What’s in a name? A lot, as we all know. And per Chinese tradition, a whole lot.
My mom was in charge of determining Calvin’s Chinese name — on my side of the family we all have one, a sort of alternate identity if you will. She enlisted a friend of our family, a gentleman who knew my dad from childhood, who’s very well versed in Chinese culture and well respected in the local community. In other words, the perfect person.
A Chinese name is given a great deal of thought, is entirely tailored for the individual and generally only repeated by sheer accident. So it’s both a challenge and an honour to be involved in naming someone — a pragmatic art form, beautifully expressed in the representative calligraphy.
The interplay of the words, their onomatopoeia, cadence and alliteration all count. You don’t want to have a name with a word or word combination that sounds like another word with a negative connotation.
With last names coming first in Chinese, the first order of business was to determine the last name, as Calvin wouldn’t take my family’s one, but rather that of his non-Chinese dad. That’s how we have “Hu.” (If you know Calvin’s dad, you’ll know why… sounds like?) Hu also happens to be a genuine Chinese last name, as evidenced by the current premier. As Chinese surnames are passed down the patrilineal line, if Calvin decides to carry on the tradition if he has children, then they too will be “Hu”s.
“Hu” is a ‘shi” surname. Shi surnames were created during the Qin Dynasty in the third century BC. (Yup, it always amazes me how seriously ancient things are in China, where “old” really is “old!”) Shi surnames have one of 12 paths of origin. “Hu” was a surname adopted by non-Chinese people, how appropriate. “Hu” means to promise, to allow, to permit, to praise.
Next came Calvin’s forenames. The forename is a combination of two of the thousands of Chinese characters — the reason why Chinese forenames are, for the most part, completely unique. So little Calvin is also known as, Gai Wei. We love it for its meaning and it also sounds pretty cool in English. (Pronounciation varies significantly between speakers of the different Chinese dialects. Just by example, in Cantonese, “Hu” has also been promounced “Wu.”)
Traditionally, naming schemes will follow generationally. Thus if Calvin ever had a sibling, s/he would be Hu Gai _____. (My dad and his brother were named as part of a series of seven legendary Chinese warriors, but due to the untimely death of my grandfather, there were only two brothers. My brother and cousin of the same generation have names that are linked.) Interestingly, it is the diaspora communities in the US, Hong Kong, South Africa etc. that keep this tradition. In mainland China many people now only use one character forenames.
So what does Calvin’s name mean? “Gai” means foundation, base, property and throne. “Wei” meaning admirable, fine looking, powerful and extraordinary. We like it.