Personal Names in Asia

Zheng Yangwen and Charles J.-H. Macdonald, editors, Personal Names in Asia: History, Culture and Identity.

Singapore: NUS Press, 2010. Pp. xi, 339; preface, notes, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Nicholas Farrelly.

If you attend a graduation at the Australian National University one of the most striking things is the diversity of names read out: Thi Bich Huong Nguyen, Upul Kuamara Wickramasinghe, Amarachukwu Anyanwu, to name just a few. The senior professors who enjoy ceremonial responsibility for the conferring of degrees are faced with the challenge of inconsistent aspirated consonants and tongue-twisting velar nasals, to say nothing of the pitch of different tonal ranges. Getting the sounds right, in front of an audience of thousands, is no easy task. Who would want to be faced with pronouncing a name like Nakarin Saksrisuwan, or even something as apparently straightforward as Ko Thura?

During the average graduation ceremony, a perceptible murmur occasionally goes around the cavernous room right before an unfortunate Dean is expected to deal with one of those especially tricky, multi-syllabic Lao or Sri Lankan options. The audience, somewhat unfairly, can anticipate the challenge by reading along in the printed graduation keepsake. The pros, like those in any field of human endeavor, practice their pronunciation, and even their tonality, before the big day. The smile on the face of a graduating student whose name hasn’t been mangled is reward for their efforts.

New Mandala’s own Professor Andrew Walker has in recent years sometimes done the honours at ANU College of Asia and the Pacific graduation ceremonies. He is universally considered a strong performer who can handle the toughest pronunciation challenges. But arguably the star of ANU graduation ceremony pronunciation is actually a designated linguistics hitter who helps out some of the other Colleges – Dr Paul Sidwell: a name also familiar to many New Mandala readers.

This opening detour into the diversity of different names should remind us that our names, wherever they are from, come with interesting stories and layers of meaning. To give a simple example, somebody with the personal name of Nakarin, in the Thai context, is likely to have a more casual name too, and one by which they are most commonly known. So you might recognise him as “P’ Pang”. Such a “nick” name carries meaning on different levels: identity, hierarchy and individuality. Off-the-top of my head I have been known by five different first names for important periods of my life. Three of them are still in regular enough use. One of them is long forgotten, and one lurks just out of sight, ready for re-activation if circumstances permit. I have also been known by various and mysterious nicknames, epithets and the rest. Over a lifetime I suppose we all accumulate different names.

The question is, why are our names so complicated? In a 2010 book edited by Zheng Yangwen and Charles J.-H. Macdonald, Personal Names in Asia: History, Culture and Identity, the curious student of Asian societies and histories is offered a rollicking introduction to the abundance of regional naming traditions. Serious students of Asian societies will benefit from this technical introduction to what is a very public topic. Our names give us some indication of our identities. They also serve to provide markers of our relationships to hierarchy, and to each other. There are honorifics, house names and personal names, to say nothing of the range of other autonyms and tekonyms, and all the rest. Until we get confused, we usually benefit from the varied repertoires that are deployed to give flavour and meaning to the ways in which we interact.

The chapters in this book cover a breadth of Asian traditions from the Philippines in the nineteenth century to a “systematic” analysis of Chinese naming practices. There is an essay on “name-avoidance” by Kenneth Sillander and one from the late Ananda Rajah on the Karen. Magnus Fiskesjö writes about Wa naming conventions, and Mary Louise Nagata takes on names in early modern Kyoto. This is a collection forged in the eclectic: based in history, anthropology and linguistics. Given its ambitions, it deserves a full review, one appreciative of the richness of Asian naming traditions across space and time.


The volume begins with a short preface from noted political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott that picks up his preoccupation with “legibility” and “administrative technique” (page ix). Scott is inclined to consider the acquisition of names in the same frame as the various other technologies of control, even of subjugation, that have for so long drawn his scholarly interest and his criticism of state-expanding projects. In this respect, Personal Names in Asia is oriented, by Scott’s essay, towards a politically and socially astute treatment of a topic that should be considered in the same breath as other weighty sociological and political matters. Many of the chapters that follow demonstrate a consciousness of the ways in which names are used, and abused, in the service of power and wealth. From Anthony Reid’s and Charles J.-H. Macdonald’s Introduction onward, it is apparent that the themes of the volume–ranging from translation, to identity, to religion, and even to methodology–are grounded in deep histories and contested contemporary practices.

