Names paint pictures

2009-01-14 — Good Characters (Leave a message)

Once upon a time, on a beautiful winter day, An Xie was watching snow fall with his nephew and niece. An Xie remarked to the children, “A great snowfall has many, many flakes going in many different directions. What is this like?”

His nephew answered quickly: “It is like salt tossed in the air.” The niece responded slowly and more thoughtfully: “It is more like willow catkins wafted by a breeze.”

This is a well-known 1,600-year-old Chinese story. The niece is a gifted scholar, the daughter-in-law of the famous Sage of Calligraphy (書聖) Wang Xizhi (王羲之).

The two different names for snow paint distinctly different pictures. The nephew’s name—salt tossed in the air—gives the impression of icy pellets stinging one’s face. The niece’s name of “willow catkins wafted by a breeze” brings to mind a pleasant softness, delicacy, and beauty. Both are accurate images of snow, but one is far more inviting and memorable.

A snowfall by any other name is, truthfully, a different thing entirely. Names paint pictures that convey meaning and feeling. That is why taking time and thought to choose a name that paints exactly the right picture is important.

As you probably know, many Chinese translations and transliterations today are done hastily. They are often mere literal renditions of English words, with little consideration for elegance and grace or power and authority. They are therefore not only crude, but also common. Is that the kind of name you want?

You may have heard the recommendation “If you can’t do a good job, don’t do it at all.” Although this is generally good advice, when it comes to your Chinese personal or brand name, you may not have the option of not coming up with a name. If you are well known in the Chinese-speaking world, people will come up with Chinese nicknames for you if you do not have an official name. Your only option for developing your brand image in Greater China is to do a good job.

And doing a good job is not just about what you say, but also how you say it. Tossed salt or wafted willow catkins? You decide.

Original Text: 謝太傅寒雪日內集,與兒女講論文義。俄而雪驟,公欣然曰:『白雪紛紛何所似?』兄子胡兒曰:『撒鹽空中差可擬。』兄女曰:『未若柳絮因風起。』公大笑樂。」

Above: Salt tossed in the air. A great snowfall has many, many flakes going in many different directions. What is this like? It is like “salt tossed in the air.”