Sobriquets, milk names, and monikers

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Responding to the English translation of the Chinese epitaph on "Matteo Ricci's tombstone" (11/24/21), rit malors remarks:

It's the first time I encounter the word "sobriquet" for hào 號. Later I browse the Wikipedia and find that there is an entry for hào 號 as "Art Name" (in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam).

In it, "sobriquet" is not mentioned at all. I think "art name, pseudonym, or pen name" cannot really grasp the nature of hào 號. Do you think that you have to make a post about it as what you did in "Unmatched by no other philosopher" (11/6/21)?

That Chinese are fond of nicknames and aliases is putting it mildly.  Lu Xun (1881-1936), whom many consider to be the most important writer of the first half of the twentieth century, had more than a hundred pen names.  See Twentieth-Century Chinese Authors and their Pen Names, by Pao-liang Chu, who was a librarian at Harvard about half a century ago.  I know the book well because I helped him with it.

Keeping track of such a tremendous number of extra names for authors, artists, and public figures can pose a real challenge, but there is a system to the nomenclatural torrent.  It's basically míng 名 (given name), zì 字 (style or courtesy name, given at 20 sui [Chinese are essentially 1 sui at birth]), and hào 號 (sobriquet), but one can get as many hao as possible based on one's life experiences.  For example, Su Shi [1037-1101] was Dōngpō 東坡 ("East Slope"), as there was really an east slope in Huangzhou where he lived. And the particular hao they chose to sign with is usually related to the literary content.

Here's a fuller (but by no means exhaustive) list of the different kinds of names one may adopt during one's lifetime:

rǔmíng 乳名 ("milk name")
yòumíng 幼名 ("baby name")
yòuhào 又號 ("additional sobriquet")
biéhào 別號 ("extra sobriquet")
bǐmíng 筆名 ("pen / brush name")
dàohào 道號 (given to recluses and practitioners of internal alchemy)
tāchēng 他稱 (additional informal name)
shìmíng 室名 ("room / study name")
zhāimíng 齋名 ("studio / abstention name")
yìmíng 藝名 ("art / stage name")
shìchēng 世稱 ("popular moniker")
xuémíng 學名 ("scholarly name")
miàohào 廟號 ("temple sobriquet" [for emperors])
shìhào 謚號 ("posthumous sobriquet" [for emperors'])


Selected readings


[Thanks to Denis Mair and Xiuyuan Mi]


  1. John Swindle said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 5:23 pm

    Then there are Buddhist religious names: fǎmíng 法名 ("Dharma name") or jièmíng 戒名 ("precepts name") for a Buddhist monk; fǎmíng 法名 also for a devout or deceased Buddhist layperson; fǎhào 法號 (?"Dharma nickname") for a Buddhist monk or layperson. Relying partly on Wikipedia and Baidu Baike here and hoping I got it right.

  2. Calvin said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 7:45 pm

    謚號 were not just for emperors, they were given to some important royals as well. In the Qing dynasty, most empresses (皇后) had one. An emperor would give his birthmother a 謚號 if she hadn't got one, or add embellishment to the one she already had.

    Another one for the list is 化名 ("pseudonym").

  3. John Swindle said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 11:16 pm

    And jiǎmíng 假名 ("alias," "pseudonym," "kana"). No, wait, one of these is not like the others.

  4. Pau Amma said,

    November 30, 2021 @ 12:53 am

    "practitioners of internal alchemy"? I take it that doesn't mean "people having a metabolism", since that would be everyone alive, but I don't know how else to interpret it.

  5. Steve Jones said,

    November 30, 2021 @ 2:47 am

    In Gaoluo village south of Beijing, people acquired “old” names (laohao 老號 ) upon reaching the age of 50:
    Just as “apples” stands for “stairs” by way of “apples and pears”, so Shan Chang (eternal) took the “old” name Laole (old joy) by way of the binome changle (eternal joy). Cai Qing’s given name Qing (verdant) was associated with the phrase “verdant hills and abundant waters” (shanqing shuixiu) to create his “old” name Laoxiu.

    I mention this partly for a tangential question: Victor or someone reading his post may be able to offer further instances of the alternation of single and double given-names by generation:

    While it is far from a universal rule in rural north China, I suppose it must have been common in the cities too—is it still so? And what of other regions, like south China, where lineage consciousness is more deeply embedded?

  6. Andreas Johansson said,

    November 30, 2021 @ 2:55 am

    Internal alchemy is, as WP puts it, " an array of esoteric doctrines and physical, mental, and spiritual practices that Taoist initiates use to prolong life and create an immortal spiritual body that would survive after death".

