Back to blog index

My Seal of Approval

In China, it’s not really official unless it has a red stamp on it. Taxi receipts have red stamps. Electricity bills have red stamps. Cheques cannot be cashed unless they carry an official stamp of your name (somehow safer, apparently, than an old-fashioned signature). In fact, when I buy totally illegal pirated DVDs the store receipt has an official stamp on it. Well, now I’m official too – I have my own yìnzhāng 印章 or seal. 

Until quite recently I didn’t have a Chinese name, and it seemed senseless to go to all the trouble of having a seal carved for me without a Chinese name to carve into it. Finding a Chinese name is harder than it sounds – names are deeply meaningful portents of your fortune, your character, and your future, and having met young Chinese people armed with unlikely and slightly mad names like Batman, Bacon and Panda, I wanted to make sure my Chinese name didn’t sound like something I’d read on a packet of snacks. 

But how exactly do you go about getting a Chinese name? I decided to ask my Chinese friends how their own English names came about. Generally, it seemed, by one of three methods:

Firstly, their school English teacher might have just given them a name sounding phonetically similar to their own (‘Helen’ for ‘Hairong’ ‘Julie’ for ‘Zhu Li’ for example), to make it easy to remember.

Secondly, they might simply be assigned a name, apparently from the Home Companion’s Book of Baby Names, 1972. This might account for the vast numbers of hip young Chinese people with names that sound like characters in my old Grade Three reader – Kevin, Susan, Steven, Judy and Bruce. One friend described sitting in a classroom at the age of twelve as the teacher wrote twenty English names on the blackboard and then passed them out one by one to the students in random order. She was named Maria, which she eventually grew to like.  

Lastly, they might have chosen their own English names, either as an assertion of individuality, or after living wth an assigned name they didn’t like. A lot of consideration goes into this self-naming, not that you’d know it by the number of Echos, Leafs, Cherrys and Sunnys I’ve met. I recently came across a young man called J’Adore, presumably after the Dior perfume of the same name whose ads are on high rotation all over Shanghai. Or perhaps he just really adores everything and everybody.

After due consideration, I decided that ‘Fiona’ spelled phonetically in Chinese came out badly (‘Fay-ah-na’), it was highly unlikely I would successfully choose my own name without stuffing it up, and so I opted for an expert opinion and asked my Chinese teacher to choose one for me. 

She chose Bái Ruì Lì 白瑞丽, on the basis that ‘Bai’ means white in Chinese (Fiona means ‘white’ or ‘fair’) and ‘Rui Li’ sounds like ‘Reilly’ but also carries auspicious connotations of luck and beauty. Ruili, also a border town in southern Yunnan, is famous for drug smuggling, prostitution, and general lawlessness, but I’m sure she didn’t have that in mind when was thinking of a name to match my personality.

Having chosen a name, now I just needed my seal carved, a job done by a specialised craftsman. It’s all very involved, and many people spend longer choosing the stone and style of their seal than they do choosing a wife, but being an impetuous type, after mere minutes of contemplation I came up with the brilliant idea of having a dumpling right in the centre (because I love dumplings!) and my name around the outside. I’m so happy with the result, even though I had asked for a xiaolongbao and he gave me a baozi instead – ‘plumper and happier-looking’, he said.
Wait until I turn up at the bank with a cheque signed with a dumpling! In the mean time, I’m happily stamping the frontspiece of all of my books, stamping any flat thing with a spare blank space, and stamping just to practice stamping stuff. I might even carry it around in my handbag along with the ink and its special box, just in case my signature is required. It would be pretty cool to whip out my seal at the Post Office to sign for a parcel. Or to sign in at the swimming pool. This thing is gonna come in so handy.

  • shaz

    J'adore your stamp Fiona!! Especially the dumpling, so, so awesome. When we were kids, we had to do a subject at school called POL (pupils own language), so since mum's chinese, I took mandarin classes (hopelessly). The teacher assigned my chinese name, to sound phonetically similar to Sharon. It came out something like Sha – Ren, which I'm told means to "kill people". Heh.

  • MaryAnne

    I've been involuntarily renamed Ma Li ever since I first arrived and had a bunch of students who couldn't fathom how to write Mary Anne on a test paper. No idea what could be done with Oxendale though… Maybe a translation of Cow Valley or something? Dodgy!

    I think I may need a lake monster chop!

    Your steam bun made my day, by the way.

  • croquecamille

    That is fantastic! Now I want one of my own – if I were ever to visit China, could I get this done? Love your dumpling, and the little steam lines are just perfect!

  • christa @ mental foodie

    You had met many Echo's? That's interesting… that's my sister's name but my parents named her that 30 years ago… I do have friends (my age) named Cherry and Sunny 🙂

  • Fiona

    Shaz, the reason you are now named Shaz has been explained. I choked when I read that.

    And Christa I have met several Echos, and asked all of them why they chose Echo as a name. Several named themselves after a current Taiwanese writer who is popularly popular, one said 'because I feel like I am one small voice amongst so many in the world. Whatever I say will echo' Very poetic.

    Camille – if you ever make it to China I will take you out immediately and get you a chop, followed by a huge dumpling feast. Promise.

  • christa @ mental foodie

    Ah yes I forgot there was a writer named Echo – I really liked her books but she died back in 1991… she kinda had a sad life

  • Fiona

    Christa thank you so much for filling me in….I had tried a vague Google search before but without much luck. Her story is terribly sad and she died so young! I'll have to search out some of her writing.

  • Em

    love the seal, what other symbols can you get or can you just draw your own? what would you choose for a writer…

  • Fiona

    Em you can have anything – limited only by your imagination and the skill of the seal-maker. How about an open book? Or someone surrounded by screwed up balls of paper? 😉