BEIJING — Ms. Wheat Golden Farmer. Was that really the new me?
When I was offered the chance to move to Beijing, I was excited about picking a Chinese name. After all, how often does one get to select a new identity?
In China, the names of foreign movie stars and politicians are typically rendered in Mandarin with direct transliterations — Bill Clinton, for instance, is written with characters that sound like Bi-er Ke-lin-dun and have no real meaning. Sports heroes earn nicknames — NBA player Carmelo Anthony is Tian Gua, or “Sweet Melon.”
But many expats working here adopt shorter names following traditional Chinese form: One character for the family name, and one or two others for the given name.
As a kid, I was fascinated with Native American names like Sitting Bull or Running Bear. Chinese names can evoke similarly vivid images, conveying much more personality than, say, Bob or Jennifer.
Mark Rowswell, a TV star from Canada who speaks fluent Mandarin, goes by Da Shan, meaning simply “Big Mountain.”
I wasn’t planning on anything as grand, but I imagined perusing my Chinese dictionary over pots of tea, looking for the perfect combo of characters that would connect to the sound of my English name yet convey some essence of myself, perchance a bit of mystique.
The cadres at the Foreign Ministry’s International Press Center, though, had another idea.
When I began my application for a press card, part of the process for receiving a working journalist visa, I found I had already been assigned a name. It was Mai Jinnong, a very loose adaptation of my Finnish surname, Makinen. The characters’ meaning? “Wheat Golden Farmer.”
“It sounds rural,” one of my Chinese office colleagues commented, giggling.
Opined another, cautiously, “That sounds like a man’s name.”
Further research revealed that Makinen already had an officially designated (though equally unappealing) Chinese equivalent. According to the state-run New China News Agency’s 800-plus-page style manual on transliterations, I should be Ma Jinen, three characters meaning “Horse Basic Tender.”
Picking an appealing Chinese name is important, both for individuals and overseas corporations. Coca-Cola’s Mandarin name, Kekou Kele, links closely to its English source and loosely translates as “Tasty and Fun”; it’s widely regarded as a great combination of sound and significance. Microsoft, in contrast, has been derided in China for its rather literal moniker, Wei Ruan, with the unfortunate meaning “Slightly Soft.”
Vladimir Djurovic, president of the Shanghai-based brand consultancy Labbrand, which has worked with more than 100 foreign firms, including Marvel, to select Chinese names for their companies and products, said that arriving at a proper name is a multi-step process that typically takes his team four to 12 weeks.
It involves sorting through hundreds of possible character combinations, screening them to see whether they can be trademarked and testing them in multiple dialogues. “If you take 10 names that sound good in Mandarin, three of them will have serious problems in Cantonese,” he said.
Tesla Motors, the California electric car company, recently found itself in a Chinese name thicket when it opened its first mainland showroom in Beijing. Tesila, the common transliteration for Nikola Tesla’s name, has been registered by a local businessman who has refused to give up the trademark. So far, the company has yet to choose a standalone Chinese name.
Andy Chuang, a native of Taiwan with a background in psychology, runs a Fresno-based company called Good Characters that helps individuals choose names, with packages starting at $50. “Working with businesses is more profitable,” he said, “but I enjoy working with individuals more because they are the end customer and they care about their own name.”
I didn’t have the luxury of engaging a consultant, so a co-worker and I quickly searched online again. I wanted the “ma” sound for my family name, and two other characters approximating the sound of Julie. But the standard rendering of Julie, written with characters meaning “Medicinal Herb” and “Jasmine,” was ruled out after another co-worker remarked, “That sounds like a plant.”
We filed the form with Ma (“Horse”) as my family name. For my given name, we settled on Zhu Li, meaning something like “Pearl Striving.”
I felt like a dazed mother who goes into unexpected early labor and scribbles “Banana” on the birth certificate in the delivery room. As I recounted the episode to a Chinese friend, she frowned. “You should go see a fortuneteller,” she said. “In China, parents often do this for new babies. Don’t leave it to chance.”
So in the shadow of Beijing’s Lama Temple, I found the cramped office of Zhang Buyuan, a 75-year-old with a Confucius-style beard. Like Chuang, his services start at $50.
Zhang looked at my birth date and hour, then consulted texts to see which of the five elements — wood, fire, earth, metal and water — I was supposedly weak or strong in. Next, using numerology, he determined the number of strokes my name should ideally have.
I asked him about Wheat Golden Farmer. “Unlucky,” he scoffed, counting the strokes of the first two characters. “They add to 19, which signals a short life.”
I wondered whether the folks at the Press Center had intentionally cursed me. But he was equally dismissive of my alternative. “Zhu Li? It’s a lonely name. You will be without a partner. You need a good, fortunate name, like Da Shan.”
Zhang jotted down my birthday on a small notepad on his desktop, crowded with walnuts, cough drops, calligraphy brushes and a computer monitor. He flipped through books of characters handwritten in black ink.
“Your personality is close to the soil. You’re down-to-earth, loyal and honest. You don’t like money in your life,” he told me. Then, with no hint of irony, he added, “You should be an official, a politician.”
What I lacked, Zhang concluded, was fire. He suggested a name whose first two characters totaled 24 brush strokes; according to his texts, 24 meant fire. “Horse,” he said, was good for the first character. That’s 10 strokes, leaving 14 for the second character. How about Meng, he asked. It means “Dream.”
I laughed. Meng is one of the strongest political catchwords of the day, popularized by President Xi Jinping and his vague but appealing notion of “The Chinese Dream.” The phrase is plastered on billboards across the nation.
In the pre-communist era, names incorporating the characters for “fortune” (fu) and “wealth” (cai) were popular; after the 1949 revolution, more patriotic given names like Guoqing (“National Day”) came into vogue. If I chose Meng in the Xi era, I asked, would it be like a Russian mother in the 1960s naming her kid Sputnik?
“You can add a third character,” he said. “How about this one? It means ‘emperor’ or ‘husband.’” That would leave me as Ms. Horse Dreaming of Husband.
“Do you want to meet my son?” Zhang asked, mischievously. “He’s 48, divorced, a professor. He’s tall too!”
I thanked Zhang and left. “What are you going to do?” my co-workers asked.
Unlucky or not, I said, I’m sticking with Ms. Horse Pearl Striving. It’s already on the form, and it’s better than Banana or Wheat Golden Farmer.
And hey, if I enter myself in the Kentucky Derby, at least I won’t have to change my name.
Tommy Yang and Nicole Liu in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.