By OOI KEE BENG, Editorial in Penang Monthly, September 2012
The history of naming is an extremely interesting one that varies greatly from culture to culture. In some, surnames are important, in others, they are not even existent. In some, personal names were important, in some, less so.
Let’s take the Chinese case. In ancient villages, children could be known as Old Number Three, or whichever happened to be their order among siblings. The higher classes, on the other hand, would have a surname (xing), a personal name (ming), an adult epithet (zI) name, a formal nickname (hao) that could also be a nom de plume (biming), perhaps a distinguishing appellation (biezi), or even a state name (guanming) if he worked for the government.
Beyond that, the Chinese person of old might also retain in his memory other important references to himself such as his milk name (ruming), his student name (shuming) or his clan name (shi, which was perhaps traditional a maternal surname).
But central to the nation state paradigm, to modern identification and to modern living is that each person should bear an official name. This is the one through which the state, its officials and everyone knows him or her.
That may seem to have made things simpler, but what we gone through is an essential change in how we see ourselves and how we relate to our fellows without ever wondering how we are enriched or impoverished by it?
For one thing, with a single name, the relational variety in the individual’s life is diminished. I am to think that I am Ooi Kee Beng, first and foremost, and my self-image is expressed through the a single name officially registered with the state. Thus, my central relationship in life is assumed to be that which the state (or family of states) has with me.
The fact that others call me Ah Beng, Ah Meng, Xago, Saphek, Papa, Jiming, Dr Ooi, Leo, etc. are somehow liberties taken with my official name. But in truth, what these reflect in sum are the multifaceted individual that I am.
This reduction of our names – and our self-image – to a singular official one then, is a diminishing of our complex identities for the sake of modern western-influenced officialdom. It is a diminishing of our individual sociality and our individual complexity.
The same can be said of other central categories we learn in modern life to give simple answers to. Such notions, be these Gender, Religion, or Name, should thus be a site for inter-civilizational contestation.
Faiths of East or South Asian origins, for starters, have always been difficult to place under Religion. This is mainly because they are not hierarchic and permanent stances, but of an individual journey of self-discovery. Being classified according to a Religion and not temporary faiths therefore goes against such a notion of life-long search.
Nothing is neutral, and this is best seen through rethinking our own past and through comparing one civilization with another without ranking them.