Jerry Chan’s Baby Blog — Chapter 5
Picking a name for your kid is no easy task – after all, this is the moniker that will follow your child for the rest of her life. Take the States for instance, where Chinese kids with unfortunate English names abound. The Eunices, Arvids, Pearls and Eugenias that I grew up with all have their parents to blame for their awkward handles – and they would have been much better off on the playgrounds of America with just English phoneticizations of their Chinese names. Fortunately my parents had the good sense to take my Chinese name 家伟 “Jia Wei” and phonetically translate into “Jerry” (though here in China people can’t seem to get enough of the Cat and Mouse references).
So it was with this in mind that I christened my daughter with the English name Marianne. We chose this Gallic-sounding name for a couple of reasons: first, because it hearkens back to the four years my wife spent in Paris, and second, because as with my name, it was more or less an English phoneticization of our baby’s original Chinese name, Mei Yuan (美苑).
This name was initially appealing because the “Mei” stood for the fact that I am from the States (Mei Guo, 美国), her maternal grandmother’s name has the same “mei” at the end, and the fact that like all giddy, new parents, we think our own baby is the most beautiful in the world (as in mei li, 美丽). The “Yuan” (苑), a rather uncommon character, was originally thought up by my wife’s father because it roughly translates into the “juncture of culture and technology” (or so I’m told). From that came her nickname, or “xiao ming” (小名) in Chinese, Mei Mei (美美) – which has stuck.
Unfortunately her original Chinese name has not. The name “Zhan Meiyuan” (詹美苑), nice-sounding as it is, did not match up with the stars – or more specifically, did not jibe with the system of Zi Wei Dou Shi (紫微斗数), which chinese-astrology.blogspot.com defines as the “study of a person’s life based on the movement and location of the North Star (known as the “Zi Wei,” 紫微, in Chinese) and 100-plus other stars at the specific time the person was born.” Apparently, Mei Mei’s birth date and time, combined with the number of strokes in the character of our family name (Chan, or “Zhan” 詹) meant that she lacked the element of “wood” (mu 木), based on the Chinese Five Elements theory – an ancient Daoist system that posits how “natural changes within the body are affected by the outside environment." The “Five Elements” (wood, fire, earth, metal and water – mu, huo, tu, jin, shui – 木，火，土，金，水) are like metaphors that describe the physiological interactions between your body and the environment (think of experiments from your high school chemistry class). This overly simplified explanation pretty much sums up the extent of my understanding of this metaphysical philosophy, and I suspect that most people here have just about the same grasp of this ubiquitously Chinese tradition (hence the demand for naming companies and websites like xingming.net).
Ironically enough, my father-in-law – a retired general who never used to believe in this stuff – was the first to raise the point of consulting a Zi Wei Dou Shu specialist before settling on our baby’s name. I’ve never really understood the nuances of Chinese astrology with its animal zodiac signs and complex I-Ching references, but I’ve seen how it has reestablished a firm hold on the public’s imagination and beliefs here in China – especially when it comes to naming babies. And not having a clue about what how to go about picking a good Chinese name, I agreed, figuring that it was all for custom’s sake. So off we went to Yonghegong (the Lama Temple), where among the dozen or so shops mostly selling incense, scroll paintings and such, a few offer name consultation services based on the Zi Wei Dou Shu.
The chain-smoking chap at the naming company we settled on gave us a form with fields for our family name, time and date of birth (in both the Gregorian and lunar calendars), gender and Chinese zodiac sign. After we filled it out, he pulled out a tea-stained little tome and began flipping through pages, counting on his fingers and murmuring to himself (all the whilst lighting up cigarettes – he smoked at least four in our 25 minutes there). My in-laws and I sat across from him, transfixed, as he scrawled out different ba gua (八卦) signs (those little solid and dotted lines that surround the yin and yang symbol, as on the South Korean flag) and a few words of what we gathered to be little Marianne’s fate.
After a few more moments of furrowing his brow and long exhalations of cigarette smoke, he flicked his comb-over, looked up at us and spoke: “This little one is going to be pretty damn smart.” My in-laws beamed. “But,” he added, “she lacks the element of wood, which means that she will not have a natural propensity for gaining wealth. But, she is gifted in the fine arts and should be encouraged to pursue a career in music, dance, design or writing. She’s definitely very intelligent but will need to be encouraged to study because she’ll have a tendency to coast by on her street smarts.” At this point, visions of my bohemian daughter strumming a guitar in the subway for pocket change flooded my mind, and I began wondering if, 30 years from now, she’d still be living in our basement.
He went on to reveal a few more details: “Her life and career would be best pursued in the east, southeast or south [i.e. here in Asia], and tigers, rabbits, sheep, snakes and pigs would be her ideal matches, but she shouldn’t marry too early.” More visions of basement couch surfing raced through my mind. Our smoking soothsayer went so far as to specify what colors (green, red and purple) would be best for her undergarments, as well as her lucky numbers (1, 3, 11, 13, 21, 23, 24, 31, 32, 33, 41 and 52) in life.
Then came the all-important name selections. We were given a total of ten characters – five (zi, jing, yue, ruo, yan – 紫, 婧, 悦, 若, 焉) for her first name, and the rest (yu, ting, han, tong, chu – 妤, 廷, 含, 彤, 初) for the second name. Any combination of the former selection with the latter would have the sufficient number of character strokes and the “presence of wood” to help balance out her fortunes.
My far-from-perfect Chinese meant that accepting all this was done with a leap of faith, but my in-laws, for their part, seemed adequately convinced. We went home to sleep on it, and the next day, after consulting the meanings of different combinations in the dictionary and online, we finally settled on Zhan Jingyu (詹婧妤) – a name whose second character specifically means “fortune for women” and whose third character denotes a high female official’s ranking from the Han Dynasty.
The name scores a 96 out of 100 on xingming.net.
Our name consultant’s website can be found at www.qimingzhai.com.