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July 29, 1998
Dusk was falling when I arrived at Tiananmen Square. Above the hundred-acre concrete plaza the sky stretched a canopy of luminous cobalt. Mao's Mausoleum and the Great Hall of the People stood massive in granite at the edges of the square, and the Forbidden City (as the former imperial palace is known), with its high walls and sweeping pagodas, loomed to the north. Feeling diminished and a bit lonely amid this cold stone grandeur and failing light, I wandered out among the strolling Chinese, many of whom had come from far corners of the country to marvel at their national landmarks. There was a patter of footsteps behind me.
"Excuse me, may I practice my oral English on you?"
I turned around. Before me, chest-high, stood a pint-sized Chinese girl in her late teens. She was wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and untied Adidas sneakers, and she introduced herself as Ronnie.
"I study in the English institute," she said. "One must not be shy about approaching foreign guests, I say. One has to jump in there and speak one's English!"
I asked if Ronnie was her real name. Of course not, she answered; her Chinese name was Zhang. We chatted and walked around the square. Still puzzled, I asked why she called herself Ronnie.
"Let me explain that to you tomorrow. May I invite you to the Forbidden City?"
We agreed to meet the next day at Tiananmen Square at 12:40 in the afternoon. Not 12:30, but 12:40 -- "One must be exact!" she said, punctuating her last word with a rousing flourish of her tiny clenched fist. At that she wished me good-bye and took off running, her Star Wars backpack flapping as she bounded to the bus stop.
At 12:40 the next day I was standing at the center of the square, and at 12:41 I heard my name being cried out. Ronnie was running toward me full-tilt, stomping her little feet and waving. She theatrically wiped the sweat from her brow and apologized for being late, then took my hand and led me to the ticket office of the Forbidden City.
It is said that the Forbidden City was built over the course of thirteen years in the fifteenth century by a million laborers; its scale dwarfs even that of Tiananmen Square. We passed through gate after gate, from one vast courtyard into another, finally stopping by the Gate of Supreme Harmony. I again asked Ronnie why she had introduced herself with an English name.
"Foreigners don't remember Chinese names, and we don't remember foreign names. You're going to be in China for a while, so you need a Chinese name."
I asked if I could choose any name I liked.
"No! You convert the syllables of your name into Chinese phonemes so they can be written in characters." She whipped out a pen and a pad. "'Jeff' we don't have, but we have 'Jie Fu.'" She scribbled what looked like two stick figures. "'Tayler' we could say and write as 'Tai Le.'" With her pen she flecked out two more characters, held up the pad, and said, "See?"
I scrutinized what she had written. I had been studying Chinese and knew that every character, a representation of a phoneme but also a tidbit of thought, meant something. Moscow, where I lived, was written as "Mo Si Ke," or "No Then Science." President Kennedy's name had been famously Sinicized as "Ke Ni De" or "Gnaw Mud Person." What, I asked with a degree of trepidation, did my name mean?
She smiled and said, "That's easy. 'Jie Fu' means 'excellent husband.' 'Tai Le' is ... well, it means something like 'tranquil strangle.'"
We toured the Forbidden City and talked about why Chinese people wanted to hear foreign personal names, which one might consider inviolately original, rendered into their own phonemes. Partly this was owing to the character-based nature of written Chinese, which is a hindrance to linguistic flexibility, but it also derived from the very centrality of China in the Chinese view of the world. ("China" in Chinese was "Zhong Guo" -- "Central" or "Middle Country.") In fact, the Forbidden City, as the heart of the Chinese Empire, was once considered the very center of the universe. From such a vantage point, other peoples, other customs, even foreign names were extraneous, distant, unreal.
Later, Ronnie and I wandered back toward the square. Rechristened "excellent husband" and "tranquil strangle," I wondered how I now fit into the Chinese weltanshauung, and how much, after all, was in a name. A lot, I decided.
Jeffrey Tayler is a freelance writer and traveler based in Moscow. He has recently written on Greece, Moscow, Siberia, Transylvania, and Zaire for The Atlantic Monthly. He contributes regularly to Atlantic Abroad.
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