Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Two Quick Things


Americans rarely contemplate the intrinsic weirdness of Spain.  But consider Valencia.  Every year they celebrate the Las Fallas Festival, in which large and elaborate satirical statue-tableaux are set afire and burned to ash.

The Burning Man Festival is, by contrast, strictly amateur hour.

I'm still on the road, so I don't have the time to explicate.  But someday I hope to visit that strange land and witness that inexplicable celebration.

And since there are people reading this who know more about China than (alas) I ever will . . .

For a future novel, I need a source for the literal meanings of Chinese names, both of individuals and of cities.  Can anybody here recommend any?



Unknown said...

What’s in a Chinese name [Fang ming pu] by Lin Shan, for individual names

A Chinese-English dictionary

A Chinese person who can explain everything

Unknown said...

I had the same problem, writing a fantasy story in ancient China. I used this website with babynames and their translation

David Stone said...

For personal names, I think you will just need to break out a dictionary and look at each character separately, then run it by someone who knows Chinese (a native speaker) to assess what you came up with. As you probably know, Chinese people do not really have a very narrow range of common given names to chose from like Westerners traditionally have, and names for babies are chosen for their meaning. From what I can tell in the PRC this is often based on the parent's hopes for the child or other personal significance, not tradition. Thus I don't think there's a lexicon specifically for decoding names... maybe someone can prove me wrong here.

Also often the given names are intentionally polysemous, even punning. A common name is Wang Tianyi which regardless of what exact characters form the given name when spoken aloud supposedly sounds like something meaning 'tiger plus wings'. ('Wang' was used to allude to the tiger, the 'king' of beasts) Parents like this name because it means their child will be formidable, rise high in social status and personal achievements, etc. Even without being a pun, names often have multiple valid meanings.

If you're thinking of decoding the names of historical figures, I don't think biographical references necessarily break names down into meaning. Sometimes a biography might explain why someone's parents named them what they did, or if the name was chosen later in life, how it was chosen, etc. A more important question might be that of what the general public or later generations understood the name to mean.

So in short, simply looking stuff up in a dictionary and consulting a native Chinese speak will give you a good idea of what a name means. And if you cant decide between a few possibilities, the answer is often 'all of the above'.

For place names, a lot of times a 'literal meaning' is obvious from looking up individual parts in a Chinese-English lexicon. Often names are a conglomeration of geographical terms, or maybe a geographical term and the ancient name for a region. Most modern provinces are like this. Sometimes a place name is a compound made from two older names (example: 'Fujian' or 'Wuhan') of places that have been combined some how. Also a lot of places bear non-Chinese language names transliterated into Chinese, as well. Cities have historically changed their name a lot in China, and often the name has a literal meaning which is still pretty obvious to a modern-day person. The older traditional names for regions of the country often mean nothing other than the name of the region, though if you dig way back into early history and maybe do some etymological theorizing you can guess what the name meant at the dawn of history.

So for geographical names, probably an encyclopedia or other reference with as much information as possible about the region is a good place to look.

Here is a good bibliography for Chinese-English reference.

If you can't find this stuff in Philly, the Library of Congress has a huge Asian Reading Room with everything here and more, plus a very helpful staff:

Andrew said...

It's already been said, but I'll add my two cents anyway:

A dictionary is a good start but probably not sufficient. (Thousands of years of) historical associations, puns, and allusions are all things that won't reliably appear even in the better Chinese-English dictionaries I've seen, and these are much more prevalent in the Chinese language in general than in English.

While many parents do pick names based on literal meanings, sometimes names are chosen based purely on the sound of the name.

The solution to both of these insufficiencies is a native Chinese speaker, preferably one with a language and literature degree--like my wife :)
(I could probably persuade her to be an occasional reference if desired!)