Zhen’e which literally means “suppressing evil.”
Even kids born on ordinary days are still subject to harm by wicked ghosts and devils. To offer them a little extra protection, parents, especially in the countryside, will sometimes give their kid a particularly ugly nickname. They might name their little precious Wenya, which means “elegant,” for example, but then dub her Shadan (“stupid egg”), Shidan (“poop ball”) or Gousheng (“the dog’s leftovers”). This nickname doesn’t reflect any animosity – on the contrary, parents use it as a sort of auditory amulet that will protect their little loved one from supernatural bad guys. After all, what would a hungry ghost want with a little poop ball?
You can call your kids a lot of things in China, but some names are still taboo – and have been for thousands of years. For example, unlike in the West, where parents often choose to honor an older relative by passing on their name, it’s disrespectful for Chinese parents to give their baby the same name as an elder. And you’ll never meet a Xiaoming Jr. or a Xiaoming – Chinese don’t name their children after themselves. In the feudal era, emperors were considered universal patriarchs; if citizens had the same name as emperors, they would be sentenced to death.
If you’re considering a Chinese name for your baby, you’ll want to avoid the pitfalls of an unlucky mingzi and, ideally, find something that will set him up well for life. An easy way is to input an English name at Get a Chinese Name. This silly site claims to automatically avoid all the typical taboos. But before you apply for that birth certificate, be sure to run your name of choice past some Chinese friends!