About a month ago, I was in a taxi and saw a sign for 慈慧胡同 or “cihui hutong.” A hutong is the traditional alley full of courtyard homes that originally made up the center of Beijing. A lot of them have been destroyed in the name of progress, but some of them still remain. Cihui Hutong is 230 meters long and 6 meters wide, and today holds some homes and some small shops. It has been called some form of Cihui Hutong since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), except for some years around the Cultural Revolution when it was called “BaoShu Hutong” (Precious Books Hutong).
The reason this particular hutong caught my attention is that these two characters–慈慧 (ci hui)–are the two characters in my given Chinese name and I’ve never seen them together anywhere else. It feels like finding a street named Ruth!
Chinese names are usually three characters, with your family name first. Unlike in English, any characters can be used in names, although some are more desirable than others. There are no baby name books, instead parents, and often grandparents, pore through dictionaries to pick characters with good meanings and good sounds. There are rules, though. I haven’t fully figured out what they are, but there are definitely ways that they should and shouldn’t be combined, and some characters are generally used for male or female names.
In the obligatory chapter on names in my textbooks this semester, I learned that it is fairly common for people to end up with the exact same names as others. 85% of the population has one of the 100 most common family names. And there are 1.3 billion people, so it becomes difficult to be original. For example, one of my teachers has the second most common surname and her given name is “Red.” She was born at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution and many children were named “Red” at the time as a sign of patriotism, although my teacher’s mother says it is because she likes the color red. Needless to say, there were others with her exact name in her school growing up.
In my full Chinese name, I use a family name that is related in sound to Lemmen. In China, people take their father’s surname, but women do not usually change their name when they marry. Many foreigners’ given Chinese names are phonetically related to their English names, but often those particular characters don’t have meaning together, or don’t sound like a name to native speakers. There are also conventions for transliterating English or other language names into Chinese. So according to those conventions, there are two characters (路得 lùdé) used for the name “Ruth” in the Bible, but they are not characters people would generally use as a name. And in this case, it doesn’t actually sound that much like Ruth, because Chinese doesn’t have quite the same “r” sound and “th” is very hard for Chinese people to pronounce.
So back in high school, when I first wanted a Chinese name, the friends who were helping me decided that a name related to Ruth in meaning was better than a name related in sound. Ruth means “compassionate friend.” 慈 cí means kind, loving, compassionate and used together with the character for love means loving devotion or everlasting love. 慧huì means intelligent or bright and is one character in the term for wisdom. Put together, the meaning is similar to compassionate one. It is beautiful to me, and I am told that it is beautiful and full of meaning to native speakers, too. And whoever named this hutong agrees!