Reflection on the Waning Tradition of Chinese Naming in Singapore

Chinese naming tradition

Singapore, a bustling cosmopolitan city-state, is known for its rich tapestry of cultures, languages, and traditions.

Interestingly, part of this tradition involves people’s names.

That said, in an article published by The Straits Times, the practice of “generation names”, a Chinese tradition deeply rooted in Feng Shui, is starting to fade in modern Singapore.

The Generation Names Explained

For context, in Chinese culture, generation names (世名 or 辈分名) are a single character chosen in advance for all future descendants in a particular lineage, which then forms the second character in a person’s three-character name (typically used in more formal contexts). These generation names are a way to link individuals from the same generation within a family.

Interestingly, the use of generation names helps members of large clans identify their familial relations and generational positions. It emphasises the Chinese cultural value of continuity and connectedness within a family. It also offers a way of honouring and remembering ancestors and the legacy of previous generations.

Profound Weight of Generation Names

When I read the article, what struck me the most was the profound weight given to a single character. For example, in the article, the choice of the character “Xian” for the Pang siblings was more than just a design to have similar-sounding names; it was the fabric of a long-standing family tradition and heritage. This tradition wasn’t just about names; it was about history, identity, and generational ties.

Unfortunately, the decline of using generation names reflects a significant shift in societal values and structures.

The Fading Tradition

In the article, the casual comments made by Mr. Pang, about his childhood jests related to his name, highlight the multi-layered complexities of holding onto tradition in a fast-paced, Westernised society. These jests, though seemingly innocent, underline a growing detachment and, at times, a misunderstanding of deep-rooted customs.

But this isn’t just about kids making jokes. As pointed out, even many adults in Singapore today, primarily English-speaking, find traditions like generation names archaic. Interestingly, the fading of such traditions presents a paradox. On one hand, as society progresses, it’s natural for certain customs to become obsolete. On the other hand, these traditions often carry within them the essence of identity and roots, offering a tangible link to ancestors and ancient values.

Dr Foo Suan Fong, the executive director of the Singapore Centre for Chinese Language, points out that before, with the use of generation names, people would know their relation to a person. Now, everyone is simply referred to as ‘uncle’ or ‘auntie’. This casual terminology, while endearing in its own right, blurs the nuances of familial relationships, making everything more impersonal.

Difficulty of Adhering to Tradition in an Increasingly Globalised World

As the world turns increasingly global and societies become more mixed, clinging to traditional practices can become challenging. For many, the absence of the Jia pu or zu pu leaves them with no reference to continuing the tradition, leading to a natural decline.

Dr Peter Tan, a senior lecturer in the Department of English, Literature and Theatre Studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said he once had some students do a project on generation names, and more than half of the 20 they surveyed did not have one. This shows that in Singapore, there is now a stronger focus on the immediate family, sidelining the broader clan. Basically, it points towards an evolving definition of family itself.

Declining but also Evolving

The changing winds have led to new practices, as observed by Professor Lee Cher Leng from NUS’s Department of Chinese Studies. He mentioned that many parents, in their quest to find a balance between tradition and modernity, turn to geomancers and feng shui masters or adopt other unique naming patterns.

The point is to preserve some semblance of cultural identity while adapting to the times.

For example, Mr Teo Swee Meng, 53, a taekwondo coach and Muay Thai trainer, did not name his children using the practice of generation names, even if he himself was named using the tradition. Rather, he preferred to use feng shui to name his children.

That said, his approach to naming his children using feng shui resonates with a global sentiment – evolving traditions to align with contemporary beliefs. While the older generation might see this as a loss, perhaps it’s just a natural evolution. After all, the essence of culture lies in its capacity to grow and transform.

Final Thoughts

In the end, whether it is naming children based on feng shui, or sticking to the age-old generation names, or even creating a blend of the two, what’s crucial is the intention behind the tradition: to foster a sense of identity, belonging, and connection to one’s roots.

As Singapore continues to evolve, I’m hopeful that the beauty of its diverse traditions, in whatever form they exist, will always find a space in the heart of its people.


Denisse loves reading and writing about culture, history, and politics. Outside writing articles for The Singaporean, Denisse enjoys musicals, gaming, and Harry Potter.

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