What was Confiucius called with first name? Joe? Brad? Mortimer or Bruce? Or maybe his first name WAS “Confucius” and none of us knows about his rear? In this case, his mom might have yelled “Fuci, dinner is ready!” when it was time to stop playing around with DIY philosophy kit.
While it sounds like silly fun, it carries some heavy stuff behind the laughter lines: The difficulty of name distribution beyond the nick name axis. Somehow everyone has already picked up on it somewhere that there was something the Chinese did differently. Was it the direction in which they are writing? Are they doing it from right to left? No, hold on, that was the Japanese. Bullocks, they are doing it from top to bottom. Yepp, but THEN they’re going from right to left, just like the Arabs do. Only those aren’t Asians, at least not the majority. But this takes us too far off the subject.
The only thing that, according to our sense of order, the Chinese do from right to left is their naming. Hu Jintao, Wen Jiaobao and even Mister Li – they all carry their last name up front (certainly, we now need to ask the deeply philosophical question whether or not we can actually still call the last name just that. But let’s not twist our last two brain cells over this).
So, comrade chairman is not happily greeted with “Hey Hu” when he takes his bicycle around the pond for a spin. Rather he’ll be thrown a more polite “Yoohoo, Mister Hu”. By the way: “Hu” also means beard or mustache, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he keeps a stiff upper lip.
So, the Chinese are turning their names around and start in reversed order. And they’re actually doing this with lots of things. Mister Johnson introduces himself this way: Hello, I am George Johnson, I’m working as an engineer at Intel in Santa Clara, California.
His business partner, Mister Zhang on the other hand does it like this: Hello, I am Zhang Yu, I work in China, Beijing at Honhai as head of inspection.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that all Chinese are coming on from behind. It’s more likely the much different perception of the importance of the individual that makes them do this. Being a little nasty we could say that in the West everybody thinks of themselves as the greatest thing on the face of this planet. In the East people believe they are merely a tiny wheel somewhere in the back of the much larger gear of society. The basic difference of one’s own identity can easily be displayed by asking the simple question “what’s your name”. You will hear “George” from the left and “Zhang” from the right.
Unfortunately though, as interesting as this information might be, it’s just as useless. At least it makes for some additional confusion. The reason is that some Chinese and Westeners are enlightened enough to try and come towards the other. This creates a large mingle-mangle of all sorts of combinations on name cards and documents:
and even Firstname, Lastname
The problem is that the names of the opposing culture are more often than not anything but self-explanatory. Is it Wang Bing or Bing Wang? Eventually you will have to ask. And once more you feel like the stupid tourist from next door.
However, asking also doesn’t necessarily get you very far. The reason lies within the previously mentioned circumstance that a “last name” in this sense is non-existant in the Chinese culture.
“Is Wang your first or last name?” usually would result in a puzzled face on the opposite side. Sticking to the truth he would reply: “Wang is … my name”.
Oh,really? We knew that already, John Doe, but which one of your names is it? This question makes his reflective cortex burn up and all you can expect to come out from him will be a cloud of smoke. He won’t understand why you’re asking for only a part of his name.
Certainly he does know the difference between the family name and the given name. In China though, people will either call one another by nickname, a construct of a title and last name or the full name. The latter certainly by putting the last name – or what you want to call it – first.
And who knows – maybe this is the root of the old saying “the last will be the first”.