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Chinese names -- Ming 名 and Zi 字

About Chinese names, there is another kind of name besides Ming and Shi, which is nominated as Zi 字. In contemporary society, the word Name in Chinese is 名字 Ming Zi, while the concepts of Ming and Zi in ancient times, especially in traditional feudal societies, are entirely different.

According to the Chinese character research book 《说文解字》(Shuo Wen Jie Zi) (Explanation and Study of Principles of Composition of Characters It is the first Chinese dictionary that analyses the forms and origins of Chinese characters, which can trace back to Eastern Han dynasty 25-220), the original function of the Ming is the demand to announce the identities in a dark evening when people encounter. It is the request in daily life to clarify more specific identities than the basic pronouns like me, you, and her. The character 字Zi is a combination of “子” and“宀”. “子” represents the infants, and the “宀” is the house. Hence the character 字 means fertility when it was created. In ancient life, when a child was three months old, the father could give him a name, which was Ming. Because the child’s eyes already have a warm glow and can also make a sound when parents call the name.

Based on the set of etiquette in the Zhou dynasty, young men had a capping ceremony when they were twenty years old and would put their hair in a Chinese-style small cap with a hairpin. It marks the turning point in age, representing that they become adults and should get married and have children. In this case, the Ming name given by parents since birth is not proper for friends anymore; instead, the Zi is given to peers of similar ages. Correspondingly, girls have a similar ceremony to mark their adult age at the age of fifteen, which is named a hair-pinning ceremony.

In summary, Ming is used to present one’s identification, and Zi is the mark of being an adult as well as a further explanation of Ming, showing the virtues. Another name, Hao, is given by the owner to show personal wishes. When a person dies, the Ming is not used anymore but not the Zi.

There is a difference between the users of Ming and Zi. The elder and the superior can call the young and the inferior Ming, and the Zi is used between peers. The elder and the superior can also call themselves their Ming to show modesty. For example, Confucius consistently named himself Qiu 丘 in front of his students. But the father would never use his Ming in front of his children.

Generally, there are five ways to give a Zi during the adult ceremony, which are 1) the similar benedictive semantics of the Ming; 2) antonyms of the meanings of Ming; 3) the further development of meanings of Ming; 4) giving an explicate image based on the Ming; 5) the synonym of Ming in the same category. Usually, the meaning of a Ming is the best wishes from parents to children from the perspective of morals, such as humility, intelligence, benevolence, and righteousness. Zi can have the further meaning of the wishes of Ming. The famous strategist Zhuge Liang in the Three Kingdoms period has the Zi Kongming 孔明(wise as Confucius), which echoes his name Ling 亮 (brightness). The celebrated Hanyu with his name Yu 愈 and his Zi Tuizhi 退之, which are a pair of antonyms. Yu 愈 means making progress, and Tuizhi 退之means going behind ( it refers to being modest).

In Chinese culture, seniority and generation are vital, which can be presented by the specific titles for elder sisters, brothers, and uncles from the father’s family. When it comes to Zi, according to the birth sequence, the characters 伯bo,仲 zhong, 叔shu, and 季ji are utilized commonly. Bo refers to the first son, Zhong is for the second, and Shu and Ji are the third and fourth sons. For instance, the emperor of Wu in the Three Kingdoms period, Sun Quan 孙权has his Zi Zhongmou 仲谋, which demonstrates he is the second son of the family.

The significance of the seniority rules and the fabulous cultural value behind the Zi is evident through the knowledge of the Ming and Zi in Chinese traditional culture. Not only the influence of religions, social activities, agricultural development, and classical literature also impact Chinese names.


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