The ‘g’ in Ang Lee

Ang Lee (??), the director of Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Ice Storm, Sense and Sensibility, Eat Drink Man Woman, and many other films, was recently back here in his homeland of Taiwan.

I’ve long wondered how Lee ended up with such an odd form for the romanization of his name. I’m not referring to the spelling of his family name, Lee. Although the Anglicization of “Lee” for ? is not standard in any of the main romanization systems, that particular spelling is almost certainly more common in Taiwan than “Li,” which is the form in most romanization systems other than Gwoyeu Romatzyh. In Gwoyeu Romatzyh, which nominally was Taiwan’s official romanization system until 1986 — long after Lee acquired a passport and had gone to the United States — L? is written Lii; but I’ve never seen that spelling used for a name here.

No, what puzzles me is the g in his given name of “Ang.” In Mandarin, this is one of those relatively rare syllables spelled the same in basically all of the main romanization systems: an. So where is that g from? (Please don’t read through the rest of this message in any kind of suspense, because I still don’t know the answer to that question, though I’m hoping one of my readers will.)

For those unfamiliar with Mandarin, Ang Lee’s given name is not originally pronounced like American English’s bang without the b or sang without the s. Rather, the a is similar to that in the English word father; the n is about as you’d expect; and there’s no g. So the name is pronounced something like the French (not English) version of Anne or the end of the German Autobahn.

The Ang spelling doesn’t appear to come from Taiwanese. Even in Taiwanese ? would be romanized as an, not ang, in the dominant systems. (Correct me if I’m wrong, please. I know almost no Taiwanese.) Also, at the time Lee would have adopted the Ang spelling, the use of Taiwanese romanization for names would most certainly have been intensely frowned upon by the authorities if not forbidden outright. Moreover, I don’t think Lee is even ethnically Taiwanese/Hokkien.

Of course, he may have chosen to use a spelling other than what he was made to use on his passport. But people in Taiwan seldom do that unless they adopt an “English” name, which “Ang” is certainly not. The g might be there to help prevent people from thinking he’s a woman named Ann. But if that were the concern, why not simply adopt an English name?

Poagao, who met Ang Lee in Taipei last week, met back in September with Lee’s little brother, who’s known as Khan (or perhaps Kan) Lee. As Poagao notes, there’s something strange with that name, too:

One thing I’d like to know is why “Ang” gets an unneccesary ‘g’ (it should be “An”), while “Kan” is one ‘g’ short (it should be “Kang”). Did Ang steal his little brother’s ‘g’ at some point?

Ang Lee’s brother’s name is L? G?ng in Hanyu Pinyin. (Theoretically, it could also be L? Gàng or L? G?ng because ? is one of many Chinese characters with multiple pronunciations.) The use of k rather than g comes from the Wade-Giles romanization system. In Taiwan, most people’s passports have names romanized using improper, bastardized Wade-Giles, which helps create a lot of confusion — as if Wade-Giles itself weren’t confusing enough already. Moreover, Taiwan’s passport office operates on the principle of chabuduo jiu keyi, which in this context is a close approximation of the English saying “close enough for government work.” In other words, if a spelling looks more or less correct it will probably pass — unless, that is, it has Hanyu Pinyin’s x or q in it, in which case it would probably be rejected. (I’m not making this up. I’ve spoken with people in the passport office about this.)

In looking through Lee Ang’s biography I noticed that he has two sons, one of whom is named “Haan,” at least according to the Internet Movie Database’s credits for Pushing Hands, one of Lee’s early movies. At first, I thought this might be a two-syllable given name that had been run together: Ha’an (or Ha-an, following the style used in Taiwan). Could this be the same an as in Ang Lee’s name — just this time without the mysterious g? But it turns out that Haan is a one-syllable name.

Here’s the character: ?.

A doubled vowel in romanized Mandarin usually indicates the use of Gwoyeu Romatzyh’s tonal spelling. But the “Haan” spelling would be for third tone, while Haan’s name should be pronounced with a second tone. (This would be written “Harn” in Gwoyeu Romatzyh.)

So perhaps the IMDB entry is a typo, and the real spelling should be Han, as expected. Or maybe those in the Lee family just like funny spellings.

10 thoughts on “The ‘g’ in Ang Lee

  1. I happen to have wondered the same question about Ang Lee’s name. And I read an interview where he explains it. It’s a very funny reason that has nothing to do with any romanization systems… Ang Lee simply didn’t like the feminine sound and look of Li An or Lee An. So he changed it to “Ang”. Just one of those things.

    Hope this helps!

  2. It seems like westerners, when they pick east-Asian names, try to match the sounds of their given name. For example, General “Vinegar” Joe Stillwell picked Shitiwei for a Mandarin name. The opposite seems to be true of east-Asian folks choosing western names, like an aquaintance of mine named “Kim Taehui” in Korean but just “Paula” in English.

  3. Olivia’s right. I read the same explanation – apparently he didn’t like the fact that his given name sounded like the English name “Ann”, so he added the “g” to differentiate it.

