Ya Zuo, a Russian-Chinese name

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I'm at a big conference on Tang (618-907)-Song (960-1279) transitions that is being held at Princeton University.  One of the participants was sporting a badge that announced her name as Ya Zuo.  I told her that her name sounded unusual and wondered what kind of name it was.  She happily volunteered, "It's Russian!"

I was perplexed, because she didn't look Russian (although appearances can be misleading:  I've met Russians who look ethnically Korean, Chinese, Manchurian, etc., and the maternal great-grandfather of the preeminent Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin [1799-1837], was Major-General Abram Petrovich Gannibal, a nobleman of Sub-Saharan African origin).  But we are at a conference where everyone is a China specialist, and I had heard Ya Zuo speaking some Mandarin. so I wracked my brain to figure out what characters were used to write her name, and was frustrated when I tried to figure out how it could be Russian.

On the second day of the conference, I caught up with Ya Zuo at lunch and was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery of her Russian name.  Here's what I found out.

First, I told her that her name sounded (without taking tones into consideration, since none were written on her nametag) to me as though it meant "seat settling" (yā zuò 压座), as in the Dunhuang medieval religious vernacular yāzuò wén 压座文 ("seat-settling text").  She laughed and said, "No, it's not that "yā zuò 压座".

Ya Zuo's name in Sinographs is Zuǒ Yà 左娅, with Zuǒ 左 being a rare (freq. #135; 0.1%) surname* and Yà 娅 being a fairly common (freq. #2877) mutual term of address used between brothers / sons-in-law.  Given the meaning, despite the female semantophore of Yà 娅, this character must be used in Ya Zuo's name for phonetic transcriptional purposes, though with a hint of the feminine mixed in.

[*This was a distinguished surname in antiquity, Zuo Qiuming 左丘明 (556-451) being the most renowned historian of pre-Han (202 BC – 9 AD, 25–220 AD) antiquity.]

When we read "Ya Zuo" on her nametag, to get the Russian name out of it, we need to reverse the two syllables to obtain the original Chinese order, thus "Zuo Ya", and fusing them into a single name, we get "Zuoya".  As my mother used to say, "Now we're cooking with gas" (although we never had gas in my home!).

So Ya Zuo's Russian name is coming from the Chinese order, Zuo Ya (> Zuoya).  It turns out that Ya Zuo's family gave her the name Zuǒ Yà 左娅 to commemorate the anti-Nazi Russian martyr, Zoya Anatolyevna Kosmodemyanskaya (Зо́я Анато́льевна Космодемья́нская) (1923-1941), Zoya being a Russian form of the Greek name Zoe.

The usual Chinese transcription of Russian Зо́я is Zhuōyà 卓娅 (source).

All of this resonated powerfully when I walked by Zoë, a fancy women's clothing shop on Nassau Street, not far from where we are meeting.


Selected readings


  1. Chau said,

    June 18, 2022 @ 7:26 am

    "This was a distinguished surname in antiquity, Zuo Qiuming 左丘明 (556-451) being the most renowned historian of pre-Han (202 BC – 9 AD, 25–220 AD) antiquity."

    The surname Zuo (older spelling Tso) is also a distinguished surname on Chinese restaurant menus in North America: General Tso's chicken, named after a Qing dynasty stateman and military leader Zuo Zongtang (also romanized Tso Tsung-t'ang).

  2. Rostislav Berezkin said,

    June 18, 2022 @ 7:49 am

    It's an interesting Chin. interpretation of the Russian name, as the Russian name is Zoya and not just Ya! Zuo is a surname.

  3. John Swindle said,

    June 19, 2022 @ 9:21 pm

    @Rostislav Berezkin: In principle a Chinese family name is just a family name, even if it matches an ordinary word in sound and orthography. It is however quite possible to match a given name, maybe especially a one-syllable given name, to a family name to suggest something, like in this case Zuo Ya “Zoya”.

    The Honolulu, Hawaii, seal carver Horace Edward “Ted” Hunt was (is?) known in Chinese as 红马 Hóng mǎ ‘red horse’: “Hong” for his family name, “Hunt,” and “Ma” for his little-used first name, “Horace.” (I hope he will forgive my use of simplified characters.)

  4. Alexander Browne said,

    June 20, 2022 @ 9:30 am

    Piling on to John Swindle, in my (limited!) understanding of Chinese names, people are usually called with two syllables. Since most people have a single-syllable family name and a two-syllable given name, they are called by the two-syllable given name.* But when someone has a single-syllable given name, they are then called with the syllables of both the family name and given name – in that order. So it makes sense that a name with a single-syllable given name would use the sound of the family name when imitating a foreign name.

    * Cue lots of confusion when English speakers (or at least Americans) try to use only the first syllable of the two-syllable given name when the two syllables are printed as separate words on e.g. a class list. This also happens with Korean names.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 4:22 am

    An interesting parallel between the name "Zuoya" and the name of one of my three Chinese teachers, An Nuoya. "Nuoya" did not seem to be a common Chinese name, so I asked him about it — he told me that his parents were Christians and named him after the Biblical "Noah".

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