Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mu Guiying and Chinese names


I've been reading in the New York Times (article here) how the Chinese government is trying to push through a name reform. Chinese families have of late been choosing more and more names which utilize unusual and uncommon Chinese characters. This has resulted in problems when issuing ID cards. Computers can not recognize these unusual characters and thus the government wants to issue a list of characters that future parents will be allowed to use when giving their child a name. This might sound strange to Western ears but in China the family surname, xìng性 comes first followed by one or two given names, míng . Surnames in China are quite limited as compared to say the United States where 70,000 surnames cover 90 percent of Americans. In China 85 percent of the population share only around 100 family names. Thus the importance put on the given name, which is created by the parents and has virtually endless possibilities. The government wants to limit the number of characters parents are allowed to use to around 8,500. Parents are just not having it though so nothing definite has happened yet.

My Chinese name is  Guìyīng 穆桂英. Whenever I tell this name to a native Chinese they burst out laughing and ask me if I know who Mu Guiying was. After all these years I do know of course, she was a famous female warrior and general and heroine of the Yang Saga, a popular fiction from the Northern Song, depicting the heroic Yang family  of warriors. Mu Guiying is often depicted in Chinese opera and she is as famous as Hua Mulan which is more well known in the West because of the Disney movies loosely depicting her  life. Brave and clever Mu Guiying is described like this by poet Du Fu in "Viewing a Student of Madame Kung Sun": “Her swinging sword flashes like nine falling suns shot by Yet the legendary bowman; she moves with the force of a team of Dragons driven by the gods through the sky; her strokes and attacks are like those of terrible thunder; and when she stops all is still as water reflecting the clear moonlight.”
Why do I have this name? It was given to me in 1991 by Chinese friends here in Chengdu. They thought that it both sounded like my real name (Ingrid/Guiying (or Yinggui in reverse) and  Morejohn/Mu) and that it of course reflected my personality. Can't argue with either and it's a name that has been very easy to use all these years. Once heard no one ever forgets me or my name!

You can read more here about the popular opera Mu Guiying Takes Command.

Walking slowly and eating doufu

There are many wonderful Chinese expressions that I enjoy hearing and using. A simple, very common one that you hear everyday is 走 mànmàn zǒu! Literally "go or walk slowly" but the actual meaning is Please stay! What could be nicer? Writer/artist Rabih Alameddine expressed delight in this expression at the Bookworm Literally Festival and his impish comment made me think how right he was, why rush through life when every little second is so interesting that if you don't walk slowly you might miss its many colors, shades and nuances?

There is another similar expression, used at the beginning of a meal, when a Chinese host asks you to start eating: 慢慢吃 màn màn chī = lit. "eat slowly". The thought here is not for you to be a good girl and chew every morsel carefully but to "enjoy your meal", in other words " bon appetit!"

When I'm on the subject of Chinese expressions it makes me think of another one that I learnt the other day. (An aside to fellow "Skåningar": Why do I hear HippHipp in my head -  "Expressions, uuuttryck"??) 

Let me explain:

Next week my family and I and a bunch of friends are going up to the mountains around Songpan in northern Sichuan to ride horses on a three day "horse trek". Over twenty years ago I did this once before, at a time when it was very new and there were few tourists in the area. The bus from Chengdu to Songpan took two days, stopping either in Maoxian or Wenchuan on the way up and the road was horrendous. I met another foreigner on the bus and we decided to do the trek together. We rented horses with a horse handler. (The horse handler is what I'm eventually leading up to.) The other day here in Chengdu a Chinese friend explained to me how you say "goose someone" (actually "tease or flirt with someone") in Chinese slang: Eat their tofu (吃豆腐chī dòu fu). Back to the horseman: every time I wanted to get back up into the saddle he was there as fast as an oiled weasel ready to "help me" by giving me a firm crotch hoist into the saddle, all the while with a wily Tibetan grin on his face. Upon hearing my telling of this memory (after recounting her own trials and tribs on her trip to Songpan) she burst out laughing: Tā zhēnde chī  de dòu fu le! He really ate your tofu!! 你的豆腐了!