Cultural context explain: naming
So… my book finally have paper back :)) Therefore, I want to celebrate this with a mini post in the #VNmyth series, but I’ll focus on explaining the cultural context this time. This week post about the dragon will not be affected and will be uploaded tomorrow.
Unlike the west, Chinese and Vietnamese tend to avoid using names of famous people, be that historical figure or mythological heroes. This has its root deep in the feudal time, with two of many examples below:
_ A famous sword call Xi Zhing Lung Yuan (Lil: Seven Star Dragon Creek / Dragon Den) had the second part of its name changed to Lung Xuan (Lil: Dragon Fountain) to avoid the name of the first emperor in the Tang Dynasty: Li Yuan. As for the name, legend said, looking at the sword felt like standing on a high mountain and look down on a deep stream. I struggle with this one because Yuan is a tart different in subtle meaning. The translation for abyss in Chinese is “Shen Yuan” (deep Yuan) if I remember correctly, so there’s that.
_ The second case is Cai Wenji, a famous woman in the era of the three kingdoms. Her original name was Cai Zhaoji but was changed to avoid Sima Zhao – son of Sima Yi and the father of the first king of the Xin dynasty.
Since modesty and respect are regarded very highly in our culture, the typical thought process of people isn’t: “I want my child to be as great as s/he is” but rather: “I should avoid that, in case my child can’t live up to the name and bring shame to the figure.”
And for the modern/feudal naming system of China, Korea, and Vietnam, they are different than that of the west. Usually, our names consist of three parts: the family name comes first + the middle name + the given name. It will take absolutely ages to explain it all, so I’ll keep it to the basic. Think of it as a lock combination with three slots, but instead of numbers, it’s Sino-words. And have you looked at the number of Chinese characters?? (Now, I’m not saying that every two random characters can be made into a name, but if you choose a word as your starting first name, it will probably have like 30-ish combinations to make a good name. And with 200-or-more-ish family names, it’s pretty easy to avoid repeating names of famous people since there’s only so many of them while we literally can have thousands of combinations for one first name.)
Also, while, in modern days, Vietnamese parents have started naming children after people they know and wanted their child to be like, the context is still usually that said person is not (too much) more famous/successful than the child’s own parents and/or aren’t national heroes. And while not every parent knows the meaning of their child’s name, our language is still straightforward enough that we can correctly guess the meanings around 90% of the time without having to look up the word root in a dictionary.
In fact, there is a tradition that lingered from the Vietnam War to this day. A lot of people – including my grandparents – would name their dogs John and Nix, after Johnson and Nixon. Now, calling someone a dog is considered an insult in our language since Vietnamese dogs used to eat excrement, so no respect whatsoever here.
All in all, to us, there is no respect whatsoever when an author just robs everything from a character, leaving nothing of their former self but the name yet calling it “inspired.” Ask yourself this, if it was only the name you’re keeping, why don’t you just make up another name in the first place? At best, the answer is lazy writing (as in: Because they don’t understand how the naming work over here, so they just use well-known names they can find online). At worst?? Then the authors are seen as treating our beloved culture as their profit cow to milk. And not just whites, Asian Americans made this mistake very often as well. The reason for the outrage of natives against these people is less often politic, or “you’re not Asian enough” or racism, but rather the misunderstanding/missing of cultural context.
Names aren’t just labels to us. Don’t slap it on just about anything irresponsibly; your “effort” won’t be appreciated.“
When in Rome, do what the Roman did.” You want to use our culture? Then please abide by our rules.
Note: Well, this just showcase we authors need more than just names and stories to get certain things about other culture right now, don’t we? Even our thought process have some differences that rooted deep in cultural contexts at a subconscious level.
And to me, at least, that is the beauty of cultural diversity. We are different, and that make room for tons of exciting things to learn. Things that a watered down, cosplayed version of any given cultures wouldn’t have.