A neo-Nazi couple in Britain who named their child after Adolf Hitler were recently found guilty in the country’s courts; not for giving their child the middle name Adolf, but for being members of the banned right-wing group National Action.

I have come across at least one Adolf in Hong Kong, a bank employee. I cannot even begin to speculate on the reasons a Chinese person would call himself Adolf, but if he were to sport the same name tag in Europe or North America, he would probably get a stronger reaction than an eye-roll from a few customers.

Many countries have laws that prohibit the use of certain words as personal names. The main reason for not giving parents a totally free hand in naming their children is that certain names can harm kids by subjecting them to ridicule.

To preserve their own culture and traditions, some countries ban names that are considered “too foreign”. In many cases, the application is purely bureaucratic: names that cannot be written or spelt in the country’s language are not allowed. Then, there are names that would cause offence to the larger society. Adolf Hitler, for instance, is banned in Germany for obvious reasons.

Personal names were also subject to certain proscriptions in ancient China, as demonstrated by the custom of “name avoidance” (bihui). Names of important people such as rulers, one’s parents and elders, and venerated historical figures, were considered sacrosanct, and rules existed for the use of the words that made up their names.

For example, the names of reigning emperors and certain dead rulers or sages of great import were not allowed to be used as personal names, not even for divine beings. One of the first Chinese names of the Buddhist deity Avalokitesvara was Guanshiyin, a translation from the Sanskrit name, which meant “the lord who gazes down at the world”.

The complex origins of Chinese names demystified

It is said that out of consideration for Emperor Taizong of Tang, personal name Li Shimin (598-649), the character “shi” was dropped and Guanshiyin became Guanyin, widely known as the Goddess of Mercy.

Whenever an emperor ascended the throne, there would be a wave of name changes across the empire among those whose given names shared the same sacred characters as the new ruler’s. Various creative strategies were devised to avoid writing the characters that made up the emperor’s personal name, such as the reduction of strokes or using homonyms.

At the family level, children were not supposed to have the same names as their parents and elders, indeed they were not even allowed to say them out loud. In the novel Dream of the Red Chamber, one of the protagonists Lin Daiyu, whose mother’s name was Jia Min, would read the word “min” as “mi” because uttering the personal name of one’s parents was simply not done.

Even if the rules were not assiduously applied throughout history, “name avoidance” caused a considerable amount of inconvenience to a lot of people. The custom thankfully fell out of use following the fall of the last imperial dynasty in 1912, but vestiges of it remain.

In ancient China, conquerors learned language of vanquished

While the names of modern-day presidents, premiers and chief executives are no longer such a big deal, there are still many Chinese families who will not name their children using the characters found in the names of their parents, grandparents or even uncles and aunts.

It goes without saying, of course, that Chinese parents of sound mind would not name their children after a villain, whether real or fictitious, unless they are like the unhinged couple who gave their son the name Adolf.