What’s in a Chinese name?

“Tiger” by Wen Ning. The artist’s seal along with calligraphy describing the painting is at the upper left. Notice how the calligraphy and seal are an integral part of the painting, serving to balance the composition.

     If you’ve looked at Chinese paintings, you might have noticed that the artist’s signature is part of the total design of the picture.  This is partially because Chinese names have very special significance to their owners, much more so than our western names.

     Chinese given names aren’t like our ready-made names such as “Mike” or “Jane.”  Instead, they’re made of either one or a combination of two characters (ideograms) in the Chinese language.  This provides infinite possibilities for names.  The odds of two people having the same full name are very low.  In Chinese, the surname comes first, followed by the given name.  (“Mary Jones” would be “Jones Mary”.)  In modern times some Chinese have chosen to Anglicize their names, reversing the order to make the name more in line with common western practice.  This can cause confusion as to which name is the person’s surname. 

     Because the Chinese language isn’t written with an alphabet, it’s not easy to write Chinese words in the symbols of another language.  Generally a phonetic system is used to write words representing the sounds implied by the ideograms.

     In 1958 the Pinyin (a Chinese word meaning “transcription”) system was established in China to help in studying ideograms and to assist in using the standard spoken language of Mandarin.  Pinyin is also used as a standard system to represent Chinese names and words as they would sound in Western languages. 

     There are inconsistencies in the system.  Under the Pinyin system, many names were changed to a different western spelling.  This caused more confusion and not a little chagrin on the part of many Chinese-American people who suddenly learned the former English spelling of their name had changed.  Fortunately, the name as written in Chinese does not change.

     Chinese names have complex special meanings.  People may change their names to reflect changes in their lives.   For example, when the writer Ch’en Chi-ju retired, he befriended the potter Chiang Po-fu.  They became good friends and Ch’en changed the last character of Chaing’s name to indicate that the potter had been accepted into the writer’s literary circle as an equal.

     Artists sometimes become known by pseudonyms or nicknames.  These can be funny or fanciful.  The artist Yu Tseng-Tseng, whose given name (Tseng-Tseng) means the sound of gold coins, wealth and riches, also uses a pseudonym, “Banchi,” meaning “Half Mad.”  Because Yu means “I”, it follows that “Yu Banchi” means “I am Half Mad”!

     The distinctive red imprints of the seals appearing on most Chinese paintings are very noticeable.  The seal usually represents a personal name and may be used by itself or accompanying the artist’s signature.  In addition to the artist’s name, some seals include part of a poem, a bit of philosophy, or a motto of some sort.  Very old paintings may have many seals on them, because it is common practice for owners to add their own seals to the paintings.  This allows us to track the history of very old Chinese artworks.             

     Ivory is the most popular material for the seal, but seals are also made of wood, horn, metal and stone.  Sometimes the seals have ornamental details.  Seal carving itself has become an independent art form, dating back to ca. 1027-256 B.C.  A good seal carver has not only great technical skill but also talent in graphic design.

Baiwen name seal, reading “Ye Hao Min Yin,” literally “Seal of Ye Haomin.”

     The red material used for stamping the seal is traditionally made of cinnabar and mineral oil mixed into a pad of raw silk.  The ink first was developed in 450 A.D.  Before that, seals were pressed into clay without the use of ink. 

     In a painting, the position of the signature and/or seal is important because these elements become part of the total picture and are often the finishing touch that balances off the work.

     The signature on a Chinese painting is part of the symbolism and mystique of this kind of art.  Understanding a little about what the signature represents can add much to our enjoyment of a painting.

Published by on December 2011. Filed under Archives, Paint Box Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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