Names, and what they mean to us.

I always feel a thrill when I read a book and see Chinese names. The feeling that I am reading something I know and could connect with is enormous. So, when I picked up this science fiction novel this weekend, I was happy (at first) to see Chinese or pinyin names. As I progressed further into the book, my happiness turned to discontent and later to annoyance.

I wouldn’t lie I am not Chinese. I have a Chinese name given by my parents. My pinyin name looks like this: Zhuang Xiaowei. That’s my name. I answer to it. My grandma calls me Swee Wee in the Hokkien jialect; ‘Siok Hwee’ is a derivative from the Hokkien version. The English name ‘Joyce’ came much later.

The science fiction novel seems to tell me that in the far-flung future, people like me would exist. That people with names like Chingwei, Zhang or Mingzhou would live on colonies and planets, doing fantastic things. Most of all, I thought that these people would have histories tied to their names, where they lived, who they were and what they did.

Instead, I got nothing. There arose the discontent and annoyance. Instead, I got people with Chinese or pinyin names and nothing else. No hint of how they looked like and what language they spoke. No heritage or historical background. You might argue: Hey, it is the future. Quit being so fixated on origins and histories. I will argue back that origins and histories make up a person.

So, these people are essentially given names. Just names. They remind me of people who just adopt names for the fun of it, for the exotic sound of it. No significance, no inkling of what those names actually mean. The annoyance is a product of this disregard. I am annoyed, because I expected Chinese people behind those names. Instead, I got people. Just people. Nothing else. Even the woman named Mingzhou had red hair and blue eyes.

Perhaps, it would be nicer if these people actually had a history or histories. Perhaps, it would be better if these characters would actually look and sound like Chinese or at least descendants of Chinese people or groups. Maybe I am asking and expecting too much.

There is a certain kind of ignorance when it comes to giving characters names that sound Chinese, but are not actually Chinese. Remember Firefly? The ignorance is perpetuated if people continue to believe that Chinese names are so pretty and exotic. They are pretty, but they are not exotic for you, tourist. Please don’t do that. Our names have power. They make up who we are.

If you are curious what book I was reading: here. Perhaps, it’s the grim dark future and names don’t matter anymore.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sean the Bookonaut
    Feb 07, 2013 @ 06:47:01

    Considering it’s games workshop I am surprised that you even got Chinese names. I studied Japanese and South east Asian history at university level and even I would hesitate to use any of the cultures I studied unless I was portraying an outsider looking in. I don’t have the depth of understanding that would prevent me from annoying you 🙂

    It strikes me that a story could be much more powerful, much more layered if some of the history and meaning of names was included. Perhaps what we need is more writers from other cultures writing Gothic science fiction?


    • jolantru
      Feb 07, 2013 @ 12:54:56

      Indeed we should have more writers from other cultures writing Gothic science fiction (or any type of science fiction, for that matter).

      Perhaps, what would placate me is that at least there is some reason or background to their given names (in the novel). Names just do not pop up like that.

      I think this is a recurrent issue in SFF writing, the ignorance/obliviousness of writers to understand what they are writing about, especially when it comes to race and culture. Of course, as I have tweeted on Twitter, I wish I could write anything I want, but there are sensitivities I have to respect as a writer.


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