Exploring Intercultural Identity: Four Voices

This is the second part of a four part series. In the first installment, Katerina interpreted the Bulgarian concept of location. Today, Shu Hu will trace the convention of Chinese names to identity formation and cultural values. 

A question for all the newcomers: what do you do most during the first month in your new school? Yes, self-introductions.

You may not consider it as an issue. However, in the tradition of Chinese names, people always put their family name in front of the given name, which is the other way around when compared to the case in many Western countries. For instance, my name under the title appears as “Shu Hu”, but in fact, nobody speaks or writes my name like this in China. Instead, “Hu Shu” is the normal form since Hu is my family name and Shu is my given name. While do in Rome as a Roman does, I adjust the habit as I am now in the U.S.

However, at stake is not only the matter of order of name, so too is the matter of cultural differences, which deserve to be explored. Since names are regarded as one’s most frequently-used identity, the order of names reveal the distinct value systems between China and the United States. Let’s first think about why a full name consists of family name and a given name. Considering this from a semiotic point of view, the family name, which is perpetually carried forward by family members generation after generation, represents that one is the descendent of his/her blood relatives, a symbol of belonging. On the contrary, the given name, which is first given by eldership, but can be changed afterwards, represents the individual’s uniqueness from others, a symbol of individuality. It’s not irrational to assume that arranging the given name in front of the family name, Americans value one’s individuality more than belonging, while totally reversely, the Chinese think the symbol of family comes first.

Here comes the significant cultural shock between the U.S. and China: individualism vs. collectivism. Are you curious about the historical origin of the different value systems of the two countries?

We all know how U.S. history was built step-by-step. Discovered by Columbus, a combination of courage and intelligence, the North America continent originally conceived the spirit of individuality. Seeking the religious freedom for their own, the first 102 immigrants carried by the Mayflower disembarked at Plymouth, with the Mayflower Compact, which lay the foundation of the future values of United States. Including the American Revolution War and the abolition of slavery, historical events of the U.S. hard difficult to detached from individualism.

Yu the Great, a legendary ruler of Ancient China, controls the water

Nevertheless, things were much different in the 5000 years of China’s history. As early as the Stone Age, this land flourished with life. Ancient Chinese people lived on farms mostly, so irrigation projects for agricultural purpose, which needed a huge number of labors, were carried out in every dynasty. Builders, suffering from extremely tough work, knew that it was not only for the sack of their own, but also of their families, and even of the whole country, to live a better life. The long-standing planned economy cultivated the collectivism into the Chinese mind, imbedded so deeply that is not apt to be converted even in the time of market economy.

Not judging which one is superior, we might feel astonished that such meaningful backgrounds stand behind the simple difference in our names. Indeed, besides names, there are numerous aspects to how we identify ourselves. Tied tightly with extensive and profound cultural background, these too are waiting to be unpacked.


In Part III, Sarah Inman will explore ideas of the American body as a cultural formation of beauty and identity and in Part IV, Minoo Razavi will examine cultural plurality as a controversial force in immigrant-friendly societies.




Check out the other 3 blogs in this series:

Sarah Inman – Let Down Your Hair!
Minoo Razavi – Oh, Diversity!
Katerina Girginova – I am from .bg

Shu Hu

With a BA degree of Sichuan University in Editing & Publishing, Shu is a former graduate member of CCT community. She is the first Chinese blogger of gnovis, of which she is really proud. For the academic interests here in CCT, blogs focusing on new media study and cultural comparison between countries may be unfolded by Shu. Also, she enjoys dancing, drama, and whatever forms of art.

  • Greg Boone

    Thanks, Shu. I remember having a lot if questions about the name order of my classmates when I was studying in China but not being able to articulate them well. I wonder if this is true in other parts of the world which put the family name first, both in Asia and in places like Hungary. How this plays into politics, interpersonal communication, and broader notions of cultural identity and belonging all deserve more study.

  • Hanna Woodburn

    I like your perspective on this, Shu! I have recently been thinking about international students who take an “American” name while they attend school in the United States. Do you think that is motivated by a desire to fit in and be more accessible, or is it because they believe that their American counterparts will forever be mispronouncing their names?