If you have worked with Chinese students in the past twenty years, you have probably noticed that their names tend not to fit our phonotactic expectations of a typically Chinese name. “Call me Kenny,” or “My name is Rachel” would be typical. Not unknown are less typically “American” names like Jellyfish and Sandwich, along with currently uncommon names such as Percival or Edith. In the past thirty years, it has become de rigeur for Chinese people to adopt “English” names.  This is particularly noticeable among Chinese students in English-speaking countries, but is also common in China, especially for those working at international companies, but even found among those who work in Chinese companies where English is not generally used. It has become a widespread cultural practice and one whose effects we can see in our day-to-day interactions with Chinese people.
The first time the enormity of the practice forcefully struck me was back in the 1980s when I was teaching EFL in a Montessori school in Taiwan. My two and three-year-old students came to class one day with a board around their neck showing their “English” names, like James and Mary. They were still not entirely sure of their own Chinese names, yet here they were at this age being inculcated into the practice of adopting a name whose phonology and etymology were quite alien to them.
As I interacted more and more with Chinese speakers, it became more and more interesting to delve into the motivations and implications of this practice. I am now working on my dissertation on this very topic.
Historically, Chinese culture has had much more flexibility with naming practices than Anglo-American culture. Chinese people might adopt a school name or a business name, for example, that differs from the one given at birth. It is thus not entirely surprising that they may adopt an English name when interacting with Anglophones. Chinese-Americans have adopted English names for almost as long as they have been coming to North America. However, for most of the history, those have operated as “nicknames.” It is only within the last century or so that Chinese-Americans have started to be given English names at birth. In Taiwan, the practice seems to date to the post WWII years. In Mainland China, the general practice is more recent and really began after Deng Xiaoping’s opening in the 1980s. During the Cultural Revolution, a “foreign” name would have been grounds for suspicion. Since the 1980s, the practice has exploded. As noted above, it is now a practice that is common not just abroad, but in China itself.
In many cases, similar to my Taiwanese toddlers, these names are given by language teachers, often at a young age. In other cases, the individual may choose his or her name. Some people stick with their first name, while others may change it on a regular basis. I have known people who have tried ten or more names.
Why do Chinese people do this? It is much rarer to find an Arab, Latino, or Japanese person adopt a different name. Most Chinese people cite two reasons.
First and foremost, they believe that it is easier to pronounce for non-Chinese speakers. Hanyu Pinyin, the Chinese Romanization system, has some orthography that may pose a challenge for the uninitiated English speaker. The letter Zh is realized as a voiceless retroflex affricate /tʂ/, for example. Chinese has some phonemes that are not present in English, but then so do most languages. That also would not explain why a learner with a comparatively simple name such as Ma Lin would still feel the need to adopt an English name. Chinese is also tonal, so using the wrong tone produces a very different sound and meaning. Though few Chinese students report a mispronunciation as being insulting because the mispronunciation more closely aligns with a negative meaning, that is clearly a potential issue. However, most often Chinese people report that they adopt the name for the ease of their non-Chinese teachers, classmates, co-workers, etc. They do not want to place a burden on them.
The second major reason Chinese English learners suggest they adopt an English name is to make themselves more memorable. As Chinese uses tones and orthography to convey much meaning, much of the differentiation is lost with non-Chinese speakers. This leads, as one Chinese interviewee put it, to the perception that “Chinese names like Ding, Ting, Qing, Ping, they’re all the same.“ If we have trouble remembering who our student, employee, or co-worker is, that person risks losing out on tangible benefits. Many Chinese people perceive, rightly or wrongly, that non-Chinese people are not likely to remember them if they use their Chinese name.
In addition to these two main factors reported by Chinese respondents, I would argue that cultural practice has become a major driver in the adoption of English names. Along with language teachers assigning names to entire classes and anecdotes about Human Resources telling new employees that they need an English name to complete their application, interviewees have told me that they feel they “should” have an English name. As studies indicate that the overwhelming majority of Chinese people in English-speaking countries have an English name, the expectation becomes that all Chinese people will have an English name. I have seen multiple occasions of non-Chinese teachers asking Chinese students “But what’s your English name?” Such expectations can be expected to reinforce this social practice.
Despite this considerable “peer pressure,” I have found some indications that there is something of a counter-movement to decidedly not adopt an English name among some Chinese students. Some Chinese learners are deliberately saying that they have a Chinese name and that should be sufficient. They do not feel the need to adopt an English name. They feel comfortable with their name and expect that they be afforded the same effort to learn their names that they make to learn non-Chinese names.
The personal and collective decisions that our learners make have an impact in the classroom and beyond. By better understanding the dynamics of these choices and by showing respect and consideration toward our learners, regardless of where they stand on their names, we can more effectively build a more peaceful and sustainable world. If you have a Chinese student, classmate, or colleague who prefers to use his/her Chinese name, take the time to learn to pronounce it as best as you can. Most Chinese people are more than happy to tell you about their name.
For the purpose of this post, an English name for Chinese people will refer to any name that does not follow Chinese phonological and orthographical rules.
Author’s biography: Leo Schmitt has an M. A. and M. Phil. in linguistics from the City University of New York. He has taught ESL for over twenty years in Taiwan, Egypt, Argentina, USA, and the UAE. He teaches second language acquisition, teaching methodology, ESL, linguistics, anthropology as well as in the New School’s MATESOL program. He is working on his doctoral dissertation.