What’s in a Name

My name hasn’t always been Vincent. 

Although this name is now formalised in all my legal and official document, including my passport, it is an invented one, not the one that I was given when I was born, 文山. The first character denotes “literature”, “arts”, “culture”, “learned” or even “gentle”; the second, simply “mountain”. It was a simple name that carried enormous parental expectations. “Wenshan”, it’s pronounced in Mandarin, “bunsan” in Taiwanese. The way the bilabial “w” and “b” force you to purse your lips into a small “o” made you look like you were blowing a kiss to the addressed. 

“Wenshan” was the name given by my parents who told me that they chose these two character was because they were easy to write. My parents were not educated beyond the age of twelve. They later told me that it would be easy for me to learn to write my name when I started school. Indeed, both character have a symmetric quality to them. Beginning with the dot at the top, followed by a left-to-right stroke with a gentle rising slant underneath, then you make a cross, starting with the top-right-to-bottom-left to complete 文. To write 山, you draw the line in the middle first, then you write an upper case, “L”, to make it look like a 4 without the middle line coming through the bottom line. To complete, you simple draw another shorter, vertical line to meet with the end of the “L”. With four and three strokes respectively, self esteem was easily built from being able to write my name clearly from an early age. 

Or maybe, my self-respect was not their real consideration. Instead, they were just trying to save face, hiding their embarrassment for not knowing more complex characters that connote more profound meanings like some of those of my classmates whose came from families of scholars. Mine was a anything but. 

My mother, despite being academically bright, was the oldest of her 7 siblings of a farming family whose studies where terminated as soon as she completed elementary school. The family needed her to help bring in cash and bringing up her younger brothers and sisters. My father, on the other hand, was a boy soldier of the Kuomintang. Orphaned before he could receive any formal learning of acquire any practical skills, opportunity presented itself in the form of an awfully exciting adventure – a prospect of fighting enemies with handguns and machetes, in forests and mountains, like heroes in some legends and folklore told with fantastical flourishes but very little reality. 文山, therefore, was a perfect choice on their part. It conveys self-respect with an unmistakably scholarly air, an understated elegance. Together with the simple characters, both its Taiwanese and Mandarin pronunciations that require the speaker to shape their mouths as if blowing a kiss belie the name’s weighty symbolism.

But, you can still call me Vincent.


About W. S. Lien

Tweed Wearer - Country Lover - Teacher Researching Professionalism and Identity@Clare College, Cambridge - Keen Amateur Photographer - Devotee to Poppy my Labrador
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One Response to What’s in a Name

  1. Pingback: Educational Reader’s Digest | Friday 2nd June – Friday 9th June – Douglas Wise

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