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. 


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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. 

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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. 

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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.  

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

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Further Reading

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The Internal Cross: A Pastoral Letter
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The External Cross: A Pastoral Letter
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Qingdao: How to Pray
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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

About Shenyang

Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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Stories from Shenyang

About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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Stories from Qingdao

About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

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Stories from Xiamen

About Chongqing

Chongqing is a city located in southwestern China and is a major economic center in the region. The city is known for its spicy cuisine, especially its hot pot dishes, and is also famous for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Chongqing is also home to several historic sites, including the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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Stories from Chongqing

About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

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Stories from Nanjing

About Changchun

Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.

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Stories from Changchun

About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

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About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

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Stories from Kunming

About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.

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Stories from Shenzhen

About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

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Stories from Chengdu

About Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 21 million people. The city has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years, and it has served as the capital of various dynasties throughout China’s history. Beijing is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in China, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. The city is also a hub for political, cultural, and educational activities, with numerous universities and research institutions located within its boundaries. Beijing is renowned for its traditional architecture, rich cuisine, and vibrant cultural scene, making it a must-visit destination for travelers to China.

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About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.

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