Thor's Korea Diary

About Names

@10 April 2003

Reference: Cal Poly Pomona Asian name pronunciation guide


Names are funny things. You can summon the devil with them, marry with them and get sent to war because you own one.  Slaves in many a country,  including old Chosun, were not allowed to inherit one. As a prisoner or bank customer you might be dehumanized by a mere number. We have nick-names and pen-names and nom-de-guerre, not to mention intimate bedroom names and lately, avatar names for Net chat flights of fancy. In short, a name is our social mask, sometimes chosen at whim, sometimes imposed on pain of death.

From that first stare of infant school disbelief my own name has had the caste of a trickster's magic cloak. No one called Thorold Pyrke May could possibly belong down in the mosh pit with the Johns and and Marys and Ians. Teachers would circle around it like a possibly contagious virus. What god-forsaken failed state could the owner of such a moniker hail from, and how had he wound up in the bacon-and-eggs-and-steamed-pudding-world of Australia (97% Anglo-Irish in 1945, when I was born) ? As a teenager, armed by a thousand slights, I would argue fiercely that Thorold (old English, 'the might of Thor') had come to England with the Viking invasions 1500 years ago ... But it was all too complicated. Thorold was a non-starter, didn't stack up for friendly familiarity along with Tom, Dick and Harry. But they couldn't quite squash the owner either; it didn't belong with all those greasy Southern European labels like Alfonso and Dimitrius which had begun to invade the pure Anglo heartlands of Sydney town. No, there was something elvish, something of a wizard flavour about Thorold that seemed faintly dangerous. Best to leave its owner alone ....  Later, much later, lobbing a job as a traveling salesman on the mean city pavements, the price of exotica became too high. "Hi", I'd grovel, "I'm Tony from Business Equipment...". Escaping slick Tony was to breath oxygen again, to claw out of the fetid swamps of commerce into the high lands of intellectual splendour. Well, not too splendid. 'Thor' edged in as a compromise.


But even 'Thor', disguised in flattened monotone of Australian street talk, was a cultural missile way beyond the calibration of your average boozy bloke. Resignedly, I'd offer the handle : "G'day, I'm Thor",  then wait for the ricochet. It was pretty predictable. "G'day Phil", they'd shoot back. "Yeah mate..". It was no good correcting them. More than once some bozo has turned aggressive and argued heatedly that I'd said "Phil". There was a puzzle here. Maybe it's why I became a linguist. Phonologically, /th/ is an affricate, /f/ ('ph') is a frictative, so they are pretty close. If you think about it, not many common English given names start with these sounds. When the average person hears something like /f/ or /th/ their mental computer does a rapid search amongst the small store of candidate words, and selects what it thinks is most likely. Then that becomes a biblical certainty in the individual's memory. Apparently their critical  faculty doesn't extend to the entirely unrelated final sounds in Thor and Phil (/or/, /il/).


So  what's the lesson from all this whacky name stuff? My rocky history perhaps taught me sooner than most folk that names get you into mind-game territory. They are more potent social symbols than blow-dried hair-dos and pointy shoes or nose rings. With name X you are destined to be an insider or outsider, glamorous, opaque or ordinary. It is hardly surprising then that a study of the names in a community, and their lineage, is like picking through the archeological layers of Africa's Olduvai Gorge, piecing together a broken tooth here, a bit of jawbone there, until you have an outline of the whole hairless ape in its ancient glory ...


In 1998 my transition from the barbecue backyards of suburban Australia to the hazy concrete canyons of a central Chinese city amounted to junking all the accumulated reminder notes in the margins of my mental encyclopaedia. Half a century of survival tips down the drain. No longer could I wrap, tape and stamp a man for instant mental reference, just by eyeing the droop of his shoulders and the vowels curled on his tongue. And I too was a walking enigma, a ghost under the feet of Wuhan's seven million busy bodies. To them, John, Jill and Thorold Pyrke May were equally strange, unpronounceable, and instantly forgotten. Would it be a smart move, I wondered, to rewrap my big nose with a friendly Chinese name ?


