Foreigners muddling name-order is no laughing matter for some, as the issue runs far deeper than mere convention, Chow Pak-chin writes.
Ask yourself this: How would you feel if your name was misspelt, or worse, someone has your first and last names put in the wrong order?
This happened to a good friend of mine recently. I spotted the mistake in a newspaper article featuring him. His name is “Lesly Lam Lik-shan” but it appeared in the paper as “Lesly Lik Shan-lam”.
I teased Lesly about the mistake in the newspaper saying he had inadvertently changed his name, like it or not. He obviously wasn’t too bothered by the mistake and we both had a good laugh about it.
Joking aside, similar mistakes have happened to me so often that I have lost count and grown blase about the whole thing.
In South Korea, I am known as Dr Pak while in Europe people would call me Dr Chin. I don’t even have an English name, so with only three words in my name, most people overseas still have it wrong as Europeans aren’t used to seeing surnames preceding first names on their side of the world. As a result, I have trained myself to respond to whatever variation of my name comes my way.
I may not feel too strongly about people mixing up my first and last names but if you ask other Chinese people you will find many would react quite differently because names matter a lot in our culture. There is a common Chinese saying: “Being given a bad name is worse than being born into a bad life”.
This is why you see parents go to great lengths to find the right, auspicious names for their children. Some even go to the extreme of seeking advice from feng shui masters to find the most fitting names for their newborn children, hoping they will be blessed for the rest of their lives. It is famously known that Bruce Lee’s parents gave him a girl’s name, Sai-fon (“Little Phoenix”) at birth, as his parents lost their first son in infancy and believed an evil spirit would come after any more newborn sons.
The confusion over distinguishing between a first name and family name is a very common mistake in Hong Kong and sometimes in the region, because it’s the way Chinese write their names in English, especially when there is a Christian name involved.
Traditionally, a Chinese name is written with the family name first, followed by the given name, either one or two characters, like President Xi Jinping or Premier Li Keqiang. But in the West, people could address our president as Jinping Xi or the premier as Keqiang Li. The same rule of stating family name first also applies in many Chinese communities overseas such as Singapore and Malaysia.
In Hong Kong, we have a hybrid system of name order which makes it even more confusing when people sometimes go with the order of stating family name first, or choose to follow the Western style of addressing one another. Many put it down to our legacy of colonial rule.
For example, with my name being Chow Pak-chin, Brits may address me as “Pak-chin Chow” which indicates my given name preceding my surname. And if this was written down on paper without hyphenating my two-syllable given name, confusion is almost always guaranteed.
According to Chinese tradition, names are stated in order of importance. Our family or clan name must precede our given name as a way to show respect to our clan and patrilineal lineage.
In the West it’s the exact opposite. The Western cultures are more individualistic and believe more in upholding and promoting personal independence, as an individual’s identity is seen as being independent of society. There’s a totally different approach in this part of the world — especially China — with the emphasis being collectivistic instead.
Another good example is to compare the way we write addresses to the way they are written in the West. In Chinese, we write an address with country first, then the city and the other smaller details of the place of residence will come last. We also do this with dates, with the year coming first, followed by the month and the day. Again, it’s in the order of significance, focusing from big to small. But in the West, it’s in reverse.
I am not implying that one form is superior to the other — individualism or collectivism — because each has its own advantages and disadvantages and serves its respective functions. They are just different ways that suit different traditions and cultures. I suppose it’s whatever floats your boat or what you’re inclined to using.
But here in China, we should stand our ground and insist on preserving our tradition and the principle of upholding the greater good of our country, society and family above individual needs and desires.
As a point of reference, the word “country” comprises two characters in Chinese, guo jia, which means country and family; this in itself underpins the values of our culture, as country and family are synonymous and equal in importance.
I rest my case.
The author is president of Wisdom Hong Kong, a local think tank.