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Why Chinese Students Often Choose Strange English Names

Ever wonder why someone would name themselves Shark?

The school where my wife works in China had a student come in who wanted his English name to be “Peanut.”

Strange English names for Chinese students is a prime pet peeve for many foreign English teachers in the country, many demanding that their students have “proper” English names, like Joe and Betty and Jack, rather than the names they pick, like Shark, Tank, and Bieber.

To this sort of teacher’s credit, a Chinese person’s English name essentially functions as a real name. When transliterated in the Latin alphabet, Chinese names are often so ambiguous as to be almost pointless. It’s the character that denotes a name’s meaning not the pronunciation, and the excessive amount of homophones and near homophones in Mandarin means that a common transliterated name like Wang can actually be a dozen or so different names in Chinese. This is why it seems like there are only like three names in all of China.

So in the foreign context, many Chinese people tend to go by their English first name rather than the Chinese one given by their parents.

The student who wanted to be named Peanut’s American teacher was the type of teacher who wanted a class of standard monikers, and demanded that his parents change his name. The next day he came back with a new English name: Mungbean.

Backfire.

There is a certain amount of inter-cultural misunderstanding when it comes to names in China because the way that they are selected is different than in the West. In China, there is a distinct lack of a standardized naming lexicon. In Chinese, character is a potential name, and it is not unheard of for a child to get his name from a randomly placed finger in a dictionary. So when foreigner teachers laugh and grow irate over the creative and unusual English names their students choose, it should be kept in mind that this anarchic style of name picking is precisely how their official, Chinese names were selected.

For the record, the Chinese name of the student who wanted to be called Peanut was Huangshan . . . which means peanut.

Filed under: China, Culture and Society, Intercultural Conflict

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3545 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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