Putonghua, standard Chinese, is the most unornamented of languages, at least to an outsider. Where English hedges with 'woulds' and  'coulds' , Chinese brutally dumps two possibilities on the same chopping block and leaves it to you to draw your conclusions. Qu bu qu ? -- go not go ?  it demands, shi bu shi ? -- is it isn't it ? .. How then was it going to handle the cultural minefield of human names? Some of the anecdotal comments I heard didn't sound promising. Many a family, it seemed, had the poetic imagination of a pickle factory commissar. Translated, one would meet Brother One, Brother Three, Sister Two. Then there were those miserable women stuck for life with the appellation 'Miss Waiting-for-little-brother', and perhaps thanking their lucky stars that the pregnancy ultrasound test had not fingered them in time for an abortion. But what the Chinese language loses in syntactic elaboration, it more than compensates for in the baroque associations of its pictorial script. This script is the coded poetry of the Chinese soul, learned in blood and sweat over years of hard labour, but once mastered is a key to chains of association, prompted with a few deft strokes, but emotionally stretching into the misty distance. Each hanzi (character) is like the musical note of an ancient and complex instrument, rich in timbre and resonating with its companions to harmonies that, every Chinese man and woman is certain, are forever closed to the ears of foreign barbarians. And so, of course, it goes with Chinese names. The magic is not in the naked puffs of sound, but in the brush strokes from whence they arise. Communists or no communists, the choosing of a name character can be a matter for careful consultation with monks, scholars and fortune tellers. The number of strokes is important, for there are lucky numbers and unlucky numbers. And the character expected of the child, from many portents of astrology and divination, can also bear upon the choice. So for every pickle factory commissar there is also another mother whispering the safe choice of a lucky name, or in stirring times a father naming his son for the glory of revolution. Not so boring after all.


Historical China, like many traditional cultures, was a layered society where the importance of names and obligations attaching to them multiplied as you progressed up the social ladder. A gentleman, graduated from the imperial examinations, stood at the apex of this hierarchy, and the names by which he was referred to or addressed could reflect this complexity. Upon achieving maturity it was often customary to adopt a new name. Again, as in other cultures, chameleons like major political figures often became known by different names to different constituencies. For example, Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China in 1911, had several names and took on a variety of pseudonyms for revolutionary activity. At missionary school in Hawaii he was Dai Juog. The missionaries christened him Rih Xin (Yat-sun in Cantonese), meaning 'new day',  then later changed it to I-Xien (Yat-sen in Cantonese). Decoded through the magic of hanzi characters this carries flavours of 'free', 'extraordinary' and 'immortal spirit'. A name like that seems a bit overdramatized to buy your daily bowl of rice with, and a world away from 'Miss Waiting-for-little-brother', but that is all part of the tapestry of contradictions which make up China.


How then would the bold pretensions of the Viking thunder god, Thor, translate to a Chinese pantheon? At 168cm tall I've always been a kind of parody of my celestial namesake. Immortal Thor was forbidden to cross the Rainbow Bridge from Earth to Asgaard (home of the gods) for fear that his weight would break it asunder. No matter, a certain Chinese lady who had convinced herself that she wanted to be Mrs May (an extraordinary idea, gracefully declined) put much time and thought into a my proper Chinese identity. After consulting a judge and various luminaries she presented me with  Mei Tian Xiao. Luckily, in Chinese 'May' is close enough to 'plum blossom', a well regarded flower because it is hardy enough to bloom in winter. Tian is 'sky' and the fairly rare hanzi for Xiao means ' a roar, a shout', so Thor is suitably acknowledged. Was all this sound and colour a formula for sly mirth, I wondered ? It seems not. Others, entire strangers, have spontaneously assured me that it is indeed a beautiful name. The lady admirer gifted me a carved ox horn seal (yin zhang) with my name engraved in ancient Zhuan characters, quite illegible to any modern Chinese, but the essence of a seal is its uniqueness after all. Ah, so much glory for a paper dragon who, to be drearily honest, has neither destroyed old worlds nor built new ones in this life, and seems somewhat unlikely to ...


My transition to South Korea posed the problem of identity all over again, though here the element of foreign name confusion was much less pressing. In Wuhan I was one from a hundred or so big noses in a city of seven million. Korea though has been force-fed through an  American military machine and still hosts 38,000 GIs. For a generation American English has seemed like the path to riches, and people spend absurd sums of money trying to acquire it. Yet scratch the surface and the limitations of hamburger culture quickly become evident. Firstly, Korean is a mind-bendingly different language in its organization from English; (tones apart, Chinese by comparison is child's play). Even Koreans who have clawed and contorted their mental machinery enough to produce some imitation of fluent English are apt to admit that it gives them a headache. Sizable numbers of individuals cling to a treacherous landscape of sub-English in a mixture of desperation and hatred, a kind of national psychosis. Dilettante Anglo adventurers like me, timidly reaching towards Korean, face similar barriers of course. Given this gulf, it seemed to me that the modest gesture of hosting a Korean name couldn't do any harm.