It is in the first four chapters, clumped under the heading of “the long view”, that we benefit from contributions dwelling on how we might understand the history of naming traditions in Asia. These chapters, by Anthony Reid, Francis Alvarez Gealogo, Zheng Yangwen and Charles J.-H. Macdonald, are especially strong on Island Southeast Asia and China. There is such diversity of practices–particularly with the lack of “surnames as qualifiers” in places like Java and Burma–that the regional frame helps introduce general lessons for the discussion of personal names.

As Reid puts it, “Southeast Asia is…a useful historical laboratory to examine what the difference is between societies that use family names and those that do not” (page 21). His discussion of this topic offers critical treatments of patriarchy and capitalism. Reid even uses one of New Mandala’s most debated personalities, deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to explain the nature of transformations in Thai family names (page 33). For Reid,

family names are one of the most salient variables needing investigation as a key to understanding cross-cultural variations in the reactions to capitalist pressures and opportunities, as well as to global cultural models. (page 34)

It is those pressures, as they were perceived in the Philippines during its long colonial experience, that motivate the next chapter, by Francis Alvarez Gealogo. Gealogo describes the Spanish effort to introduce a consistent naming system for the country was designed to “regularize record-keeping so [that] colonial officials could trace their subjects for purposes like taxation and law enforcement” (page 37). His analysis draws on a typology of Tagalog concepts that helpfully localise the various ways that people are named, with influences from Spanish and American traditions vying for precedence alongside a mix of vernacular offerings. It is a complicated story because of the ways that specific Spanish and Chinese naming traditions interacted with those of Tagalog-speaking people.

The complexities of history do not end there. Zheng Yangwen gives us an intricate naming scheme for Chinese that includes pet names, school names and adult names, as well as examination and occupational titles, official titles, and literary or studio names. There are also specific ways of naming emperors, well-known persons, religious believers and Chinese who are abroad. Charles J.-H. Macdonald’s chapter then offers a classification of societies in “insular Southeast Asia” according to three systems of naming: “paradigmatic” (“Class A”, as exemplified by names in Malaysia, Borneo and the Philippines), “syntagmatic” (“Class B”, seen in the “competitive” societies of Eastern Indonesia) and what he calls “titles/title system” (“Class C”, as found in places like Java and Bali). It is an interesting chapter precisely because Macdonald ends with the suggestion that “the variety and complexity of naming practices render any typological exercise futile if one wants to pigeonhole one and every system into a neatly laid category” (page 95).

Nevertheless, Macdonald’s categorisation of naming practices, and by extension societies, by different classes carries into the next three sections of the book. In those sections, societies in “Class A” are called “simple egalitarian societies”, those in “Class B” defined as “competitive societies”, and those in “Class C” are “complex centralized societies”. That so many naming usages blur the boundaries between these different classes mean, I am sure, that debates about appropriate classifications will continue.

The chapters in Personal Names in Asia focused on the “simple egalitarian societies” (Class A) draw on examples from the Bentian of Indonesian Borneo, the Karen of Burma and Thailand, and the Wa of the frontier lands where China meets Southeast Asia. While the previous chapters take macro-historical approaches, the treatment of these naming practices is more conventionally anthropological. Each of these chapters–by Kenneth Sillander, Ananda Rajah and Magnus Fiskesjö–looks closely at aspects of teknonymy, ethnonymy and autonomy as reflected in the systems of naming, egalitarian and otherwise, that have emerged in these different social contexts. Fiskesjö suggests that

because of the high stakes involved in the naming of persons, kin groups, ethnicities, or other social entities and associated claims, they will quickly become a focus for external forces challenging the autonomous structures where the power to name is lodged. (page 165)

