“Hi, I’m Yoga”: How culture decides just what’s in a name

23 August 2016 | By Sign Salad

Ask a young urban professional in China for their name, and you might come away astounded. ‘Fish Leong, ‘Dodo Chen’, ‘Rainie Yang and ‘Alien Huang’— these are some of the more inventive examples to emerge from the woodwork, bewildering online forum-users and journalists alike. But for semioticians, the significance of a title like ‘Yoga Lin’ goes beyond comedic value, prompting deeper questions about what names communicate across cultural systems.

It is easy to forget that naming practices within the Anglo-European world are not self-evident, but produced by a long history of philosophical thought. From Plato to Christianity to modern-day debates about abortion, Western metaphysics has long revolved around the notion of selfhood as essence— in the popular mind, one qualifies as a ‘person’ simply by existing. Correspondingly, names are often taken to signify one’s true and essential self— which is why they have to be selected so painstakingly. In America, baby-naming has become a booming industry, with parents turning to self-declared ‘nameologists’ to curate unique, perfectly syllabled monikers for their progeny. If the distasteful ubiquity of quizzes like this one tells us anything at all, it’s that at some level, we read a name as a compact cache of cultural codes, signifying the warp and woof of a person’s interior landscape.

Things could not be more different in East Asia, where Confucianism has installed a much more fluid idea of identity. As the anthropologist Yunxiang Yan explains,[1] Chinese tradition sees selfhood as the product of performance, rather than a natural birth-right; a hard-earned privilege, personhood is won through the completion of ‘life-stages’ – like education, marriage, and having children. Names thus signify an evolving array of social positions, hierarchies, and interpersonal relations rather than a person’s unchanging ‘soul’— in the past, children often had provisional ‘milk names’ before entering the world of formal education, and in the present, an adult might well have one name among friends, one in the workplace, and one at home. The relational signification of names can even extend into more abstract territory— as demonstrated by the countless newborns christened ‘Olympics’ (‘奥运 ’) in 2008, their names coding thralldom to the Chinese state and its flourishing future.


No surprises, then, that people react so differently when met by a chirpy greeting like ‘Hi, I’m Pig Chow!’ To someone immersed in Anglophone traditions, the name ‘Pig’ is an instant testament of personality— and in this case, a personality bordering precariously on the ridiculous (some questions they might entertain: would a man named ‘Pig’ prove animalistic? Have poor hygiene? Eat like a hurricane?) But to a Chinese person, the name might not code interior traits so much as provide clues about relative social position— perhaps it signals a desire to appear approachable, given its easily pronounced monosyllable and potential to stick out in the memory? Or could it hint at a wish for friendship, its non-hierarchical informality doubling as an invitation to be chummy?

Whatever the case, it is clear that names tap into vastly different root systems of signification, depending on where you encounter them. A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, Gertrude Stein might have written— but perhaps Yoga Lin would have begged to differ.

[1] Yunxiang Yan, ‘Egoist Individual, Moralist Self, and Relational Person: A Tripartite Approach to the Changing Chinese Subjectivities’. Speech given at Keynes’ Hall, King’s College Cambridge. 26 May 2016.


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