Conferring Meaning Upon Our Names

Editor’s note: This post continues our series highlighting the stories of CP staff adopting new names, either Chinese or English. Naming is an important part of cultural identity, and understanding the stories behind the new names we take on when entering new cultural contexts helps us to understand each other and our histories. 

Brent lived for many years in China and currently lives in Idaho. He serves on the CP translation team.

When I introduce myself to someone in China for the first time, most people respond with some form of the same question: “How tall are you?” After they come to terms with my unusual appearance, they then generally address the second-most unusual thing about me: “Why did you choose that name?” 

I’ve met Chinese people with English names of varying degrees of strangeness — “Panda” and “Sunflower,” “Aristotle” and “Batman.” One Christian friend of mine named himself “Kane.” The first time he told me his name, I immediately thought of the Bible character cursed by God for murdering his brother. But after expressing concern, I was reassured that he did not name himself after “Cain” the man-slayer but “Kane” the WWE wrestler — you know, the demented arsonist and brother of the Undertaker known for setting his opponents on fire under the influence of demonic forces. I was relieved. 

But what makes my Chinese name unusual in the ears of Chinese people is not, as in the cases above, its strangeness but rather its striking normalcy. It’s as if a Chinese foreign exchange student introduced himself to you as “Harold Jenkins.” It is not strange because you’ve never heard anyone named that, but rather because it sounds like he could be a vendor at the local farmer’s market, or a raspy-voiced Vietnam vet, or a mechanic who sometimes enjoys one-too-many beers. The problem is not that the name sounds un-American but rather that it sounds too American. In the same way, I’ve been told that my Chinese name sounds too Chinese. One friend told me I sound like a middle-aged businessman living in Hong Kong. 

So, why did I choose this name? I didn’t. My Chinese teacher did. But even that is not exactly true. You see, my name was not so much given as it was generated. It was birthed by an algorithm. 

I’ve been told that my Chinese name sounds too Chinese.

I first began studying Chinese in college in America. On the second day of class, our Chinese teacher handed each of us a Chinese name, which she later told us was created by a “Chinese name generator” on the Internet. I don’t recall any of us being offended. We thought it was fun. Unlike many Chinese, who attach great value to names and view them almost as prophecies (or at least as wishes) about what kind of person a child will grow up to become, Americans are often much more pragmatic in their approach. Google tells me that my English name means “holy one,” which sounds impressive to my Chinese friends. But when I asked my mom why she and my dad named me Brent, she said, “It sounded nice.” 

I sympathize with the Chinese approach to naming because the Bible does. The names Abraham (“Father of a Multitude”), Peter (“Rock”), and Immanuel (“God With Us”) are directly tied to the identities and destinies of the men who bore them. Even though some people were not given names by their parents with any intentional meaning, we must not forget that in the end, it is God who names the characters in his stories — and sometimes he has fun with it. Is it a coincidence that the fastest man in the world is surnamed Bolt or that a thief who got away with stealing billions of dollars has the last name of Madoff? Sometimes it can seem as though we are living in a John Bunyan novel. But God also occasionally gives us our names for the purpose of irony, to highlight the disparitybetween our lives and our namesakes. The man who scorned God by betraying his only Son was named “Praise.” I know of one woman named “Grace” who is one of the most bitter and unforgiving women I have ever met. In the same way, there are days when I confront great sin in my own heart and wonder whether I, “Holy One,” am also a tragic character in God’s story. My Chinese name is roughly translated as “Strong Family,” and lo, I’m still single. 

It is God who names the characters in his stories — and sometimes he has fun with it.

The fact that we may turn out to be someone completely different from what our names suggest does not mean that the art of naming is futile. We must not be superstitious about our names, but neither must we be entirely dismissive of them. They are like clothes, which can either serve to adorn our bodies or to dishonor them. It all depends how we wear them.  

Some Chinese friends have attempted to rename me over the years, but I keep coming back to my first name. Why would I choose to be named by a random name generator instead of a human? Because even random generators are not random. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Proverbs 16:33). I keep my name because God gave it to me. 

Even though I do believe that names confer meaning upon us, we also confer meaning upon our names. Before the 15th century, the name “Luther” was associated with wealth and power. Now, everyone who hears that name thinks of piety and courage. Martin Luther gave new meaning to his name. In the same way, I keep my name because I hope that, in 100 years, when a Chinese person hears the name “Strong Family,” he will no longer think of a middle-aged businessman in Hong Kong but a faithful Christian devoted to the evangelization of China.  

Even though names confer meaning upon us, we also confer meaning upon our names.