Chinese names, stroke counts, and fengshui

section of fortune-related chart for Chinese names

The Wall Street Journal has a story on how more and more people in China are seeking to change their names, usually based on “an ancient Chinese art” (i.e., traditional superstition).

The article repeatedly talks about this as if it were part of fengshui (風水 / 风水 / fēngshui). Coming up with a lucky name, however, traditionally belongs to fortune-telling, an entirely different field, though I suppose it’s possible that the two have become combined in modern China, where the traditional ways were broken.

One of the ways of determining whether a name is lucky is to determine the total stroke count of all the characters used to write it. For this, the full name is used, not just the given name. Then the stroke count is checked on a chart. (The image at right is from one such chart.) I like to think of this as a sort of Chinese gematria, though they’re not really related. (This brings to mind the gematria poems by Jerome Rothenberg, one of my favorite poets and translators.)

Fengshui, on the other hand, deals mainly with the arrangement and interrelationship of physical objects. The uses of fengshui are many. In addition to providing approaches to interior design and related fields, it can also be used to protect train stations from the baneful influence of a “white tiger demon” and protect ruling-party politicians and their families from county council buildings.

A brief note here on how the word fengshui is written. Here is how several major English dictionaries style the word:

  • MW11: feng shui
  • OED: feng-shui
  • AHD: feng shui

There’s no particular reason, however, for it not to be written solid (i.e., fengshui), which is how it is properly written in Hanyu Pinyin.

For a detailed and sympathetic account of fengshui as practiced in colonial Hong Kong, see Foreigners and Fung Shui (3.4 MB PDF file), by Dan Waters, Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 34 (1994), 61 pp.

source: For some Chinese, success in life is in the name, Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, January 17, 2006

3 thoughts on “Chinese names, stroke counts, and fengshui

  1. I should probably add that one of the interesting things about using stroke counts is that different counts are possible for individual characters, though many might not know this given the vehemence with which the notion is repeated that there is but one correct way to write any given Chinese character — using certain strokes in a certain order — and that anyone who writes them otherwise is wrong, wrong, wrong, not to mention uncultivated, etc.

    I haven’t heard such statements, though, at the level of full word rage.

  2. Pingback: Pinyin news » Taiwan personal names: a frequency list

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