The Taiwanese and their English names

For Global Times

For the Taiwanese, English names are obligatory. Unlike as on the Chinese mainland or in South Korea and Japan, the vast majority of Taiwanese uses names of a language that’s not their own. English names are carried besides the Chinese names and often even replace those in daily life’s usage. It is estimated that 80% of the island’s population calls themselves after Hollywood’s movie stars, American’s National Basketball League players and their likes. This is a lot, especially if taken into account that this percentage includes people who hardly speak a word of English.

Not having an English name isn’t much of an option; when a Taiwanese applies for a job, he or she is likely to be required to fill in a ‘Michael’, ‘Cindy’ or an ‘Andy’ next to the regular Chinese name into the forms. Not being able to write down one’s English name would be equally embarrassing as admitting that one neither possesses an email address nor a phone number.

Apart from Taiwan, the use of English names has been common in the former colonies of the British Empire such as Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong, as well as the Philippines which was colonized by the United States, and in Africa. Places that like Taiwan had never been colonized by either Britain or the US, don’t use English names; Asian countries don’t, neither do the Europeans, nor the Middle Easterners, and also not the countries in Latin America.

Taiwanese often say that Chinese names are too difficult to pronounce and remember to foreigners. That may be true, but the same could be said of the names of Chinese mainlanders, Korean and Japanese, who hardly ever use English names, not even when they take up studies in English speaking countries and consequently live there for years. And as a further strong indicator that easier communication with foreigners isn’t the genuine objective of Taiwan’s usage of English names, the Taiwanese widely use English names when they talk to each other in Chinese and also when there’s no foreigner around. In Taiwan, it is very common that among friends and colleagues, the English names are known whereas the Chinese names are never really heard of, let alone remembered.

Perhaps the most plausible answers to the question why the Taiwanese resort to using foreign names so much can be found in Taiwan’s twentieth century history. When Taiwan had been colonized by the Japanese, the then-ruling Kobayashi regime set up programs that involved replacing the Chinese names of some Taiwanese with Japanese ones. The Japanese colonial government went to great lengths to make the name-changing procedure highly ceremonious and heralded that the few Taiwanese who were chosen to bear Japanese names acclaimed great honor. The selection of the families that were to take on Japanese names was rigorous, and at the end of WW2 only a few percent of Taiwan’s population had one.

Japan’s objectives to bestow Japanese names upon the Taiwanese were on the one hand to detach the Han-Taiwanese from their ancestral areas on the Chinese mainland, and one the other hand to reward members of the Taiwanese elites that collaborated with the Japanese to rule over the rest of the island’s society. Consequently, to the ordinary Taiwanese people of that time, the Taiwanese family that carried a foreign, Japanese name instead of the Chinese one unmistakeably was of higher status.

After the US had relaxed its immigration laws in the early 1960s, many Taiwanese people emigrated from the then-poor island to the US. Their entry into the United States was regulated by laws that gave preferential status to persons who were skilled. Since during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, Taiwanese were barred from administration and politics, highly talented Taiwanese worked in the medical fields. As highly educated doctors and nurses they were of good use to the Americans, and later accounted for a considerable share among the US’s most accomplished engineers, professors and scientists.

By the late 1970s, Taiwan’s economical rise slowed immigration, and from the 1990s on many ‘Taiwanese Americans’ returned to the island. When they did so, they came with wealth accumulated in the US, and thus the local population regarded them as people of the highest socio-economic status. And, unsurprisingly, those rich and privileged who returned from the US were easily to tell apart from the ordinary Taiwanese by their use of foreign -and in this case English- names.

This analysis of Taiwan’s past implies that the Taiwanese who prefer to be addressed by their English names instead of their Chinese ones seek to distinguish themselves from others. But the question of what use the distinguishing could possibly be if all but everybody has an English name remains unanswered.

Yet, that there might be at least one convincing reason to use an English name other than grading up oneself is indicated by a comment posted on a Taiwanese internet forum. The blogger, who goes under the name ‘Brad’, writes: “Taiwanese like to inquire about other people by presenting their Chinese names to the fortune tellers. However, with an English name, you are on the safe side, because the charlatans can’t do anything with it.”



One response to “The Taiwanese and their English names

  1. thanks for sharing this. as i started to know about taiwanese dramas i got curious why most of the actors used english names.

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