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Denis Staunton: I had about three minutes to choose my new Chinese name

Beijing Letter: There is a Chinese version of the name Staunton, but it risked evoking unwelcome associations in today’s China

Big round glasses propped up above her pale blue surgical face mask, the woman behind the counter was looking through my press card application documents to make sure everything was in order. When she picked up one sheet of paper to peer at it for a third time, I knew something was wrong.

“Where’s your Chinese name?” she said.

When I said I didn’t have one, she told me I’d better find one because the format of the press card required a Chinese name as well as the one I’ve had all my life. I needed the card to move onto the next stage in my bureaucratic progress and the press centre was busy on account of the five-yearly congress of the Communist Party of China so I calculated that I had about three minutes to choose my new name.

I had already had a long discussion about it with my Chinese teacher in London during which we considered a number of options. As someone who had adopted a new name when she came to England years earlier, she was alert to the risk of making the wrong choice.


“Do I seem like a Charlotte to you?” she said.

There is a Chinese version of the name Staunton – 斯当东 or Sidangdong – a legacy of George Staunton who at the age of 12 travelled to China with his father on George Macartney’s mission in 1793 to set up the first British embassy there and learned Chinese on the voyage. But he grew up to be a British imperialist who backed the Opium War as an MP, so the name risked evoking unwelcome associations in today’s China.

There are only about 100 common surnames in China but parents are creative when it comes to naming their children, often choosing names that embody the characteristics they wish for. There are no hard and fast rules although most surnames, which come first, have one syllable and given names usually have two.

Names often reflect the political conditions at the time a child is born and one woman I met this week told me her name means “For the Benefit of the Country”.

Foreigners often try to choose names that sound similar to their own and there are a number of online Chinese name generators that suggest options. You put in your original name, choose a gender, identify your year of birth for the zodiac year and select the qualities you want to project – wealth and fortune, beauty and appearance, mind and intelligence or strength and power.

The generator produced a name my teacher in London thought was ideal, which included the name of an ancient poet and would impress and delight everyone who met me. The trouble was that it also included some of the most difficult sounds in the Chinese language for non-native speakers, including an r sound I had been struggling with for weeks.

So when I took out my phone in the press centre in Beijing and ran through the name generator, the first criterion was that the name should be one I could pronounce. The second was that I should not become the laughing stock of China.

As each suggestion came up, I would show it to the woman behind the counter for her approval but she refused to be drawn, telling me reasonably enough that it was up to me to choose my own name. Time was running out, her patience was wearing thin and when one name drew what I divined as a flicker of approval, I seized on it and told her to write it down on the form.

Shen Junjie 沈俊杰 had the virtue of being a name I thought I could pronounce, Shen is a common surname and the name generator said Junjie appeared in a book written almost 3,000 years ago. It was not until after I walked away from the counter that I noticed with some embarrassment what the name meant: talented person, handsome and capable.

I called my desk officer at the foreign ministry and said I had submitted a name for my press card that I feared could expose me to public ridicule. The previous day I had phoned her by mistake thinking she was an estate agent and launched into a monologue about bedrooms, bathrooms and square metres.

Now she listened with amused indulgence and texted me a few minutes later to say the name was perfect. I was not convinced so a few days later I asked my new Chinese teacher what she thought.

“Who gave you that name?” she said.

During our first lesson, she had identified a number of weak spots in my pronunciation that had gone unmentioned in London, including the letter j.

“Your name has two of them,” she said.

She suggested kindly that if nobody understood what I was saying I could tell them it was Junjie as in Lin Junjie, a Singaporean singer who has appeared in ads for Durex condoms.

Later that day, I was sitting in front of a police officer who was interviewing me for a residence permit when he broke into a grin so broad I thought his face mask would burst apart.

“Shen Junjie,” he said.

“Where did you get that name?”