Saturday, July 15, 2006

China Stories Pt 16: Hi! My name is...

I had a job teaching English classes a couple days a week to employees of CAAC, the national airline. It was really fun- especially the first day, when my co-teacher and I helped our students pick English names.

Some students already had names, either because they had been given names by prior teachers, or because they had chosen names for themselves. Some students were more successful than others at choosing names. My class included a man named Sally.*

One interesting aspect of choosing names was learning my student's real names, and what they meant. Chinese given names can be descriptive, and revealing of the time they were born. For instance, at the time of Communist "Liberation," in 1949, many boys were named "Guoqing," which literally means "national holiday." Later, in the years when Mao was focused on modernization and catching up to the Soviets and the West, popular names included "Hongjun" (Red Army), "Guoqiang" (strong country), even "Gang," which meant "steel," or "Hong" meaning "red."


I have a name in Chinese. My name in Chinese is Bai Qingyun. It was given to me during my first year studying Chinese by one of my professors. The teachers tried to give us all names that were in some way reminiscent of our real names, but also sounded like real Chinese names. In earlier times, foreigners didn't really have Chinese names so much as Chinese characters that imitated the sound of their foreign names. So Frank became "falangke," John became "yuehan," Mary became "meili."

My surname, Bai, is also the name of an ethnic group in southern China. It's not one of the most common surnames; those would be Li (pronounced Lee) and Wang. Bai means "white." I took some pride in the fact that I shared the surname of my professor.

Qingyun literally means "celebratory clouds." White celebratory clouds. Cool. I thought it sounded Daoist.

On a few occasions, well-intended Chinese people told me to change my name. They said that the character "yun" had a feminine connotation. One of the taxi drivers suggested a new name for me, one which was more masculine: Bai Qinggang. White celebratory steel. I declined.

Bai Qingyun is my name in Chinese. It just is. It's been my name for almost 20 years. It's become a true part of my identity.


In my English class, one of my favorite students was Wang Jun. (Jun means army.) His English name was Jack.

He was born in the 1950s, in the early days of the PRC. He'd grown up in Beijing, and was an airline mechanic. We became friends - really, he was my first Chinese friend besides my teachers. He was the first Chinese person whose home I visited. It was a nice, clean little apartment, and he made dumplings, which I love. (I don't know why, but my experience has been that Chinese men don't cook, with the exception of dumplings. Men make dumplings.)

He was eager to learn English, but also amenable to speaking Chinese with me. Alternating between English and Chinese, we talked a lot. I was fascinated because he had lived through all of the recent Chinese history that I found so interesting.

We would walk and talk after class, but mostly he humored me, answering my questions. He had been a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, for instance. He had been present for an incident of interest to me.

In the waning years of the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao was in declining health and had been effectively co-opted by a group led by his wife, Jiang Qing. They were known as the Gang of Four. They were nominally left-wing radicals who claimed to speak for Mao and advocated "continuous revolution." They were said to have been the prime movers behind the Cultural Revolution. After their fall from power, they became the scapegoats for the entirety of it. They certainly deserved some of the blame, but also neatly shielded the beloved Chairman Mao from any blame.

One of the few brakes on the most radical and destructive impulses of the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards was China's Premier, Zhou Enlai. He was one of the original leaders of the Communist Revolution, along with Mao. Unlike many of Mao's other colleagues, he had deftly avoided being pushed out of power. He was China's leading diplomat for decades, and he was almost universally respected and loved by the Chinese people.

Zhou's death in January of 1976 prompted an outpouring of grief. Thousands of people mourned his death by going to Tiananmen Square on April 4 and 5. April 5th is Qing Ming, a holiday where people honor their ancestors by sweeping their graves.

The mass turnout in Tiananmen Square was something more: it was a daring act of dissent and defiance, a bold demonstration of dissatisfaction with the government. The government cleared the square of all of the wreathes and poems, which only aroused greater anger among the public. The turnout alarmed the leadership. They - the Gang of Four, supposedly with Mao's assent - decided to use force to clear the square.

It became known as the Tiananmen Incident, or simply "4-5" for short.**

My friend Wang Jun had been there - he told me about the people he saw, on the bus on the way to the square - people crying over the loss of Zhou. Many people wrote elegies for Zhou which also contained a subtext of criticism of the Gang of Four. He told me about a professor who sang a tribute to Zhou. About people being beaten.

This was something I had read about in books, but Wang Jun had been there- right there in the Square, in 1976. Imagine that.

*As names went, Sally wasn't too bad. In Hong Kong I met a Ringo and an Adolph. In Beijing, I knew a woman whose Chinese name was Rong Rong,so naturally her English name was...Echo.

**Much the way a later incident became known as "6-4."


At 11:46 AM, Blogger Tiffany said...

6 readers. I've just been keeping silent because I don't have anything to add... But I'm riveted none the less!

At 1:20 PM, Anonymous jules said...


At 2:19 PM, Blogger OneBadSue said...

Eight - (with italics!)

At 6:08 PM, Blogger Changeseeker said...

Now, Ish, you know perfectly well I've been here all along. Always. I just didn't want to chase the others away by being too attentive. I'm at least number nine.

At 7:41 PM, Blogger Fluffycat said...

Add me to your list of readers. This whole saga is really interesting.

At 10:31 PM, Anonymous megan said...


At 10:40 PM, Blogger Jules said...

The weird English names thing continues in China. When I was working there last year, we had one employee (male) called Stone, and another (female) called Windy. Initially, I thought she was called Wendy, but pronounced with a Kiwi accent, but apparently it was Windy (her favourite movie was Gone with the Wind, hence the name).

At 1:36 PM, Anonymous Mom said...

I too have been avidly reading your account of your China experiences. I love it especially because it is in your own voice--which is a good voice. Keep it going. I check for it every day!! love, Mom
p.s. I am learning far more about what you did than I ever knew before. Those were interesting times.

At 3:02 PM, Blogger k said...

I love the idea of the man named Sally, especially because I immediately picture some old-school, fat mobster smoking a cigar, standing with tomato sauce stains down his shirt manning a pot of sauce for the rest of the goodfellas. Who is also somehow Chinese.

At 9:30 AM, Anonymous Kirin said...

I am a reader too

At 11:09 PM, Blogger Ish said...

You guys! You're the absolute best. (Hi, Mom!)

k - you were onto something. In the Godfather, Clemenza is the one who makes the sauce. But his pal, played by (still living) legend Abe Vigoda, is Salvatore Tessio. Sally for short.

fyi, I'll mostly be posting on the weekend for now - I started a new job, so I am busy creating the illusion of toil. But please keep coming back!

At 5:07 PM, Anonymous sweetone said...

celebratory clouds! i love that.

interesting how the death of a public figure was a catalyst for the "tiananmen incident" in the '70s, since (if i recall correctly) the death of a public figure was also a catalyst for the later one.

At 5:55 PM, Blogger Ish said...

Sweetone, You are correct, and I'm about to get to that.


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