Chinese Language Learning – Some Western Sinologists’ Chinese names

Chinese people often say “人如其名” (a person lives up to their name) and “顾名思义” (as the name suggests). Names indeed carry a lot of meanings, especially for Sinologists. Being remembered and spread implies being recognized and accepted. Clearly, these Sinologists are well aware of this principle and have put considerable thought into choosing their Chinese names.
1. Homophonic Naming

German poet and Sinologist, 顾彬.
The German name “Wolfgang Kubin” is translated into “沃尔夫冈·库彬” (Wò’ěrfūgāng Kùbīn) in Chinese. From this, we can see that the Chinese name “顾彬” (Gù Bīn) is phonetically similar to “库彬” (Kùbīn), showing how Wolfgang Kubin adapted his Chinese name based on the sound of his surname. “顾” (Gù) is a common Chinese surname. For example, the well-known actor Chen Daoming portrayed Gu Weijun, a diplomat in the Republic of China, in the film “My 1919,” and Gu Zengjian, one of the “Three Uniques of Beijing” during the Qing Dynasty, also had this surname. On the other hand, “彬” (Bīn) is a highly frequent character in Chinese personal names. Upon closer examination, it’s closely related to the phrase “文质彬彬,然后君子” (a gentleman should be cultured and courteous), found in Confucius’s Analects. Since “彬” is associated with the attributes of a gentleman, having it in one’s name naturally carries the aspiration to become a gentleman.

Because these two characters closely resemble common names in China, Wolfgang Kubin adopted the name “顾彬” (Gù Bīn) directly, which can be seen as an excellent coincidence, sparing him from the trouble of choosing a name.

The example of Gu Bin represents a common approach that Sinologists often use when choosing their Chinese names. They utilize the pronunciation of their original names and select Chinese characters with more elegant meanings, beautiful imagery, and elevated connotations for their corresponding transliterations.

For instance, the French Jesuit, sinologist, and historian Jean Baptiste du Halde chose the Chinese name 杜赫德 (Dù Hèdé) by using the pronunciation of his original name “du Halde.” Considering that “杜” is a common Chinese surname and both “赫” and “德” have positive connotations, he integrated these characters into his Chinese name.

Similarly, the renowned British sinologist James Legge chose the Chinese name 理雅各 (Lǐ Yǎgè). The pronunciation of “Legge” is similar to “理雅各” (Lǐ Yǎgè) in Chinese, which is why he adopted it as his Chinese name.

There are indeed many similar examples. For instance, American sinologist Edward L. Shaughnessy, who specialized in researching ancient Chinese cultural history, paleography, and classical studies, adopted the name 夏含夷 (Xià Hányí) in Chinese. Cyril Birch, a British sinologist who focused on Chinese vernacular literature, classical drama, and 20th-century Chinese contemporary literature, used the name 白之 (Bái Zhī).

Another example is the renowned German sinologist Christoph Harbsmeier, who chose the name 何莫邪 (Hé Mòyé) for himself. Serge Elisseeff, the first president of the Harvard-Yenching Institute and a Russian-French sinologist, went by the name 叶理绥 (Yè Lǐsuí).

Reginald Fleming Johnston, the foreign tutor of Puyi, the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, adopted the name 庄士敦 (Zhuāng Shìdūn) in Chinese.

The examples of these sinologists demonstrate a common approach they often employ when selecting their Chinese names. They use the sound of their original names and choose Chinese characters that convey more elegant meanings, beautiful imagery, and a more elevated sense. For instance, the renowned American sinologist Howard Goldblatt chose the name 葛浩文 (Gé Hàowén) based on the sound of his last name “Goldblatt.” He extracted the sound “Gol” from Goldblatt to correspond with “葛” (Gé), and he extracted the sound “How” from Howard to match with “浩” (Hào). The character “文” (Wén) was added for its meaning to create a name that sounds more like Chinese.

Many sinologists also extract the initials from their original names and then find Chinese characters that start with these initials or have similar sounds in Chinese. For example, Victor Mair, a prominent American sinologist and Dunhuang scholar, used 梅维恒 (Méi Wéihéng) for his Chinese name. “梅” (Méi) comes from his last name “Mair,” “维” (Wéi) is extracted from his first name “Victor,” and “恒” (Héng) was added to complete the name.

Similarly, American sinologist Jonathan D. Spence, deeply admiring Sima Qian and his monumental work “史家之绝唱,无韵之离骚” took the initial “S” from his last name “Spence” and matched it with “史” (Shǐ) to correspond with “Records.” He extracted “J” from his first name “Jonathan” and found the character “景” (Jǐng) with a meaningful association. The character “迁” (Qiān) was added to complete the name, signifying his dedication to scholarly pursuit and rigorous historical research.

Taking parts of their last names and/or first names and combining them to form their Chinese names is another approach that many sinologists adopt. For example, Pearl S. Buck, who lived in China for eighteen years and won the Nobel Prize in Literature for her novel “The Good Earth,” took “S” from her last name “S. Buck” and matched it with “赛” (Sài), a Chinese surname with the same sound. “珍珠” (Zhēnzhū), meaning “pearl,” corresponds with her first name “Pearl.”

In summary, when sinologists select their Chinese names, they often prioritize meanings that sound harmonious while holding significant personal connections. This process is governed by a mix of systematic rules and personal preferences, freeing their Chinese names from the constraints of their original names.

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