Not long after my Korean arrival I asked an administrative functionary, who happened to speak some English, his views on a suitable Korean name. The immediate idea was to put something on my business card. Ever polite, he came up with  Mae Cheon-so. I had told him about the etymology of Thor, but I doubt that it registered, and it later turned out that I'd collected a pretty meaningless bunch of syllables. It didn't matter too much. Literal meanings, they told me, weren't important with Korean names as long as they had three syllables. (See Pomona Pronunciation Guide to  Korean names).  The classroom English names acquired by Koreans (and Chinese) were after all mostly quite random and devoid of personal attachment; (also changed at whim). Gradually I understood that these unsentimental English tags were often a fair reflection of disinterest in Anglo culture generally. The English language in Korea is, at this stage of its history, a spanner but not a family heirloom. Of course they assumed that my "Korean name" could be equally accidental if I insisted on such a thing anyway. As it happened, I found a real use for the name faster than expected. My bank demanded a Korean name when I opened an internet account. It was one of the few banks with an English language service, but the concessions only went so far. It was absolutely impossible, their computer programs analyst e-mailed me, to enter [ridiculous] foreign names onto their data base. Why, extending the database field forms beyond three syllables would take up huge [sic] amounts of hard disk space; (hmm I wonder how, say, the Sri Lankans with names in double digit syllables ever manage to run a banking service ....). 


Silly names for foreign games are one thing. Korean names for Koreans though are a deadly serious business with a torturous history. That information wasn't volunteered by Koreans themselves; (at least the folk I meet are polite and cordial, but rarely forthcoming beyond small talk). However, it is almost impossible to probe Korean history without stumbling upon the role that personal names have played as cultural symbols. To start with the present, Koreans are pretty well unable to change their formal names by any legal process; (very different from Australia where it is a simple administrative act). As with laws of marriage and inheritance (much resented by progressive women), name laws are rooted in Korean history. In Chosun Korea, where social classes were set by law,  your name very firmly set your place in society. As yangban (aristocracy) you were generally exempt from taxes and military service. As a slave you had few rights; as a despised merchant, a craftsman or a farmer your name locked you in for all kinds of obligations. In spite of its small geographical size, Korea was also an area of fierce regional clan rivalries (this still splits national politics and even affects marriage choices). Clans are structured about names. However, the neo-Confucian extremism of Chosun Korea bred much hypocrisy (as ideology everywhere tends to do). By the final years of the Yi Chosun dynasty vast swathes of the population had changed their family names to those of a few powerful yangban families. This was done by bribery, forgery, and stealth, but finally made a mockery of the whole caste system.


Perhaps 60% of modern Korean words have a Chinese origin. Until very recently the Korean writing system, hangeul, itself was despised (although any Korean will now parrot its claimed brilliance and the foresight of King Sejong who commissioned it in the 13th Century). Its seems to have been almost a foundation belief by the Chosun glitterati that all things Chinese were superior and all things native Korean were rustic. This certainly went for names, and Chinese names were widely adopted along with all the mystique and superstition that went with writing their character forms. Thus most current Korean personal names have a Chinese source, and a hanja (ideogram) form loaded with associations like their mainland Chinese equivalents. Unlike English, Chinese is an hierloom but not often a real tool for ordinary Koreans. It must be said that, scholars apart, these ordinary Koreans know little of the etymology of their general vocabulary, or of their names.


Sometimes the Korean name game has strange outcomes. An American Korean, James Choi,  on a Harvard web page records that "..You see, every Korean clan has a poem by which the children in each generation are named. According to the poem, I was supposed to have the character hyun in my name. But my grandmother went to a fortuneteller to get my name instead. Thus, the first character of my name, jin, has 19 strokes in Chinese, and the second character, woo, has 6 strokes, corresponding to my birth year of 1976 for good luck. This makes for interesting story-telling, but it also completely mangled the meaning of my name. Jin means "to press down," while woo is an exceedingly rare character which means something like "a small pond." Such is the price of superstition."


From 1910 until 1945 Korea became a Japanese colony. The avowed aim of the Japanese overlords was to destroy or discredit every vestige of Korean culture. It was a perverse obsession with deep psychological roots, for much of Japan's material culture, not to mention its royal lineage, had a Korean origin. Japanese imperial mythology required a repudiation and denial of these links (a denial maintained by most Japanese to this day). The Korean language itself was forbidden as a medium for education, business or administration. As an ultimate act of cultural genocide, every Korean was required to take a Japanese name. In World War II many Koreans found themselves trapped in the Japanese military machine, usually at the very lowest level, and the Yasukuni war shrine has duly inscribed the Japanese names of 21,181 Koreans together with 20,000 Chinese and 2.46 million Japanese - a matter of some contention (July 2001 Korea Times editorial ). Needless to say, liberation from the Japanese yoke in 1945 led to a fierce popular reaction, with all things Japanese stigmatized. The Japanese names of Koreans were a quick casualty. Yet for one group of Koreans, even these hated Japanese names became an hierloom.