    (I note, incidentally, that that WP article mixes "Taoist" and "Daoist" (and "Taoism" and "Daoism"). Given that the word, with its Greek ending, patently isn't Chinese, and the form in T- is long established, this is one case where I really don't see the need for the pinyin-like spelling. We're not about to start talking about Kongfuzianism, are we?)

  7. Mike Grubb said,

    November 30, 2021 @ 9:25 am

    I was surprised that there was nothing on the OP list that is glossed as the equivalent of a "nom de guerre." Is that because such a semi-anonymizing function is covered under one of the other more generally defined terms for additional sobriquet or informal name?

  8. Y said,

    November 30, 2021 @ 12:29 pm

    This helps a little with Journey to the West, where Monkey and Tripitaka have three or four names apiece. I still don't understand which name is used when, in that book.

  9. peterv said,

    November 30, 2021 @ 4:48 pm

    The practice of giving each person multiple names or nicknames at stages through their life is also a feature of some Bantu-speaking cultures in Southern Africa.

  10. julie lee said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 1:04 pm

    My grand-uncle when a young man became a revolutionary under Sun Yat-sen and adopted the nom-de-guerre 雷大同 (Lei Datong, "Thunder Great-Commonwealth"). Lei "thunder" was his (and my mom's) surname. Datong means "Great Commonwealth" , the highest political goal of ancient Chinese philosophy. Datong has been translated in many ways, among them "Universal Equality",
    where all men are equal and wealth belongs to all. I've always thought Joseph Stalin's nom- de-guerre Stalin "man of steel" lacking in ambition as compared to Thunder Great-Commonwealth.

    G.C. Thunder would be a 化名 huaming "pseudonym" or "alias". I've not seen a Chinese term specifically for nom-de-guerre. Some of the names in Professor Mair's list above are also included in 化名 "transformed name". The Chinese Wikipedia says that huaming is different from other alternate names in that it is often used to conceal one's identity.

  11. David Marjanović said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 2:46 pm

    雷: lightning striking through the rain into a field! I can hear the thunder. ^_^

  12. julie lee said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 7:26 pm

    Yes, this is a very expressive character.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    December 3, 2021 @ 11:52 am

    Glyph origin

    Characters in the same phonetic series (畾) (Zhengzhang, 2003)

    Ancient simplification of 靁, which was a phono-semantic compound (形聲, OC *ruːl): semantic 雨 (“rain”) + phonetic 畾 (OC *ruːl).


    The Min Bei initial s- may be due to the loss of a pre-initial which might have been a velar considering dialect forms in Henan, Hebei and Shanxi, e.g. Taiyuan Jin 忽雷 (hueh4 lui1) (Schuessler, 2007).

    Perhaps from Sino-Tibetan. Compare Mizo râwl (“voice; cry (of an animal); sound”), Tibetan ཁྲོལ (khrol).


  14. julie lee said,

    December 3, 2021 @ 1:12 pm

    Professor Mair's comment above illustrates the proverb 拋磚引玉 (pao zhuan yin yu) “throw a brick, elicit a jade".

    My tidbit-comment ("brick") has elicited his erudite response ("jade" ).

    He has corrected a misconception I had — that the character 雷 “thunder" is an ideograph. Instead, Mair has explained that it is in fact a phono-semantic compound. I didn't realize that the 田 "field" element here was not a semantic element but a phonetic element here, an abbreviation of the phonetic element 畾.

  15. Gokul Madhavan said,

    December 5, 2021 @ 12:23 pm

    This reminds me of Marshall Hodgson's magisterial three-volume The Venture of Islam. He begins Volume I with a discussion of Arabic Muslim names and of the multiplicity of ways in which people were referred to in Islamicate contexts. These different modes of reference, or names if you were, had their own terminology:

    The ism was the closest thing people had to our notion of a first name.
    The nasab was a patronymic, marked by the use of bin (for men). This was often recursively structured, so you could specify a whole particularly distinguished patriline.
    The kunyat was the opposite of a patronymic, so to speak (could that be called a "paedonymic", I wonder?). It identified the person by the name of their child.
    The laqab was the closest thing we have to a sobriquet or a nickname.
    The nisbat specified an affiliation of some sort, usually tribal or regional.

    In addition to these, poets, particularly in the Persianate world, additionally took on a pen-name or takhalluṣ. By tradition, the last verse of every ghazal has to include the takhalluṣ of its author, so these were often chosen to be poetic statements that could frequently (though not always) fit with the themes of such verses. In writing, a special symbol (added to Unicode as U+0614) was usually written over a word to distinguish it as a takhalluṣ.

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