How Ancient Chinese Names Work - Learn from The Untamed

This is the blog version of Ep 17 of Avenue Xtra on, video is available to North American IP addresses.

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The Untamed, Chen Qing ling is without a question the most popular Chinese web drama in summer 2019. If you’ve gone through the episodes and paid a reasonable amount of attention, you might have noticed that everyone seems to have more than one names. Why is Wei Ying also Wei Wuxian, or Lan Zhan also Lan Wangji? What’s Han Guang Jun or Yi Ling Lao Zu, it’s …all so confusing.

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Well, no need to panic, I’m here to help, by the end of this blog you’ll know the ins and outs of the art of naming a human being practiced for centuries in ancient china.

First, let’s get surname out of the way as it would remain unchanged throughout a person’s life, unless weird body swapping happens you are stuck with the one you’re born with.

The Chinese character for it is “姓“.

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In China, as well as many other East Asian countries, surnames come first, for these people, the first Chinese characters in their names are their surnames.

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Now let’s talk about three different types of given names that a person can have throughout their lifetime.

They are ”名“ (ming), ”字“ (zi), and “号” (hao).

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Let’s take Lan Wangji for example, Zhan is his 名, Wangji is his 字, and Han Guang Jun is his 号. So he can be called as Lan Zhan, Lan Wangji or Han Guang Jun.

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But what is the difference between these names?

You 名 is your first name given to you by your parents when you’re born. Your senior blood relatives, such as your parents or grandparents can always call you by that name throughout your life. The King/Emperor of your time and your teacher can also always call you by your 名, although they may not choose to do so. 名 is for people who are closest to you in life or people who have absolute seniority over you, once you become an adult, your ming is seldom used by people other than the ones  mentioned above, if a general acquaintance call you by your ming, it will be considered as rude and impolite.

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This leads us to talk about the usage and purpose of 字. 字 is a name given to you when you become an adult. This applies to both male and female (male around age 20, female 15), although not everyone gets a 字, for well educated people with high social status, it is expected that you will get one. 字 is most commonly made up with two characters, and it often works as a further articulation of the meaning of your 名. Once you become an adult, most people will call you by your surname + your 字 to show you respect. Even your parents may often address you in this way, and when they suddenly switch to calling you by your 名, it could mean that you’re in trouble.

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Now here comes the tricky part, as we all know, love and hate can walk on a very fine line. Calling an adult by his 名 can mean disrespect indeed,  but it could also be an expression of intimacy, since only the “insider” of this person’s circle can call him by 名.

Very early on in the drama, before Wei Wuxian got to know Lan Wangji well, he already started calling him Lan Zhan, which definitely won’t sit well with Lan Wangji, but since he hardly shows any facial expressions, we’ll just have to imagine how offended Mr. Lan actually was.

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Once they got to know each well, most of the time they call each other by 名, especially when  they are alone, and during some pivotal moments of the show, the usage of  名 reveals their close relationship and heightened emotions.

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On the contrary, Lan Wangji never calls Jiang Cheng by his 名, he only refers to him as Jiang Wanyin, Wanyin is Jiang Cheng’s 字. Now you might ask since calling a person by 名 can be disrespectful, therefore 字 is invented, then why when Lan Wangji is totally pissed by Jiang Cheng’s action, he would still use his 字? Well, I would say because the cold and proud Lan Wangji never considered Jiang Cheng as an insider or a close friend in any way, so he doesn't even want to utter his 名.

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Now let’s talk about 号. 号 is also called 别字, meaning the other 字, as the name suggests, it’s like a second 字 that is used to show respect, but for a different purpose. 号 has no limit of characters used, it can often refer to where you’re from, what you do or what you aspire to. You can decide what your 号 is, and you can even have multiple ones. When people call you by your 号, it adds another layer of respect but also some distance.

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In the drama you often hear the lower generation Lan clan boys calling Lan Wangji as Han Guang Jun, because they are a generation below, calling him by either his 名 or 字 would  be inappropriate. When you use someone’s 号, you don’t add their surname before it.

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Some well known historical figures, for example, the most famous poet in Chinese literary history, Li Bai, Bai is his 名, Taibai is his 字, Qing Lian Ju Shi is his 号.

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Let’s qucikly run through the meaning of our two leads’ names in this drama. 

Wei Ying,  Ying is his 名, meaning, baby; Wuxian is his 字, it comes from an ancient prose “喜乐无羡赏,忿怒无羡刑”, which means when you’re delighted don’t reward without restraint,  when you’re angry don’t punish without restraint. Wuxian here means exercise your power reasonably.

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Wei Wuxian after his “fall of grace” is known as Ying Ling Lao Zu, he certainly didn’t make this one up for himself, and it’s a kind of infamous title that are not well meant. So technically it’s not his 号, but it functions similarly, used by people who dare not really call him by his 名 or 字. Yi Ling is where he gained his power and learned to control ghosts, Lao Zu means old ancestor (literal meaning).

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As for Lan Wangji, his 名 is Zhan, meaning clear, used to describe the clarity of water or blue sky. Wangji also has its root in an ancient prose, which means forgetting trickeries or manipulation, so you could say the two leads’ 字 are kind of paired up.

Han Guang Jun is his 号. Han means containing or holding, Guang means light, Jun is a respectful term for a person, similar to calling someone gentleman.

Here are some of the other characters’ 名 and 字 in this drama, not all of them used the full set of their names in the drama, and some of those names only ever appeared the the web novel upon which he drama is based on.

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Now you know the intricacy of traditional Chinese names, unfortunately, or fortunately, it really depends on how you look at the situation, this traditional is no longer used today. Although if you’re a poet, a writer, an artist or just love these cultural practices, there’s nothing stopping you take on he full set of 名,字,号. You can even have multiple 字 and 号 to your liking.

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