  4. Thanks, everyone. It is as I suspected. (I’d love links to some of those original interviews, if anyone knows where to find any.) But I still don’t understand why he didn’t just go with an “English” name (even an unusual one, such as Ovid) rather than give himself something that isn’t Mandarin, isn’t Taiwanese, isn’t English — it’s just weird.

    Of course, the real curiousity in all this is how in Taiwan you can use just about anything — even misspellings, as Ang Lee’s, Khan Lee’s, and Haan Lee’s names show — as long as you don’t use Hanyu Pinyin, which is the system that’s better known and more widely implemented than any other. Well, don’t use Hanyu Pinyin, that is, unless you’re President Chen Shui-bian, who has been more responsible than anyone else for the current anti-Hanyu Pinyin stance by Taiwan’s government. But his name, which is unmistakably Hanyu Pinyin to those who know several romanization systems well, doesn’t have any of the more obvious indications of that system (e.g., x and q).

    I’ll close this with another link back to Poagao: People with stupid names now all to be called ‘Brad’.

  5. Ben, I suspect it’s because Chinese-like names are productive (albeit restricted by cultural patterns like fashion and very limited in the number of syllables) whereas names common in Anglo countries are a limited set.

  6. Picking English and Chinese names: I’m 4th generation Overseas Chinese born in the US but raised in Singapore and I have two names. Most English-educated Singaporean Chinese like myself are at least 3rd generation and our parents give us two names – an English (or Christian, if religious) name and a Chinese name. Both appear on our birth certificates and are used concurrently and interchangeably in different contexts (school, work, etc). My Chinese name is from an ancient epic poem “Li Shao” by Qu Yuan but my English name is simply because Olivia Newton John was my mother’s favorite singer. When I returned to the US for school and work, I often got the “What is your original name?” question, to which I had no “satisfactory” answer.

    My husband is also 4th generation but he’s Chinese American with English First and Middle names, and although he has a Chinese name, it doesn’t appear in his birth certificate or ID and he doesn’t really use it. Our kids will (unfortunately) be saddled with First and Middle English names followed by a Chinese name in Pinyin, then Last Name.

    Still, the interesting thing is that the seemingly arbitrary spellings of Overseas Chinese last names at least actually help us identify what dialect group (Cantonese, Fujian or “Hokkien”, etc.) and also which part of the world our Chinese ancestors ended up in. Take the last name “Chen” for example. If spelled as “Chan”, they’re probably Cantonese from Hong Kong. If spelled as “Tan” they probably originate from one of the Chinese immigrant populations in Southeast Asia (Singapore, Malaysia, etc.) If spelled as “Chen” followed by a Pinyin given name, then they’re from the mainland and from Taiwan if it’s not Pinyin.

    My husband’s last name is “Ing”, and when I shop over the phone catalogs, people always ask if we’re Swedish or some other Scandinavian. Actually it’s the Cantonese “Ng” but the 1800s version of the INS thought it unpronounceable and added the “I” to make it more palatable. Even worse, in Mandarin, it’s actually “Wu”. Just like my last name is “Luo” in pinyin, “Loh” in the Hakka dialect and “Law” in Cantonese.

    Arguably all these different romanization spellings are confusing but from a cultural standpoint, I believe it does contribute to the richness of the Chinese diaspora. Anyway, just thought I’d share…

  7. Oh and by the way, some overseas Chinese families still follow the tradition (even if we live very modern lives) of having Chinese generation names picked from the family genealogical poem, i.e. each successive generation takes the next character in the poem, long established. So all the siblings and cousins in the same generation will have one additional character in common in their typical 3-character Chinese names: The last name, the generation name, and their own name. It helps to identify which person belongs to which generation.

    I once met a very elderly man from my family’s ancestral village in Canton province, China, who had the same generational name as I did. Regardless of age, we were considered cousins! Of course, in each generation, the girls who marry out and bear children no longer follow their own family’s generation name, but their husband’s instead.

  8. I’m all in favor of people spelling their names according to the pronunciation of their native language. Long live the Ng spelling, I say. (That was also the family name of my Chinese philosophy professor in the States.) But I do hope that people will be able to stick with just one standard romanization per language/dialect.

    China, however, continues to force Mandarin forms on people — something I cannot support, despite my love of Hanyu Pinyin. So much of China’s diversity is being forced into a homogenization machine, which is even more forceful than Ellis Island etc. The spellings representative of languages could also be helpful in China, which has huge numbers of people who go by the same names.

    Chan/Chen/Tan would certainly be more helpful to records-keepers than just Chan. But that would involve records containing romanized names as well.

    Another factor contributing to the massive number of identical names is the popularity in China of single-syllable given names. (They’re much less frequent in Taiwan. Does anyone know of any reasons for the difference?) If China sticks with its policy of requiring Mandarin, the only way to avoid many, many people having exactly the same full name in this case is for people to reach deeper and deeper into the pool of obscure characters, which can cause all sorts of other problems later in terms of entering names into computers, etc.

    At least Taiwan is now allowing diversity in names — unless you want your name romanized in Hanyu Pinyin, that is.

  9. Olivia can you give an example of the 3 character name with one additional in common? Also what’s the family genealogical poem? Xie xie

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