Such power has become a driving force in the Class B societies, described, in broad brush, as “competitive”. The three chapters in this group–by Joel Kuipers and R.H. Barnes, who both write about Eastern Indonesia, and Ku Kun-hui, who examines contemporary Taiwan–give indications of how names are constructed. They introduce us to new concepts, drawn from recent ethnography. From Sumba, in Eastern Indonesia, we learn of “soft” and “hard” names. In Kuipers’s explanation: as “Henry has Hank as a nickname, or Richard is linked with the more casual Rick, so Malo is conventionally associated with Mette as a ‘hard’ name” (page 183). Weyewa speakers deem “hard” names sensitive, and the inappropriate use of one is offensive and can cause irritation. Barnes offers further explanations of the entangled philosophical and anthropological issues relating to this region in comparative perspective. Ku Kun-hui then takes the discussion in the direction of Taiwanese repertoires of house names, personal names, nicknames, names given by the state, and even Christian names.

The book ends with the chapters on “complex centralized societies”, places like Japan, Sri Lanka and Malaysia, which are grouped together as Class C. These chapters–by Mary Louise Nagata, M.W. Amarasiri de Silva and Hew Wai Weng–demonstrate the impact of distinct systems of hierarchy impact on the naming traditions. It is the Sri Lankan example, with its copious details on name changes among Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese, which offers the greatest insight. With a range of recent data, Amarasiri de Silva shows how efforts to switch from “low-caste” to “high-caste” names “reflect the intersection of the residual effect of caste and the modern manifestations of class structure” (page 262). He presents a table giving nine detailed and concrete examples of how this effect occurs in practice. For instance, the “low-caste” name “Dan Watta Liyanage Kamalawathi” is given an upgrade as “Illerperumage Dona Kamalawathi Ariya Wijenayake”. The general lesson is that “the change of family name can be seen as an attempt…to minimize the effects of caste connotations in … dealings within a class-based society” (page 284). The final chapter, by Hew Wai Weng, explores the naming conventions of Chinese in Malaysia, particularly Chinese Muslims. We learn that their “hybrid names”, like Rashid Tan Chi Ming bin Azahar Tan, “are a result of the official policy that prohibits Chinese converts from adopting a full Islamic name or maintaining a full Chinese name” (page 302). It is “state control” of such naming conventions that matters for Hew.


Even with such thorough examinations of these various naming systems, and of the politics that swirl around them, Personal Names in Asia has some obvious gaps for those who are focused on the Asian naming systems that we encounter most often. For instance, Burmese and Vietnamese names do not receive much attention. Indeed, it is with respect to the dominant “national” naming systems, including in places like Cambodia and Indonesia, that I still have the most questions. I guess that topic would merit a further volume. The book also neglects South Asian names. Early in their discussion, Reid and Macdonald suggest that these names are not “given adequate weight in this book, nor indeed in the existing literature, although they are particularly complex and tightly bound up with identity and gender issues” (page 7). As with most edited collections, I assume this omission is a consequence of the way that the book was assembled. In future, a study of personal names in South Asia, and in the South Asian diaspora, would be especially compelling. From my perspective, it is the various layers of identity and inclusion that are most relevant to any serious study of naming traditions, as Amarasiri de Silva’s chapter on the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka astutely shows.

I can imagine that in the years to come we will benefit from further studies of naming issues. How, for example, are we coming to grips with the layers of identity relevant to the online world? How much do we ever really know about each other, when our cyber interactions are so often designed to obfuscate our “real” names? Or have people already accepted the politics and sociology of these new sets of anonymised designations? For instance, comments on this review are more likely to come from somebody called “Grasshopper”, “Republican” or “Suriyon Raiwa” (whose namesake died in November 1973), than from somebody with a name like Kevin Hewison or Violet Cho.

In this context, the deployment and redeployment of names complicates our social and professional interactions. The enduring challenge is to give ourselves every chance to use names in ways that help us to understand the social and political character of our shared, lived experiences. Names will always raise questions, and not only about pronunciation. So if you want to understand the role of personal names in Asia then this book provides some stimulation for the life-long learning that will follow. It provokes us, in a basic sense, to consider the foundations on which we offer ourselves to the world. Our names are integral to our complex of identities. It thus seems fitting that we don’t, in most cases, have just the one.

Nicholas Farrelly co-founded New Mandala in 2006. He is Research Fellow in the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.