Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Lost in Pinyin-ation

While in the Shanghai Museum a month ago, I picked up a museum guide flier “Treasures in museum’s collection” which featured this instantly forgettable sentence:

“Yuan Ji (Shi Tao), Zhu Da (Bada Shanren), Kun Can (Shi Xi), and Zhan Jiang (Hong Ren) were the four monk painters of the late Ming and early Qing period.”

It’s hard enough to internalize Chinese names if you don’t know Chinese (or if you do, but the characters aren’t alongside). But it’s even harder when everyone has two names, like all of these painters. The names in parentheses are their hao, what I would equate with self-selected pen names. Hao are often stamped onto paintings, in addition to signing. If the museum translated the hao after their names, the result would be as follows (my translation):

Yuan Ji (Stone Waves 石涛)

Zhu Da (Eight Big Mountains Person 八大山人)

Kun Can (Stone Stream 石溪)

Zhan Jiang (Magnificent Compassion 弘仁)

Now, those nicknames are much more approachable than the pinyin lets on! Visiting the Nanjing Museum on its free admission day over the May holiday, I found that the English translations alongside its artwork always gave just the pinyin names, too, even though everyone’s hao is interesting.

Someone should let these institutions know they need a new English translator. Do Chinese people not see the imagery of the characters like I, a non-native character reader, does? Hao remind me of Native American names because the symbolism is intentional, and are chosen to reflect the person’s personality. (Compare my dime-a-dozen “Lauren” to, say, “Buffalo Bull’s Backfat“).

Some famous Chinese have taken personalized naming to another level altogether: Qi Baishi (or should I call him Qi White Stone 齐白石), a modern Chinese painter most famous for his beginning painting at middle-age, used a host of hao on paintings, since he kept changing them over the years.

He didn’t stop with hao either; he also completely changed his first and last names, finally settling on the Qi Baishi by which he is best known. His “nomography” (I made that term up), which I have below, is a good example of how transitory a Chinese name can be (my translations):

Original surname and given name: 纯芝Chun Zhi

First hao: 渭青Green, 兰亭Orchid Pagoda

Later surname: 齐Qi

Later given name: 璜Huang

Later hao: 濒生Bordering Birth, 白石山人White Stone Mountain Person, 红豆生Red Bean Born, 木居士Wood Inhabitant…[1]

Qi Baishi is pretty typical in the number of names he’s taken as an artist. It’s as if a name is impermanent to Chinese people—at least all the famous ones, like artists, writers, and emperors. I wish I knew the history of this practice in China, or if any other cultures follow it. I mean, how do people do Chinese historiography research? How can you keep track of who’s doing what if their names constantly change?

Anyway, I don’t have those answers, so I’ll stop here and hope that someone will tell me. How is this at all relevant to laowai like ourselves? Maybe we should open out minds to the possibility of renaming ourselves as we change in life.

Next time you think about getting a chop made with your Sinicized name on it, reconsider getting a personalized hao instead. Or several. Maybe we can modernize them, as in “Skyscaper Hermit”, or “A retreat avoiding the crowds”…

[1] There are also some other weird hao he used which I don’t trust my own understanding enough to translate. He uses two characters, 寄 and 萍 often, which makes me think they have some personal meaning other than the vanilla translation. These are: 寄园, 寄幻仙奴, 寄萍, 毛萍, and 萍翁. If anybody has any guesses on these I’d love to hear.

1 comment:

syz said...

This is a fantastic idea. Although I'm a Pinyin partisan, this is clearly one place where hanzi combined with idiomatic translations would serve all involved much better. Have you ever tried to volunteer for the task at a museum? You'd think they'd love to have the help.

BTW, yes, I realize I'm a bit late in commenting. Just stumbled across your blog via Lost Laowai