2018 Fall Taiwan Temple Exchange Thomas Kuklinski

What’s in a (Transliterated) Name

Chinese culture has very strict naming conventions. There is one character for the surname, 姓(xìng) and two characters for your given name 名字(míngzi). There are 438 Chinese surnames, so given names are generally more creative. They can be more poetic, like 東林 Dōnglín “Eastern Forest”, or aspirational, like 立人Lì rén, “Upright Individual.”

One of my favorite quirks of Westerners interacting with Chinese culture is that everyone has two names. And not like “My name is Thomas, call me Tom” but fully two different official names. I can’t write “Thomas Kuklinski” in the three given spaces on official forms here in Taiwan, so I often use my Chinese name, a transliteration of Thomas Kuklinski. 顧童牧  Gù tóng mù. Gu is phonetically similar to Ku(klinski) and Tongmu is meant to sound like Thomas. 童牧 is a play on the word, shepherd, 牧童, and a lot of Chinese speakers I’ve met associate my name with an old Chinese poem. Transliterating names isn’t an exact science, and given the poetic nature of Chinese names, exactness is often sacrificed to make a name sound more natural.

Two names, one card.

Like most civilizations, China historically had problems with literacy. Often, people couldn’t even write their own name, and honestly I can see why. Names normally come from a more poetic register of Chinese, so the characters are more complicated. To solve this, China, and by extension greater Asia, has a long tradition of seals 印章(yìnzhāng). You’d get your name carved on a wooden block, or a piece of jade or ivory if you were high class, and then that would be your signature for letters, legal documents, and even artwork.

These stamps are an artwork themselves, intricate calligraphy being engraved on different materials. But now, obviously literacy is no longer a problem in the Chinese diaspora, and technology has given alternatives for this analog process. Stamps aren’t as necessary as they were centuries ago. However, there’s at least one oddly old school process keeping the tradition alive – applying for a bank account.

There’s four necessary items for foreigners opening a bank account through Chunghwa Post: 1) at least 100 NTD, 2) Passport, 3) Residency Card, and 4) a seal印章. I pulled up Google Maps, found this small store, and got my seal made. I wrote my Chinese name out for the man, then he got the machine ready and smoked a cigarette while this old metal contraption carved my name into a wood block.

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In the 15 minutes it took to make my seal, I wandered around the shop. I got the most basic stamp, which cost me $2, but there were tons of different styles, from anime figurines to glass Buddhist statues. I’m glad I got to see this tradition still alive.

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From what I understand, not too many places in Asia still use these for official purposes. Other than opening up my bank account, I can’t think of many other uses either, but hey at the least it’s a nice souvenir. If I’m ever living in Taiwan again, I’m already good to go.

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