Home Chennai Hu’s Who of China

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    When Modi was busy taking his famous selfie with the terracotta warriors, a respected newspaper quizzed a few Chinese about what they thought of India. The responses were quite revelatory. Uniformly, nearly everyone viewed us as a disorderly, Buddhist nation with an ancient past and an unattractive present akin to what was showcased in Slumdog Millionaire.
    Before we laugh off the unflattering references citing crass ignorance, let’s imagine a reverse vox pop. If a cross-section of our society were interviewed about China, we’re likely to portray our neighbour as a country of lookalikes, hiding behind the Great Wall, manufacturing cheap goods in labour camps, all while suppressing democracy and plotting world domination.
    Oh yes, we’re as pathetic, blinkered and clueless about their culture as they are about us. For example, we don’t even know that the conventional ‘last name’ is the first name for most Chinese. So Mao Zedong or Xi Jinping would have been Zedong Mao and Jinping Xi in any other part of the world.
    Another eyebrow raising fact is that close to 40 per cent of the population have the same 10 surnames. Wang (meaning King), by the way, is the most popular surname. Nearly 92 million people in China are Wangs. May be that’s why Wang’s Kitchen was picked when some foodie was thinking of a befitting name for a Chinese eatery.
    Asides aside, we don’t even know what Chinese names mean. The ‘Chang’ in Michael Chang stands for ‘prosperity’. The ‘Lee’ in Bruce Lee alludes to the ‘plum fruit.’ The ‘Chan’ in Jackie Chan cues ‘grace’. And Mao in Mao Zedong curiously implies ‘hair’. For a man with a receding hairline, that’s quite an ironic surname.
    Like most other nations, Chinese surnames broadly draw inspiration from dynasties (sample, Zhou), directions (Dong is west, Xi is east), official positions (Taishi is an allusion to the astronomer in-charge), craft (Gin is a potter, Wu is a wizard), and birth (Bo is the youngest, Ji is the eldest).
    Sadly, the eminently punnable nature of the surnames has given rise to a cottage industry of funny Chinese names. If you haven’t heard them yet: No Tsmo King is off ciggies, Chu Ying is into chicklets, Dum Gai is a doofus, Kum Hia is very approachable, Wei Ting is always put on hold and Sum Ting Wong symbolises the current state of equation between our two civilisations.

    Anantha Narayan

    Sino names piqued your interest? Share your Chinese whispers with anantha@albertdali.com.

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