After World War II a significant number of Koreans remained in Japan for various reasons. They were stripped of all civic rights and suffered great discrimination, usually mitigated by hiding their Korean origins whenever possible. Today these folk comprise 1% of Japan's population. Almost 80% of such Korean people use only Japanese names (referred to as "passing names"), 15% of them use both Korean and Japanese names, and only 5% use their real Korean names (see Felix Ramli and Miha Chon 1999 ). It has been argued that many younger people affected in this way are far more familiar with their Japanese identity than their Korean inheritance (a process familiar to cross-generation immigrants the world over).


It seemed then that by taking on a Korean name I was trading into a very messy business. Should I remain satisfied with  Mae Chon-seo ? My employer, the sometime Sungsim College of Foreign Languages has just been swallowed by another institution, Youngsan University. Hence a new name card is in order, and perhaps a new name. This time I have sought the views of a fair cross section of university staff and students. Their responses have been diverse. One professor suggested  Haneul U-lim, Haneul  meaning 'sky' and U-lim a 'roar, a peal'. Mae would have to be dropped, since the full quota of three syllables is used up. Well, it meets the 'Thor' connection, but class after class of students gave it an almost universal thumbs down. They immediately picked up on the hanja (Chinese character) representation though, and read it as  Cheon-seong, which was apparently quite acceptable. Cheon is the word normally used for 'sky' or 'the heavens'. What was going on? Another Korean language professor gave me the clue.  Cheon-seong, she complained, had a Chinese taste about it, whereas  Haneul U-lim was indigenous Korean. Yet it was the Chinese version, she reluctantly conceded, which was socially acceptable, especially since Seong was a common name when cast in a different hanja meaning 'successful'. My students, by and large, have no idea of etymology, Korean or Chinese, and are desperately ignorant of history. Clearly, the very names through which they are known have been successfully colonized by a foreign Chinese culture, yet they would fight the death to defend this 'Korean' identity. Just as common Japanese can remain impervious to suggestions of Korean influence behind a wall of ignorance, so ordinary Koreans have assumed almost unknowing ownership of a Chinese heritage. However that may be, with some lingering worries about the vainglory, I've more or less adopted  Mae Chon-seong.


Some of my informants had more imaginative ideas. One suggested  Cheon-u , 'Sky Rain' which seems kind of nice, and less strident than 'Sky Boom', but strangers found it puzzling. Electronic gaming and the plague of avatars showed their hand with an offer of  Mileu Bio, or 'Dragon Blue-wind' . Another, much more conservative lady teacher took several days to come up with a careful table of options which would have me adopt the surname of Mr Australia, a dashing ideogram, reduced to the cryptic syllable Ho in hangeul. To this I was offered a menu of additions, all elaborate hanja but reducing to single syllables in hangeul (although each also had a fully expressed form)  : Min (gentle character, good tempered, mild); Min (autumn sky); Bin (brilliant, bright, shining, outstanding scholar), Jeong (even tempered). It was all rather charming, and this lady was clearly practiced in the art of  finding names for babies. My gallery of student critics however gave these inventions short shrift, the nuanced Confucian origins entirely beyond their grasp.


Talking of the clueless, how did I come to be branded with Thorold Pyrke May in the first place? The early married life of my parents remains mostly in the realm of mystery to me, including the dynamics of this eccentric choice (though I don't resent it). 'Pyrke' is even stranger than 'Thorold' as a given name, but it was at least an heirloom. My father carried it as an overdone addition in 'William Henry Pyrke May', apparently in the forlorn hope of scoring some inheritance from rich English relatives with the surname of Pyrke. 'Thorold' though was was an interloper from a wartime friendship. Squadron Leader Ray Thorold-Smith, DFC,  was at one stage my father's commanding officer in World War II. His Spitfire fighter plane was shot down in action on 15 March 1943, dogfighting Japanese Zeroes near Darwin, Australia. But before that tragedy, he'd very kindly put his cigarette lighter under dad's RAAF enlistment papers. My father, a knockabout young rogue, was tired of the air force and decided to join a maritime unit as a marine commando under a false name, so Thorold-Smith offered him the exit. Name games again. Somehow it seems comforting that a name which has marked me out for 57 years should have come from a very brave man who mischievously gave another fellow permission to simply disappear.


"About Names"... copyrighted to Thor May 2003; all rights reserved